I have to eat more bacon? Really? Who wouldn’t want that? Okay, maybe vegetarians not so much. But I have it on good authority – my one vegan friend – that that bovine delicacy is the verboten food most missed. And here I am, immersed in it. Engulfed by ten different, tantalizing bacon dishes which I’m supposed to judge as part of the International World Food Championships in Orange Beach, Alabama.
But first, some background. Known affectionately as the Ultimate Foodfight, the WFC is the largest culinary competition on the planet. The event brought together over 1500 professional chefs and qualified home cooks from 42 states and 13 countries preparing almost 6000 dishes in 10 categories, hoping to share in over $350,000, the largest prize purse in the Food Sport industry. They take that “sports” metaphor seriously — lots of sporting references get bandied about.
Although the Gulf Shores, the site of the competition, is home to magnificent “sugar white sand” beaches and many other attractions, here the emphasis in on the more edible form of the cliché’d adjective – of course, that would be mainly in the dessert category. The other eight areas of contention include Steak, Sandwiches, Chicken, Barbecue, Chile, Burgers, Seafood and Chef – a sort of testing opportunity for potential new categories.
In short, for taste — a 1 – you’re spitting it out in a napkin; 10 – you’d drive 100 miles to eat it! A 5 is fast food – and at WFC, the caliber is so high, most of your scores should be between 8 and 10. A 7 would imply a bad day. Caution: do NOT compare dishes to each other, to childhood memories, grandma’s cooking or personal preferences. Judge each dish on its own merits which clearly was easier said than done. Appearance ranges from “enh” to “I can’t wait to eat it.” But the tricky one is execution, which has many features: Among them, does the dish do what the chef promises? Can you taste the main ingredient and the “infused” one (a euphemism for the sponsor’s food item – they pay the bills – that has to be included)? Do all the ingredients work well together? And so we became Certified Food Judges and I found the whole prospect terrifying!
As for those home cooks, every contestant must have already won some sanctioned competition with a prestigious prize attached: a neighborhood cook-off with a blender as a reward doesn’t count.
And the process? Picture the Food Network on steroids! In the opening rounds, dozens of competing teams in a category have an hour+ to prepare their dishes in the tented “Kitchen Arena.” From these, 10 teams in each category move on, from which a winner emerges $10,000 richer. That’s where my Certified Judge expertise was tested. Those 10 winners later compete for the title of World Food Champion and $100,000. Got that?
The Kitchen Arena bursts with so many sounds, smells, sights, steam, sauces, spices, seasonings – and oh yes, sweat! A lot of sweat. Some of the competitors are calm – most of them are frantic. And some, despite the intensity of their endeavors, actually found the time to call me over for a taste – and then glowed with satisfaction as my taste buds exploded in appreciation. So I just tasted a sample of pork and bacon and cheese in a tortilla and my eyes glazed over in ecstasy. Yup, best thing I’ve ever tasted. Others around me noted they didn’t taste the jalapeño or the tequila – apparently a necessity — although I’m ready to give the chef $10,000 on the spot. And once again, I figure I’m the wrong person for this job.
After the frenetic prep time, there’s a 10-minute “turn-in” window, as the chefs race to get their dishes to the front table (one large main dish, upon which “appearance” is judged; and multiple “samples” to be tasted by the judges). The cry goes out. “One minute, 15 seconds; you should be walking to the turn-in table.” People running down the aisles – gingerly — with platters of food and culinary destiny hanging in the balance. Incredibly anxiety-provoking even for the onlookers.
Meanwhile, a new set of chefs are now at their stands cutting, carving, chopping, mincing, slicing, dicing, stirring, sampling, to get ready for the next round. So competitive – defending champions get knocked out – first-time entrants prevail. The 37 different versions of a burger boggle the mind – looking all dressed up for a special occasion – which it indeed is! Layers of bacon, of course, and cheese and tomatoes and onions and mushrooms and foie gras – yes, foie gras and chili and tomato jam and sausage and fried oysters and fried eggs and pineapple and jalapenos (yes, they show up in a lot of dishes…) and gravies galore plus a variety of buns, including a pair of grilled cheese sandwiches on either side of the alleged burger. One tray boasted steak knives stuck in each bun. Cameras everywhere on auto-pilot.
I spoke with Tim Hoel of Smoky Treats, the co-owner of a food truck in River Falls, Wisconsin. Because their dishes are served in Styrofoam, they lost a lot of points their first year on presentation. They spent the past year working on “plating:” “We feel like we have the whole package now,” he enthused. Alas, their bacon-wrapped Jalapeño popper stuffed with cream and other local (read Wisconsin, of course) cheeses and chorizo laced with blueberry barbecue sauce only came in 33 out of the 60 bacon entrants. Such is one of the many sad tales at the WFC, where so few actually emerge victorious.
Back to the floor to watch the dessert competitors: stirring, basting, scraping, slurping, sautéing, baking, grating, whirring, mixing… Always, perpetual motion in a well-orchestrated symphony of mayhem. Again, the inevitable countdown — six minutes and only one tray has been turned in – the tension mounts — as platter after platter overflowing with incredible creations rush to get to the main table without destroying the edible masterpieces. It’s as exciting as a super bowl game – and then the dreaded extra point needed to win bounces off the goal post. So yes, it happens. One chef reaches the table a second late and is disqualified. A year or more of preparation and planning, not to mention the recent hours of slaving over the stove, undone by a second delay. It was heart-breaking, even for me!
And finally, the moment of truth. I’m judging the 10 finalists in the bacon category. I remind myself not to compare the dishes to each other or to any childhood memory I may have. Does it look like my dream bacon dish? Does the taste make me want to eat it forever? Can I detect the infusion of Red Gold Tomatoes with Green Chilies? I have no time to bemoan my sense of inadequacy. I simply revel in my bacon immersion as 10 huge platters of unidentifiable bacon dishes are placed in front of me. Okay, there’s Bacon and Tomato Trio, Savory Bacon Bread Pudding Soufflé with Tomato Choron (I have no idea what that is), Acorn Squash stuffed with Bacon and Fresh Veggies, Pan Seared Salmon with Puttanesco Sauce (see choron reference) with bacon lardon, basil and fennel, but I can hardly distinguish one from the other.
I feel frantic as I taste one and then another and then back to the first and on to the tenth, barely coming up for air. Definitely gives whole new meaning to the term feeding frenzy. I mark random though hopefully meaningful numbers between 8 and 10 on my score card. I’ve never eaten so much so fast and, much to my own astonishment, wasn’t yet tired of bacon. My favorite dish? A scrumptious pink-and-white icing-topped Bacon Cupcake, which I gave 10 for appearance, 10 for taste but only an 8 for execution. I didn’t taste any chili tomatoes and hated having to mark it down. Maybe I should have chosen the dessert category. For more information, visit worldfoodchampionships.com.
About the Author:
Fyllis Hockman, a frequent contributor to FAB Senior Travel, lives in the Washington D.C. area. She is an established, award-winning travel writer and a member of Society of American Travel Writers member since 1992. She has been traveling and writing for almost 30 years.