The Heat of Competition – Lessons Learned at the World Food Championships
Finishing 5th last week in the World Burger Championships, there were things that we did right and things that went sideways. Now that the dust has settled here’s my top five lessons learned at the 2013 World Food Championships in Las Vegas.
In retrospect, I wish I’d taken more time on plating and had found a way to get more sleep before the final round of competition, I was really running on adrenaline and coffee. But I’m over-the-moon happy with a top five finish. Not bad for a couple of rookies from the sticks, eh?
This is a high pressure game, with cameras floating overhead as a six-part television series was shot on site, and time ticked down on the official clock. My friend Diane Meagher and I had never cooked together before this, so just beating the clock was an achievement, making the top ten as thrilling, and finishing fifth, astonishing!
Being crowd funded I felt a special kind of pressure because I didn’t want to let those people who backed me down. After the final round, overtired and emotionally on edge I had a big, chocolate meltdown in front of the camera as I thanked those people who worked so hard to get me to Vegas (Anita, Dawn, Chrissie, Nikoo, Peter, Valentina & Stephan, Jason, Creative Diversions, Jayne, Lisanne, Susan, Astrid, Danielle, Sylvie & Karen). Not to mention the chef in my life, Benoit Gelinotte, who coached me the whole way, collaborated on recipes, lent me his kitchen and worked massive hours to make Pop-Up Food Gypsy happen, then had to stay home instead of coming along as planned. Ben’s boss, Patrick McQuaid of Culinary Conspiracy who championed the effort and made our guests feel welcome, and all the guests at the pop-up who were so generous with their praise. My dear friend Diane (AKA: Dze), spent her own money and vacation time to fly down and be by my side (who knew cooking was fun hey, Dze?!). And special thanks to my Dad & Stepmom (Ollie & Leeann Horton) who drove from their home BC’s Okanagan Valley to cheer me on. This was a team effort in so many ways.
I’m sure when the World Food Championships (WFC) television show airs in the spring on the A&E Networks, that running mascara moment won’t be pretty, but it will be sincere. The World Food Championships is real life drama, there were big highs and crushing lows for many. The thrill of competition was fantastic, but the camaraderie between teams was amazing. (You can read more on Canada’s Food Sport Elite and their WFC moments, here.)
Despite the touchy-feely backslapping and highfives, competition is the name of the game. When there’s tens of thousands of dollars on the line people are going to take things seriously. Trust me, your competition will be walking to the judge’s tent with beautiful, well thought out recipes, perfectly executed dishes, well plated; it’s up to you to rise to that level or get lost in the wash.
Top Five Lessons Learned at the World Food Championships
1) Know Before You Go
There’s only room for ten in the final round, to be one of them you must compete within the rules of the competition, so know them before you go. Know how the judges score and build your entry around that criteria. Rules can (and will) change.
One of my greatest frustrations with the WFC competitor packets were the adjustments that came in the final two weeks before the event. My week prior to competition was spent focused on the last round of fundraising to get us to Vegas. Details and prep for the pop-up were foremost in my mind and therefore it was difficult to keep up with the last minute shuffling. I spent a considerable amount of time debriefing when I landed in Vegas just to come up to speed and I still missed details on the final round of turn ins. (I believe I was simply in shock that I made it to the finals!)
Thankfully I had help in the form of teammate (and best pal) Diane who, without thinking, jumped into a cab to rush to a grocery store and save my proverbial arse. The angels must have been behind us that day because she made it back just as the horn sounded to start but it was an expensive fix and that mistake could have cost me a finish. So, in future I’ll be reviewing the competitor packet before each level of competition… just in case.
2) Have A Plan
The most successful competitors I spoke to had one thing in common, they all had a plan of execution. They had a vision of how their entry would cook, look and taste and they worked to that plan allowing for a measure of flexibility. If something didn’t go their way — if a they had a technical issue to overcome, if the power blew, if the grill was too hot, if the camera crew was in the way, they made adjustments to the plan to be sure to finish.
Not every competitor made it to the judges tent on time. It was heart wrenching to watch the clock hit zero and you would see the flurry of activity as a tray was being hastily carried through the crowd only to see that they were too late. The colour would drain from their face as disappointment took over. Softy that I am, I welled up with tears each time I saw this happen.
