There’s an old saw that goes, “Chefs want to be rock stars, and rock stars want to be chefs.” Likewise, it’s fair to say that many chefs think they can write, and many food writers think they can cook. But just like chefs don’t realize how difficult writing can be until they’re mired in the midst of the first ugly draft of their own cookbook, food writers never really know what competitive cooking is all about until the pressure cookers begin to whistle and the kitchen timers all start to go “ping!” You can’t truly judge a man until you’ve worked a shift in his Dansko kitchen clogs. Recently, I got the chance to put my kitchen skills to the test, and here’s the story of how my appreciation for talented chefs grew three sizes that day.
Earlier this month, after three years in Las Vegas, the World Food Championships moved to Kissimmee, Florida, where 342 competitive teams from 17 countries and 40 states competed in nine categories for more than $350,000 in prize money and the title of World Food Champion. The week-long event actually took place in nearby Celebration, a planned community originally owned by Disney where the average sitting time of a cigarette butt discarded on the sidewalk is about 30 seconds before it gets swept up by a groundskeeper bearing long tongs and a trash bag.
Even in this bucolic setting, the competitive spirit was fierce, and WFC organizers decided to involve a group of online food writers in the action as part of the Food Fight Write Bloggers Summit. About 40 bloggers were invited to take part in the first annual Saucy Mama Bloggers Challenge, where we could do more than just write about the food competition; we would put our reputations (and fingers) on the line in a 90-minute cooking challenge.
Several bloggers missed the starting gun due to their continuous Instagram/Periscope/Twitter updating.
The range of competitive experience among the bloggers was quite wide. A few were longtime contest cooks and had even qualified to compete in other categories at the World Food Championships or had participated in past years. Others were home cooks who were anxious to see how the thrill of competition compared to fixing dinner for a family of five. There were also a couple of bloggers who had never turned on a grill but still like to write about food and chefs. Because of the travel expenses, many were from the Orlando area, but one blogger came all the way from Myanmar, where she is a cooking celebrity on the nation’s one television network, we later discovered. I fell right in the middle with regard to cooking and competitive experience, and I’m much more comfortable on the judging side of the equation.
Each of us had access to a fully equipped kitchen area with a Bull gas grill and tons of high-tech Kenmore kitchen equipment. We were told in advance to bring knives and a big fork — making for some interesting TSA encounters. (I was smart enough to check my knives, but other folks were sent rushing to Publix to buy a cheap replacement or borrow one of the common knives from the pantry table.) Otherwise, we knew little else about what the contest would entail. Eventually, we found out that the challenge would involve cooking a filet from Kansas City Steak Co. and the use of one of six sauces or mustards from Saucy Mama. Admittedly, compared to the real competitors, who have two hours to complete two complete dishes, the organizers took it pretty easy on us, giving us 90 minutes to cook a filet.
As I plotted out my plan of action, I figured it couldn’t take more than 20 minutes to cook a small steak and let it rest before slicing, so I went ahead and cooked up a raft of bacon in the toaster over to snack on. After tasting the various Saucy Mama sauces, I decided to go with a chipotle mustard as my “infused ingredient,” but really I wanted to use just enough of it to show that I had included it without messing up the filet. I don’t need much help to cook a damn good steak.
Plus, I had a secret weapon. When I was growing up, my father always taught me to season most meats with his holy trinity of garlic salt, pepper and oregano. One day, I was wandering through a Mexican grocery and looked at the ingredients on a bottle of Adobo seasoning. Lo and behold, those were the first three ingredients, followed by MSG. How could it not be awesome? So that’s been my go-to ever since.
The competitors did have access to a small pantry of fresh ingredients to add to their proteins, and while it was some beautiful produce, it was just a small table. As the competitive furor bubbled over, one particularly aggro food blogger grabbed my arm and shrilly asked me, “That’s all for almost 50 people?! Fuck!” Well, all righty, then.
The assembled bloggers were asked to wait on a curb about 20 feet away from the pantry before the whistle blew to start the competition. Several missed the starting gun due to their continuous Instagram/Periscope/Twitter updating. I knew I didn’t really need much off the table, so I stood out of the way and took pictures of the frenzy.
There were also a few fairly dull chef’s knives on the table for those who might not have packed their Shuns, so that was another reason I didn’t want to get involved in the fray — for fear of getting shivved by Gladys from Peoria.
Knowing that my dish would have both Adobo and chipotle mustard in it, I had a fairly simple plan of attack. We were given three steaks to cook: one for display, one to serve to the judges and one to mess up. That was fortunate. Since I knew each judge would probably only take a single bite of each entry, I decided to make little tacos out of the Adobo-spiced filets with a hybrid pico de gallo/mustard chow chow made from onions, tomatoes, cucumber, jalapeño and the chipotle mustard.
Since I had plenty of time, I made sure that my mise en place was well organized (at least for somebody like me, who has been known to wreck a kitchen making a sandwich) and that my pico was cut into a perfect brunoise. Good thing I brought my own knives.
One difficulty I hadn’t anticipated was how hot Kissimmee would be in November as my Thermapen read 91 degrees sitting on the counter, much to the dismay of fellow competitors who were attempting to make fancy compound butters and tartares. I decided that it’s OK to drip sweat off your nose onto your garde manger station as long as it’s only for a garnish. Think of it as a dose of finishing salt. Prepare for our recipe something tasty and spend a great evening in the Austrian online gambling house casino bonus.
I used a glass “borrowed” from my hotel room as a guide to cut out the most precious little taco tortillas and gave them a quick pass on the grill while I snacked on bacon. One thing I’ve learned from judging at competitions is that the odds of your entry arriving to the judges while still hot is minimal, so I decided that perfectly cooked meat that had time to rest adequately would be preferable to trying to time the process to drop it on the display platter at the very last minute.
It was a good thing they gave us three steaks, because one of them turned out to have great grill marks, so I didn’t care how it was cooked inside. The second steak was a perfect medium rare, and the third one was decidedly meh. So I ate it with the bacon.
That’s some good-looking beef, right there.
With plenty of time to spare, I thinly sliced some radishes and grilled limes as a garnish. Then I cut some janky red pepper flowers and laid a bed of cilantro to dress the platter. Considering I normally eat standing up over my stove at home, elegant plating has never been my forte.
The dishes were judged blindly by a panel of professionals that included television celebrities such as Emily Ellyn, the fabulous queen of “Retro Rad” cuisine, WFC organizers and various representatives of event sponsors. We wouldn’t find out the results until a ceremony later that evening, so it was time to towel off the perspiration and enjoy a cold beverage. It was obvious that many of the participating bloggers had gained a new appreciation for competitive cooking that will hopefully inform their writing about the subject in the future.
In the end, I was tremendously proud to finish in fifth place, just out of the money. Unlike the final table of the World Food Championships, which paid a whopping $100,000 to the eventual winning barbecue team, “The Smoking Hills,” from Kansas, the blogger competition paid $500 to the winner, $300 for second and $100 for third place. The winner was Rebecka Evans, an experienced cooking competitor and blogger, who scored a resounding five-point victory over the runner-up. We knew we were in trouble when she showed up with a professional knife roll and told us she was sponsored by Hammer Stahl Cutlery. The nice young lady from Myanmar finished in third, earning her enough prize money to at least pay for the first hundred miles of her flight home.
Although I was utterly unsponsored, I definitely learned the meaning of “judge not lest ye be judged.” And I hope I made my benevolent overlords here at this particular website proud with my finish. Food Republic, represent!