Now that it’s all over, I realize how fortunate I was to qualify for the World Food Championships (WFC) this year. What started as just a normal day at work with a “Oh why not” attitude ended up being an incredible journey both professionally and personally. A lot of what I got to experience are the normal things that you would expect with something like this, but there were several pleasant surprises along the way. Here I will try my best to share them.
So my phone rings one day while I’m at work, for me this isn’t a surprise as my phone is constantly making some form of noise all hours of the day and night. On the line is my US Foods Territory Manager Brad Davis, and he reminds me about this contest that his company is having called the US Foods Next Top Product contest. The premise is simple, the have Chefs from all over the country submit recipes to their website and through a series of “rounds” recipes advance. When they get to the final eight recipes the people who submitted them get to go to Las Vegas to compete against each other to try and win the grand prize which is $20,000 in cash and prizes.
So why should I not take a few minutes and enter a recipe? Whats the worst thing that can happen? In fact I actually have time to enter two recipes so that’s exactly what I did. After briefly reading through the categories that they were focusing on I knew that I should enter the “sauce” category as that is one of my strengths and I have two very good sauces that we use on a regular basis in one of the kitchens I’m in charge of. I knew them both like the back of my hand, they both had several uses, and from the viewpoint of a Chef they both would be really nice to have on hand for several different reasons. The first entry was a Strawberry Vinaigrette, and it wasn’t the chosen recipe. The second was a Roasted Corn Sauce or as is described in one of my earlier blog post A-Maizing sauce. It was chosen at the Divisional level of the competition and that placed me in the Regional round and one step closer to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada.
The regional round was set up as a voting process on Facebook and Twitter. Basically anyone could vote for you each day via these social media outlets. I was up against four other Divisional winners and whomever had the most votes at the end of a six week period would win the Region, and move on to the Finals. This set myself and several other people on a daily mission to obtain votes, and right out of the gate I had a very large lead. It seemed after a few days that perhaps some of the other contestants weren’t even notified that they should be soliciting votes for themselves. Too good to be true perhaps and certainly this won’t last were my thoughts at this point. And sure enough the race would get very interesting along the way. Peach Cookies was a submission from a contestant in South Carolina and it didn’t take long for this recipe to close the large lead I had and make each vote, each day crucial. It seemed each day during work I would get a 3% lead, and every morning when I would wake up it would be back to 1%. When the final day of voting ended. I had a 2% lead, and had won the Region. I was going to Vegas to cook and if I could edge out the other seven regional winners I was going to walk away with $20,000 in cash and prizes. Things had got serious really fast, and I knew that I had a little over a month to do everything I could to make sure I was ready for anything that would get thrown my way.
First things first, my fear of flying and the fact that my wife shares that fear with me. Vegas is over 2000 miles from our house, so driving is out of the question, however I’m going to make this trip and the thought of having a trip to Vegas with someone else paying our way was not going to be passed up by her. Her desire to visit Vegas far outweighed her fear of planes, even though she had up until this point never considered getting on one. For me the answer was simple, I paid a visit to my doctor he wrote me a prescription and I knew I would be ok. For her the anxiety was present until our first flight, when she realized she loves to fly and never wants to drive anywhere again.
Now back to the contest. My first concern was the recipe itself and self doubt would become a daily feeling even though I knew how well I knew the recipe. Two days after winning the region I made three batches of the sauce and that put to rest a lot of my doubts. Now what else could I do to help my chances to win? It seemed to me that if my “product” was versatile it would certainly make it more appealing as a potential product for them to want to sell. I knew there was nothing on the market close to what I was making, so that also helped. So at this point I start to develop more uses for the sauce than what we were or had used it for. And in all I came up with twelve applications that were straight forward and actually did what the sauce was intended to do, bring flavor to the plate. So for this aspect of the competition I felt very confident.
Now what about some other details that I needed to consider? Interviews, there would be interviews and I had not been in front of cameras or large crowds for several years. In this respect I was very fortunate. The Director of Marketing where I work was not only willing to help me prepare of this but really took the initiative to make sure I had a good grasp on anything that could be thrown my way. She along with all of the other Directors at the facility I work at put me through the most difficult interview that I had to endure through this entire process. Then I was able to get honest feedback from her on better ways to handle certain situations. This was absolutely invaluable, and I can only hope to be given the chance to repay each of these people in some way in the future. With all of this under my belt, there was no way I could lose. So now it’s time to go to Vegas and win one not just for me and my family, and not just those I work with and for, but for a lot of family and friends from this area. An area that doesn’t get much recognition for accomplishments very often.