To compete timing must be a part of your plan. As competitors we know in advance how much time will be allotted for each stage of the competition. There are warning calls and announcements when the turn in window opens, at which point you know you have ten minutes to get that dish to the table. Do not allow time slip away, have a plan for the time given and use it well because there are no mulligans in competitive cooking.
If you know you’ll be pushed, adjust your recipe or technique to meet the guidelines of competition because the competition will not adjust for your individual needs. Period.
The best teams had a high level of communication. They talked to each other about where they were at and what was left to be done. Diane & I relied on both my written recipe and a short form cheat sheet that had each task assigned to a team member. I love a good list, it gives a sense of accomplishment as I check things off and ensured that every element was addressed.
We talked through the recipe before each session to be sure we were on the same page and communicated clearly and concisely through the event. Diane and I had never cooked together before and so it was incumbent upon me to deliver clear direction in a calm, direct manner. In my opinion, communication was one of our key elements of success.
Even my Dad & Leeann got in on the action, they were our official clock watchers and timers. All I had to do was call out “SEVEN MINUTES” when I popped the buns into the oven to finish and seven minutes later there was a call back to remind me to yank them out. I wish I’d taken that one step further when my candy thermometer pooped out for our final burger, The Candied Canuck. I could have called home to the best chef I know to ask for help, but it didn’t even dawn on me. Note to self: Use your resources, no matter where they are.
3) Don’t Rely On The Competition Pantry
In most competitive cooking there will be a pantry where you can order some of the basics to help underwrite your costs so you don’t have to buy and entire bottle of white vinegar when all you need is one tablespoon. Thing is, we’re all human. Mistakes could be made, ingredients might not be ready in time or might not be the quantities you need and then you’re off to a bumpy start and if you don’t recover, you’re screwed.
I took the approach of supplying all of my own ingredients, which was a bit more expensive, but it left nothing to chance. Many of the ingredients for my signature burger (the Amazin’ Asian) are specialized but I found them all in one place, the local Asian market in Vegas’s Chinatown. This meant hauling heavy bags to the Kenmore Kitchen Arena each day but it was well worth it, because this way if something was missing there was no blame, no yelling, no screaming… just under the breath cursing from my corner.
Fortunately, we had few hiccups (except the aforementioned glitch in the final round), because I had enough food to feed half the neighbourhood!
4) You Don’t Have To Be A Chef To Win
On several occasions other WFC top ten finalists turned to me and said “I don’t deserve to be here, I’m just a home cook”. Honey, if you’re standing on that stage, you earned it.
The judges don’t care about your pedigree, they’re marking on execution, appearance and taste – taste being the heaviest weighted category. They’re judging blind, only looking at the number of your turn-in tray, they don’t give a fig if you’re a stay-at-home Mom or a chef with thirty restaurants. If your food tastes good, looks good and is well executed you will score well and you will be standing on the top ten stage. Enjoy the moment.
5) Celebrate Your Success & Champion Others
Nobody likes a sore loser, for God’s sake if you’re a mean drunk go to your room and soak your head in beer. Really, no one has time for your drama. But then again this is a live for TV event, so if have nothing nice to say please by all means say it on camera so you can make a complete ass out of yourself. Yes, cameras will be in your face as you cook, and they LOVE drama. Besides, everyone needs a villain to loath, so go ahead and cast yourself as a jerk if you must.
Categories like Barbecue, Chili, Bacon and Burger were filled with amazing people who were courteous and sportsmanlike. There were hugs and high fives, people we’d never met before cheered us on and we did the same for them.
In end the real competition is within, and it’s measured by how well you met the goals you set for yourself. My goal was to make three platters of burgers that were uniquely my own, deeply flavorful, well presented and pushed to performance level by the chef in my life. Perfectionist that I am I can see room for improvement (read more refined plating). If there’s a next time I now know where to get good bread in Vegas (Best Buns Bakery supplies most of the boutique burger joints in Vegas). Life, it’s a learn as you go type of thing.
The best advice I was given is the best advice I now pass on: Be one with the food. That was the last thing Ben said to me as I freaked out in our kitchen before grabbing my bags to go.
“Be one with the food.”
Let flavour shine, allow personality show through, let everything but delivering that dish on time, slip away because in the end it’s not about you… it’s about the food you serve.
Congratulations to every World Food Championships competitor, to be invited you had to be a champion in your own right. What better place to gamble on your culinary talent than on the streets of Vegas?!
Hope we see you next year.