Grilled Cheese For a Cause

The Chesapeake Conference Center warmly embraced the first annual Hampton Roads Grilled Cheese Festival (HRGC fest) and the cause for Autism Awareness on Sunday, Nov. 6.

The festival brought in a variety of participants representing different culinary genres to compete for the ‘Grand Champ’ prize; the culinary Heisman, which was awarded to Virginia Culinary Institutes’ group The Mascarpone Moguls.

Attendees taste tested grilled cheese samples paired with savory soups and tallied off their favorite grilled cheese in 5 categories: Grand Champ, Fan Favorite, Most Cheesiest, Most Ridiculous and Best Tomato Soup.

Not only did the festival promote local food vendors and caterers, but it also brought attention to Autism Awareness. Proceeds from tickets and donations benefited the Autism Society, Tidewater Virginia Chapter.

Owner of Hometowne Events, Andrae Marable, and others with Hometowne Events found grilled cheese and autism awareness to be a perfect fit. While a large portion of the crowd was drawn in by an enticing variety of cheesy sandwiches, the rest were excited to enjoy a tasty snack while supporting a near and dear cause.

“It was a no brainer,” Marable said. “People love to eat, so we might as well put on an event and raise money for a good cause.”

Pam Woodard, an adjunct faculty member from the Virginia Culinary Institute, oversaw one of the three groups that the institute sent to compete.

“I have a child on the Autism Spectrum so for me it was kind of personal,” Woodard said.

The three groups of students and professional chefs from the institute placed in each category of the competition and triumphantly brought home nine awards.

“This was a great experience for them because it’s so different than the kitchen atmosphere as far as preparation and sanitation and other things like that. So not only was it a great cause but it’s a really good learning experience,” Woodard said.

The Autism Society in the Tidewater area was also personal to Marable and others in his firm.

“We all have people in our families affected by autism,” Marable said.

He said that in the brainstorming process he received a lot of pushback. He noted that he never anticipated the event being so wildly popular when the first comments he received were “this is so crazy, it would never go.”

Despite over 19,000 people expressing interest on the festival’s Facebook page, admission capped at 600.

To Marable’s surprise, tickets sold out weeks before the festival was showcased. Fans stormed the internet to find tickets, which were $10 a piece, but expressed their frustration on Facebook when they found that tickets were almost impossible to find.

“How could this sell out weeks ago? So aggravated” said a woman on the event’s Facebook page, accompanied by others’ pleas for tickets.

“Next year we’re definitely going to get a bigger location so we can accommodate more people,” Marable said.

However, on the Facebook page he also reminded disappointed Facebook users of the purpose for the event.

“The ultimate goal of this event is to raise money and improve the lives of all affected by autism (not grilled cheese),” Marable wrote.

The Autism Society, Tidewater Virginia Chapter expressed their gratitude on Facebook.

“We are truly grateful to Andrae Marable from Hometowne Events for choosing our organization as the recipient     of the “fan  favorite” donations!! We appreciate your support,” the post said, following the award of $1,075.72 to the society.

“I think that the [people] who are here for grilled cheese will get an awakening to how much more prevalent [Autism] is in society. Those here for Autism can help the awareness increase,” Woodard said.

Rebecca Lazzeri

(Photo: Becca Lazzeri| Marlin Chronicle)