More than bread, butter, and cheese

The 2024 Grilled Cheese Championship creates a community united through a common (or not so common) recipe

When done right, a grilled cheese sandwich can border on fine art. First, start with the bread. Make is sourdough, ring-finger-thick, toasted on a skillet to buttered, crispy perfection. In the middle, there’s a rich mix of cheeses–gouda, provolone, cheddar, more if you are feeling hedonistic. They’re all melted to ooey-gooey perfection. Maybe throw in some chopped thick-cut bacon for a bit of salt and smoke. Or add avocado for extra creaminess. No one could blame you for using both. And when you bite into it, the cheese stretches as you pull the sandwich away, leaving a little dribbling down your chin. It makes you wonder how this isn’t fine dining. 

Now repeat that 20 times—at least the stretchy, dribbly, melty part—and you’ll understand what it’s like to be a judge at the 2024 Grilled Cheese Championship in Dodgeville, Wisconsin.

The founder of the annual Grilled Cheese Championship, Lorin Toepper, (rightfully) claims a grilled cheese sandwich is like a canvas and the cook like an artist. You just paint with heat and flavor. You might want to consider starting off with your stovetop on low with a quality selection of bread. You can customize it with different sauces, spreads, and even jam. You can get exotic with your cheese selection, throwing in crumbly blues or delicate Swiss or classic Wensleydale. If you only consider grilled cheese as having two ingredients—just bread and cheese—then it’s time for you to take your game up a notch. 

Competition Through the Years

Seeing the lack of grilled cheese contests in the Midwest, Toepper believed it only made sense for Wisconsin to host a competition, if only because the state is awash in cheese. According to Statista, Wisconsin produced over 3.5 billion points of cheese in 2022 alone, making it the No. 1 producer of cheese in the U.S. California, at 2.4 billion pounds, was a distant second. 

The Annual Grilled Cheese Championship began 11 years ago in Dodgeville, Wisconsin. The event features multiple competitions categorized into classes, including professional, amateur, young chefs, and first responders. In the past, the contest consisted of a maximum of 20 contestants split up into multiple rounds. Each round lasts 12 minutes. Four judges grade the sandwiches on presentation, style, and—most importantly—taste. The judges’ scores decide who wins the Lorin Toepper “Best of Show,” the prestigious award given to the Grilled Cheese Champion.

Grilled cheese brings people together

Tourism Department Specialist Andrew Nussabaum provides prospective visitors with the “why” of visiting Wisconsin. Most of the time the “why” is the extensive dairy industry in the state. According to Wisconsin Cheese, a website responsible for collecting stats on dairy within the state, Wisconsin has the most Blue Ribbon awards for cheese. It’s also why he’s at this competition.

“You can’t get any more American than the grilled cheese championship,” Nussabaum says. “This event is a perfect way to showcase the dairy industry. Even though we showcase a simple product with the grilled cheese sandwich, Wisconsin is the best at it.”

Time to get cheesy 

The local Future Farmers of America Club (FFA), a national youth organization focusing on advocacy and education surrounding agriculture and farming, set up a stand serving grilled cheese at the contest. It was run by Jamie Rupp, one of many volunteers for the program. Rupp believes the reason for cheese’s prevalence in the state has to do with the quality of land in the area.

“Because of the amount of water and foraging supplies in the area, farmers have turned to producing cheese and dairy products,” Rupp says. “This is one of Wisconsin’s many different competitions, which is just another way to celebrate cheese and the artistry.”

Kim Graper runs Dodgeville’s Uplands Cheese, which produce’s plenty of those Blue Ribbon cheeses Nussabaum loves to promote. Graper set up a concession stand displaying the company’s variety of cheeses—all of which is produced from the high quality milk of grass-fed cowson the company’s dairy farm in Pleasant Ridge, Wisconsin.  

Graper understands that cheese is a staple food that holds the community together. She sees it. She’s always out selling her product. She’s also spent time in Dodgeville taking part in the Grilled Cheese Championship, and has learned a thing or two over the years.. 

“People get so creative, and every year it gets better and better, ” Graper says. “I probably shouldn’t say this, but I wouldn’t necessarily say cheese is the most important [ingredient].” 

The Criteria for a Winning Sandwich

Although cheese is a key ingredient of a grilled cheese sandwich, there are plenty of elements that go into an award winner. Judges vote on a variety of factors. And grilled cheeses can get innovative, whether it’s with veggies or a sauce. Judge Brady Mallory believes a tip to making a top notch grilled cheese sandwich is having a hot pan for cooking, as well as a good cheese selection. Most importantly, the sandwich should be complete and not fall apart. 

Another judge, Brandon Wilhelm, prefers his grilled cheese veggie-less. “There needs to be a good balance, one ingredient cannot outdo another. Not an overbearing taste of any of the other ingredients,” says Wilhelm.

Competitors have many factors to consider when presenting their work. With so many different varieties of grilled cheese sandwiches—from the more traditional bacon-gouda sandwiches to this year’s (gulp) donut grilled cheese sandwich—competitors have to be creative and stay on their toes to keep up with their peers.

And the Winner Is

This year’s Professional Classic winner, Zach Washa, is the GOAT of grilled cheese. He’s been a contestant for eight years, and is now a six-time champion. Washa began his competitive cooking journey as an amateur, but after winning a couple of years in a row, he decided to give the professional classic a shot.  

“One of the biggest tricks is shredded cheese instead of sliced,” Washa says. “I use ghee as a replacement for butter for a higher smoke point. Bread plays a much bigger role than people realize. Just slapping wonder bread down is, meh. Dense bread will get that crunch everyone craves.”

Washa hopes to repeat his cooking successes a year from now. For next year’s Grilled Cheese Championship, he plans to implement some of the techniques mentioned above, trying to create what he calls, “the greatest grilled cheese sandwich ever.” 

If he manages to pull it off, it will definitely count as fine art.


  • Nikalaus Huerter

    My name is Nikalaus Huerter, I am the audio editor for Urban Plains. I’ve always had a passion for anything audio related starting with my involvement with instruments like the violin, to audio production for various organizations and individuals such as Iowa Radio Reading Information Services! On the side you might catch me taking environmental or landscape pictures for fun with my Scottish terrier.

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