Time to hammer out what my day of competing was like in the first-ever World Food Championships 2012 in Las Vegas. As I sit here on a flight with my ever-vigilant and supportive hubby, Ben, we both look forward to a few days of R & R in the Napa Valley. My good foodie friend, Warren of ‘Table for Two’, asked me to tell him about it, my first response was simple—it was an ‘experience’ that was ‘exhilarating’ and ‘exhausting’—oh, so the three ‘Es’ right—tell me more, he said. So, I will expound upon my chat with Warren…
First of all, this was an ‘experience’—something that comes along once-in-a-lifetime, kind of like my experience with being cast on Season 2 of FOX network’s MasterChef. I almost passed up this particular experience because I was cast as the lead in a community theatre stage play, ‘Dracula,’ which was to open near Halloween—how coincidental, right? I so love performing and being on stage—and, it had been quite a while since I’d done a play. There’s just a gnawing in your gut to get back to something when you derive so much enjoyment from it. However, after some gut-wrenching consideration, I decided to abdicate my role as Lucy, be Ally and start the preparation for competing in the WFC. I didn’t want to look back and regret not grabbing this experience—there’ll always be other stage plays I assured myself.
The experience was driven, in large part, by knowing that I would have the chance to meet face-to-face so many of my foodie friends I’d developed strong friendships and relationships with on Facebook. We’re a tightly-knit group of insanely, well, let’s be honest, pathetically-addicted, foodies whose lives are driven by not only creating new recipes and dishes, but also living in the world of the contest circuit entering and sometimes winning prizes and awards—be it booty like a case of wine, cash, a trip to Tuscany, or a photo shoot for a major magazine. The fabulous thing about the experience and finally meeting all these astounding girls was that there was no ‘switch n’ bait’—they were who they were in person, looks and all—personality, energy levels, attitudes—as they are on FB. These were relationships that needed no massaging or work—they’d been growing and developing over months and years in the virtual world of foodie match-making! I’d even asked one of my favorite foodies, Christie, from Zestuous to be my teammate—you have to have immense confidence in someone whom you’ve never met to ask them to compete with you knowing the stakes are high—having known Christie for almost two years, observing her work, noting her twists on culinary creations, and having other ‘coincidental’ connections, probably not coincidence at all, I knew we would be a great ‘frick n’ frack’ team and could pull this off when it came showtime! Christie’s a well-seasoned Army wife—she knows pressure, she knows organization, she knows competition! I felt real lucky to have her with me, so for weeks we went back and forth, numerous emails, conversations and ruminations on the sandwich I’d created, which I aptly named, ‘The High Roller.’
Exhilaration is the only word I can use that conveys the emotions involved. I felt like I was in kitchen stadium, minus Alton Brown commentating, where there was immense heat, literally, as it was a hot, sunny Las Vegas day, and we cooked outside, and figuratively because there was tension—you could see it in the eyes of the competitors as you walked the rows of cooking tents, professional chefs, like Chef Robert of the Bally Hotel, home cooks, and restaurant/delis chefs, all were like laser beams focusing on their sandwich entries. Did I say that I competed in the sandwich category? This is how I ‘qualified’ to compete—I’d been the grand award winner of the Wisconsin Cheese ‘Grilled Cheese Academy’ 2012 competition. My sandwich, ‘The Bewitching,’ was chosen by Chef Tori Miller from Madison, WI and James Beard Midwest Chef of the Year, as the winner. At this competition we had three hours, unlike Master Chef where we had only one hour, to prepare, execute and plate our sandwich for the judges’ tasting, review and scoring—this may sound like a lot of time, but when you have your cooking apparatus, a two-burner outdoor gas camper-like stove on legs, a distance from your prep tent, limited potable water, the ovens, microwaves, etc. in other locations, you feel a time crunch with just navigating from place to place. Then there’s always the chance of tripping, slipping, falling, stumbling on the teeniest pebble on the pavement! It’s not anywhere as convenient as being in your own kitchen—we all know that every appliance, even the outdoor gas burners, have their own personalities with heat intensity, evenness of cooking, and other features!
Our tent was next to a BBQ tent that was giving away free samples—you can imagine the crowd you draw with free samples of food on Las Vegas Boulevard at the entrance to the Bally Hotel! That meant this stream of food-seekers were like packs of wolves congregating sometimes in groups around our tent—without being short or rude, we smiled and continued to say that we were not giving away anything, we were in a competition—things like this distract your focus and take time! We had to eventually even remove the Grey Poupon and plastic containers from our table—there were people thinking we were either giving it away or selling it!
What typically comes on the heels of building up to something, running on adrenalin for weeks and weeks, not sleeping the night before the big event, starting the day at the crack of dawn, and then the penetrating exhilaration of being in the ring? Exhaustion! The birth of the ‘High Roller’ was not by happenstance—it came about after weeks of combining ingredients, trying different layering, having taste-testers evaluate, give feedback and then re-designing even the seemingly most insignificant feature, like should the arugula be the last ingredient in the layering or tucked in the middle of the other ingredients, and having Christie actually make the sandwich ahead of time in her own kitchen.
The WFC had created a scoring system called ‘EAT’—execution, appearance and taste—while execution was vaguely defined, appearance and taste were easier to figure out—common sense—the sandwich had to ‘look’ good, appealing, like you wanted to take a big bite from it—and, of course, the taste had to blow the tastebuds away—it had to be like angels dancing on your palate! Added to this exhaustion was just getting the ‘stuff’ ready to take to the competition—what does it take to make one sandwich? Well, I had a dedicated piece of luggage that weighed 51 pounds on check in at the airport. Christie brought along a huge cooler packed with all of our ingredients that we’d shopped for the night before—a nice chunk of change at a little over $200 from Whole Foods. She also brought more skillets and pots to cook in knowing we had limited water for washing and reusing the same pots and skillets. So, Christie had a Barney Rubble size red suitcase full of paraphernalia! Then there were some other incidentals that required schlepping, so thank goodness there were three of us to handle all of this stuff! And, even more ‘praise the Lord thank you’ was that Christie had her car, which was a huge convenience!
For three straight hours, we worked intensely, no bathroom breaks—that meant taking time from cooking—the bathrooms were in the Bally Hotel, you had to walk a far distance, like what seemed like about half a mile, through the casino and crowds if you needed to go! Big bladders and holding it was a must if you wanted to maximize your time—and, we needed every minute because our sandwich was a complex and intoxicating mixture of layers of flavors and unexpected combinations that meant stages of preparation.
After it was all over but the shouting, we made the deadline, got our one ‘presentation’ or glamour sandwich to the judging tent along with five additional sandwiches for the judges. I gasp when I think one of us may have fallen or tripped while carrying that tray with the booty—the television cameras were rolling, photographs were being taken as we hustled our babies there. High fives, dancing and twirling, laughing and hugging, and an incredible sense of accomplishment—we had lived the fight, we were in the ring, we weren’t simply spectators in the balcony of life—we had taken a calculated risk, pushed all our chips on the table, we were all in with the ‘High Roller!’