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2015 World Food Championships

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Any time there's a decent gap in posts on the blog, there's usually some food-related explanation.  Needless to say, the past few weeks have been no exception.

For those not familiar, this past week marked the end to a journey that's taken roughly four months to get to.  As previously mentioned on the blog, I've been involved in several food competitions this past summer — all of which had the end goal of placing 1st and getting an invitation to compete in the 2015 World Food Championships (WFC).  After plenty of preparation and several summer competitions, my head chef at work and I managed to get invitations to compete at the WFC in the Dessert, Bacon, and Sandwich categories.  For anyone who'd like a refresher on the journey to get to the WFC along with the structure of the competition, feel free to check out September's post first.  For everyone else, let's jump back to last week.

The first thing that was evident with competing in three categories was the insane amount of ingredients and equipment needed to be trucked down from Madison to Kissimmee.  On average, each dish had 30 ingredients (some had considerably more), so multiply that by the three categories and the three prepared dishes needed in each category, and you end up with a whopping estimated 270 food items.  Then add on some of the equipment needed, like the KitchenAid, Vitamix, baking sheets, chinois and mesh sieves, tongs, spatulas, digital scales and thermometers, cutting boards, knife sets, mixing bowls, and four large coolers (just to name a few), and you've got quite the load.  Oh yeah...don't forget luggage, too!

Monday morning, we had all of our possessions lining the back hallway at work, and I just kept saying to myself, there's absolutely no way this is all going to fit.  About an hour before our scheduled departure, our rental minivan pulled up.  We folded down the back seats and started loading.  With the help of experienced packers and a considerable amount of luck, it all fit!  Sure, it was piled up to the roof and weighted the van down to its limits, but it all fit.  We ended up taking off from Madison shortly after 4pm last Monday, and after a non-stop overnight car ride and added hour due to the change in time zones, we arrived in central Florida around noon on Tuesday.

It was pretty evident we weren't in Wisconsin anymore.  Maple and elm trees had been replaced with palm trees.  Squirrels had been replaced with little lizards.  And cooler temps had been replaced with high humidity and record high Florida temps in the 90s.

We first checked out the cooking arena, and then got registered (after some confusion on where registration actually took place) and drove to our rental house for the week.  We unpacked, stuffed the freezer and fridge with cooler items, and got everything ready for the first competition:  desserts.
On Wednesday, we got to the cooking grounds plenty early as we didn't know what to expect.  We picked out a station and got unpacked, and before you know it, we had begun.  For desserts, the two dishes we made for the first round were Vanilla Bean and Poppy Seed Cupcakes with a Lemon Curd Filling and Lavender Cream Cheese Icing for the Structured Build (it had to be a cupcake per the rules) as well as a Deconstructed Lime Cheesecake with Almond and Oat Granola, Toasted Graham Cracker Crust, Coconut Whipped Cream, Mango and Pink Guava Purées, and Lime Caviar for the Signature Dish.  Besides the obvious difference of baking outdoors in record high Florida temperatures, I feel like this round went the closest to our trial runs, which was nice.  Dishes were turned in with a few minutes to spare and they looked and tasted even better than our trials from past weeks.
Day 2 of the competition marked a switch in ingredients as well as a switch in roles; Desserts were out and Bacon was in, and I was now the sous chef rather than the head chef.  The two dishes that were prepared included a Bacon Gnocchi in a Marsala Sauce with an Asparagus and Pea Purée, Balsamic Reduction, and Bacon-wrapped Chicken Medallions for the Structured Build (it had to be some sort of dumpling per the rules) along with a Pork Belly Tostada with Citrus Pressure-cooked Slab Bacon, Black Bean and Bacon Purée, Queso Fresco, and Micro Cilantro for the Signature Dish.  Looking back, I think it's safe to say that the first half of the Bacon competition was the most stressful part of the week for me due to the fact that we weren't used to the brand of bacon provided.

The overall plan for this dish went something like this...  I would first start by baking off several sheets of bacon, which would then be ground and used in the gnocchi.  While the bacon was in the oven, we would wrap chicken thighs in bacon, sear them off, and finish them in the oven.  While those were working, we just had to pan fry some additional julienned bacon for garnish, get a Marsala sauce working for the gnocchi, and grill off some asparagus for the purée.  Any free time would go towards additional minor tasks, as well as starting on any prep for the second dish.  We knew it was a lot to pull off, but we proved back home that it could be done and would be worth it in the end.

The initial panic first started when I checked the bacon and noticed it was still raw when it should have been ready to come out of the oven (the bacon we were working with was extremely thick-cut and still frozen in the middle).  I cranked up the oven and gave it a few more minutes.  We realized that regardless of the oven temperature, there was no chance at finishing if we continued like this.  At this point I had oil preheating on the stove-top to use as a deep fryer for the second round, so we took advantage of it.  Some of the oven bacon got pan fried, while some got deep-fried.

