By Fyllis Hockman- I have to eat more bacon? Really? Who wouldn’t want that? Okay, maybe not vegetarians, but I have it on the authority of a vegan friend that the porcine delicacy is the verboten food most missed.
And here I am immersed in it, engulfed by 10 different tantalizing bacon dishes that I’m supposed to judge as part of the International World Food Championships in Orange Beach, Alabama.
Known affectionately as “the ultimate food fight,” the WFC is the largest culinary competition on the planet. Last year’s event brought together more than 1,500 chefs from 42 states and 13 countries preparing almost 6,000 dishes in 10 categories: Steak, Sandwiches, Chicken, Barbecue, Chili, Burgers, Seafood, Bacon, Dessert and Chef — a sort of testing opportunity for potential new categories.
But first a judging lesson. It’s important for the dish to be visually appealing, which can range from “Meh” to “I can’t wait to eat it.” It’s not enough to just like what you’re tasting. For taste a 1 means you’re spitting it out in a napkin.
Ten says you’d drive 100 miles to eat it, and 5 is fast food. At WFC the caliber is so high that most of the scores are between 8 and 10. A 7 would imply a bad day. But the tricky one is execution: 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 that has to be included)? As one of the Certified Food Judges I found the whole prospect terrifying.
Picture the Food Network on steroids. In the opening rounds, dozens of competing teams in a given category have an hour-plus to prepare their dishes in the tented “Kitchen Arena.” From these, 10 teams in each category move on. That’s where my expertise was tested.
The Kitchen Arena bursts with sounds, smells, sights, steam, sauces, spices, seasonings — and sweat! Some of the competitors are calm; most of them are frantic. And some, despite the intensity of their endeavors, actually find the time to call me over for a taste — and then glow with satisfaction as my taste buds explode in appreciation. So I just tasted pork and bacon and cheese in a tortilla and my eyes glazed over in ecstasy. Others around me note they didn’t taste the jalapeno — apparently a necessity — although I’m ready to give the chef $10,000 on the spot.
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. The cry goes out. “One minute, 15 seconds; you should be walking to the turn-in table.” People run down the aisles — gingerly — with platters of food and culinary destiny hanging in the balance. This is incredibly anxiety-provoking, even for the onlookers.
Meanwhile, new chefs are now at their stands cutting, carving, chopping, mincing, slicing, dicing, stirring and sampling to get ready for the next round. This is 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. Cameras everywhere are on set to automatic.
Back to the floor to watch the dessert competitors stir, baste, scrape, slurp, saute, bake, grate, whirr and mix. Always there is perpetual motion in a well-orchestrated symphony of mayhem. Then 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. One chef reaches the table a second late and is disqualified — a year or more of preparation and planning undone by a second delay.
And finally the moment of truth. I’m judging the 10 finalists in the bacon category. 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 revel in my bacon immersion as 10 huge platters of unidentifiable bacon dishes are placed in front of me.
I feel frantic as I taste one and then another and then back to the first and on to the 10th, barely coming up for air. I mark numbers between eight and 10 on my score card. I’ve never eaten so much so fast, but surprisingly I 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 eight for execution. I didn’t taste any chili tomatoes and hated having to mark it down. Maybe I should have chosen the dessert category.