Dispatch from Grilled-Cheese Contest Finalist #3

By Kristin Donnelly Posted April 30, 2009

Wendy G. Ramunno, a freelance writer and one of our fabulous freelance copy editors, was a finalist in Artisanal restaurant's recent grilled cheese recipe contest.  Her report:

When I found out about the grilled-cheese recipe contest sponsored by Artisanal in New York City, I thought it would be fun to switch up my standard sharp-cheddar-and-tomato combo. At the last minute, I threw together a Spanish-inspired sandwich, with young Manchego cheese, chopped Marcona almonds, honey and pimentón, and sent in the recipe.

Turns out my recipe made it to the semifinals, and then the finals, after some spirited online voting. (Disclaimer: I wasn’t a ringer snuck into the contest by F&W—I’m an independent freelancer, so I work for a variety of publications.) The restaurant rep e-mailed, Would I be able to attend the finals on April 29 in person? I looked up the contest rules: The top six recipes would be judged by a panel of food-world VIPs including Artisanal chef-owner Terrance Brennan  and über-chef Eric Ripert (we were later told he couldn’t make it because he had jury duty; no less of a culinary genius FCI’s Cesare Casella filled in for him). I immediately broke out in a cold sweat, wishing I’d spent more time on the recipe—after all, just watching the Top Chef judges’ table from my comfy sofa makes me nervous.

When I arrived at the restaurant, I was surprised by all of the video cameras and flashbulbs. I was seated with three other contestants at a round table facing the judges’ tribunal. The sandwiches were prepared behind-the-scenes in the Artisanal kitchen and brought out one by one. When I saw mine, I was concerned—it didn’t look like what I’d remembered making—it appeared thick and dry, and I couldn’t see any oozing cheese. The judges tallied their detailed scorecards, and I was right: For whatever reason, the gooey, salty-sweet masterpiece in my apartment didn’t quite translate to the judges' table. The winner was Eric Zawacki, with his stellar Taleggio, cherry mostarda and arugula entry (I knew the rest of us were in trouble when I saw the professional chef–cred burn marks up and down Eric’s arms). As part of his prize, Eric’s sandwich will be featured on Artisanal’s menu.

Suddenly I fully understood the pain of the reality show contestant. “Wait,” I wanted to say, “I can do better—I’m more than this sandwich, really!” But I walked out happy with my $50 Artisanal gift certificate and knowledge that I’d faced the judges and lived to cook again.

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