Cue panic #2.  We went to flip the chicken and noticed that the bacon had completely unraveled and separated from the chicken.  It couldn't be used, so we quickly made a backup and fried it instead.  My eyes constantly went towards the countdown timer, nerves set in, and mistakes were made on my end.  After taking a breather, we went back to the plan.  I worked on the Marsala sauce while other sauces and garnishes were prepped as much as we could.  The bacon-wrapped chicken was taking too long in the fryer, so we pulled it, seared it, popped it in the oven, and said a few prayers.  Gnocchi was cooked off and finished in the sauce, and plating had begun with only minutes to spare.  We kept the chicken in as long as we could, and then sliced it last minute.  After a quick sear in some valuable bacon fat to finish it off, cooking was complete.  I ran the dish up in time and ran back to start on the tostadas.  A quick (but calmer) 50 minutes later, the Bacon round had concluded.

It was time to take a deep breath (or two), down some water, and reflect on what just happened.  As corny as it might sound, I was reminded that that falling down doesn't matter at all; it's all about how you get back up.  Thanks to the experience and calm-nature that our head chef had, backup plans were put into place when needed, and quality dishes were ultimately produced on time.
Photo credit for this round goes to Jerry and Robin from Sun Prairie's Bacon, Brew, and BBQ Fest (https://www.facebook.com/BaconBrewBBQFest) who traveled  all the way down to support us!
That night, opening round awards were presented, and although we didn't place high enough to move on to the finals (we were just one-half of a point away from making it in the Bacon category), there was plenty to be proud of for the first two competitions.

  1. For desserts, everything went off like clockwork and necessary adjustments were constantly made to the recipes to counteract the heat and humidity.  The comments I got from fellow competitors, staff, and spectators both while taking dishes to the judges as well as the following days of the competition made me feel that the countless hours of prep involved really did pay off, whether or not we had a medal to prove it.
  2. For the bacon round, I think it says a lot about my head chef that despite the challenges that presented themselves, there was never any doubt in his mind that we wouldn't finish with two world-class dishes.  I learned quite a bit that day about how far a calm attitude can take you.  Lessons aside, we also ended the day on a high knowing that our dishes beat out one of our top rivals, who was the 2013 and 2014 $10,000 Bacon World Champion as well as last year's $100,000 WFC Winner.
Now with Friday being our last chance to move on to the finals, we knew that we had to keep giving it our all.  For sandwiches, the dishes made by our team included a Banh Mi Sandwich with Pickled Vegetables and Grilled Rib-eye for the Structured Build (it had to use Kansas City Rib-eye per the rules) followed by a Black Truffle Grilled Cheese with Braised Short Rib for the Signature Dish.  There was one hiccup with the second dish, but quick thinking resulted in another strong finish.
We spent the next few hours back at the house enjoying the Florida sun, and then drove back for the award ceremony.  On the way over, we checked scores online (as you're able to see one of your two scores), and we were in 4th place!  That meant that as long as our second dish didn't bring us down too much, we had a shot at moving on.  After quite the lengthy award ceremony, we were relieved to hear our name called for 5th place for the Sandwich category!

We had a day off to do last minute shopping and plan out the final sandwich, and then Sunday arrived.  Our heat started early on and finished up before noon.  The only requirement for this dish was that it had to use eggs.  Our team went gourmet but extremely approachable by using eggs in three completely different ways with a Lobster Roll topped with a Fried Egg, Champagne Hollandaise Sauce, and Caviar.  With more than enough time to finish, we were able to make sure that every element was exactly how we wanted.  I was able to have an extra sandwich once the final dishes were turned in, and I honestly don't know what could have been done differently; it was perfection.

That same night we came back for the 'Top 10' awards.  After combining our score from the first two dishes (weighted 40%) with our final dish (weighted 60%), we ended up walking away with 6th place.  It wasn't quite the $10,000 we had dreamed about, but it did mean that we would automatically be back next year competing [at least] in the Sandwich category, which was huge.  We came to Florida with the goal of getting at least one free pass to continue on to the 2016 WFC, and we had done just that.
Despite being a demanding couple of months (especially this past week), I'm extremely thankful for the opportunity that was presented to me.  There were already notable culinary experiences this year that I never would have expected being a part of, but if you would have told me earlier this year that I would be creating my own dishes to cook in the world's largest outdoor kitchen arena at the World Food Championships in Florida, I would have just laughed.  So with that, thank you to my work for providing this opportunity.  Thank you to my head chef for the constant mentoring.  And thank you to co-workers, friends, and family for input and support over the past few weeks.  Here's to the next unexpected but welcomed cooking adventure; cheers!

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