When we arrived in Vegas the excitement was incredible. In reality I’m just a guy who goes to work every day and I try to do my job to the best of my ability. I love my job and everything about it, except for the hours. I love food and everything about it and being a Chef truly isn’t a job for me, it’s a lifestyle. I’m proud of what I do day to day, but the truth is everything I do is for my family. I like to keep things simple, but here I am getting flown to Vegas to compete in the World Food Championships. It was very humbling and the sense of accomplishment that I felt was incredible. I had been given a chance to do something special for those that mean the most to me. I was realizing that all of those long nights at work, the missed school functions, the family time that was spent without me could be repaid to some extent by winning this contest. To be able to return home to those that were going to miss us the most and let them know that it was all worth while was now the only thing on my mind. Yes I would be able to enjoy myself, relax, and be a part of the Vegas experience but when I was told it was time to cook my mind would be nowhere else and my intentions would be very simple, win.
Shortly after arriving at our Hotel and getting registration taken care of for the event the agenda for the next few days was now clear. Meetings, dinners, interviews, and finally some cooking is what I had in store and I was going to embrace all of it with open arms. The amount of detail that was put in to this entire event was extraordinary. Everything was planned properly, the excitement was so thick in the air you could taste it. There were people from all over the world who had came to this one small square mile for their love of food. Chefs, cooks, writers, judges, media, television personalities, all watching the same things, tasting the same foods and being a part of an international event. The folks at the World Food Championships really know what their doing, and it showed in every way possible. The company responsible for my participation in the event, US Foods didn’t just allow what the event was providing for me to be enough, they went over and above with gift packages, an upscale dinner at a local country club, a knife set as well as several other nice giveaways. Nothing was overlooked or forgotten, and my wife and I were treated like celebrities in everything we did.
When the day arrived to cook, one thing had changed. Our cook time had been extended by nearly three hours. I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do with the time, but one thing was for certain, I wasn’t going to be late turning in my food. It didn’t take long for the nerves to vanish once I started preparing my ingredients. Everything I needed was there, and there was no doubt I would make the best batch of corn sauce I had ever made. My wife was close by watching, and each time I looked her way she would send a beautiful smile to me that would comfort me even more. When I had finished my first batch of sauce, I still had over two hours of cook time left. I placed the finished product in to holding containers and set it aside. When the time to plate grew closer I would gently warm it back up for plating. I started a second batch of sauce that I had no intentions of ever finishing. I knew the cameras and interviews would be making their way through the cooking area and I wanted to be able to not only explain what I was doing, but also be able to show them the actual process.
During this time I was able to talk with one of the people responsible for the contest from start to finish. He informed me that all of the kitchen equipment we were using was going to be cleaned after the contest and then donated to the Wounded Warrior project, and all of the food that was left over from the day of cooking would make it’s way to a local food bank. Once again, every detail was covered and I was proud to be a part of what was going on here. As the cameras approached I tried to make sure nothing was in a position to get burned, scorched, or knocked over so I could focus on answering all the questions properly. In what was realistically a ten minute interview it seemed like it went by in twenty seconds. It went well and I was happy with it, and the best part was when I was finished with the interview it was time to finally plate my dish. Since I had sat down and typed up the recipe months earlier, this was the moment that I had most anticipated. Once the food was on the plates, off to the judges I went and turned everything in with about six minutes to spare. The sense of relief was incredible. And at this moment the true reality of everything became very clear. I had made exactly what I had turned in months earlier, it was perfect and there was nothing that I could have done better throughout this entire process. If I win or not comes down to the opinion of four people that I won’t get to meet until after the process is over. But for my part, and what I could control I had exceeded my own expectations and there was a calmness and sense of accomplishment that came along with that in which can’t be described.
Now it was time to do what cleaning I could before I had go on stage and find out the results. I got a hug and kiss from my wife, and I was the happiest person on the planet. We made our way to the stage, and one by one me and the other seven finalist were called up. Each of us were introduced and the Host exchanged a few words with us, then he went directly to who had won. Black Bean Sliders was the winner. In all of my thinking I had never imagined that being the winner. I had always looked at the marketability and versatility of the products I was going up against and in my mind I just didn’t feel threatened by the eventual winner. On the upside the Chef who won was a great guy, and I have no doubt that his winning recipe was delicious.
The contest was over, and I had lost. But in so many other ways I was the biggest winner Vegas has ever seen. My wife and I had the chance to travel 2000 miles and spend four days together, and that is something that money can’t buy. It was the first time we had left our children for more than one night. With that came a lot of fun, and also an equal amount of heartache. The main reason for us making the trip was to win, and I had fallen short. But the memories that we made, and the experiences that we had the chance to enjoy together made everything worth while. And I wouldn’t trade any of it for the prize that I would have received if I had won. Now that we’re back home to our normal routine, we speak of going back daily and taking our children with us and finding jobs and a place to live. The new doors that were opened for possible career advancements are very exciting, and I can only stay focused on not letting these slip through my fingers like the finals of the contest did. Because in the end I’m just a guy trying to take care of his family. And every day I feel like the ultimate winner for that reason.
Thanks to the people of The World Food Championships for all that they provided. And a special thanks to US Foods for showing my wife and I the time of our lives, and treating my family and myself in the way that you did. Also I would like to thank Mardi Gras Casino and Resort in Cross Lanes, WV for giving me a great work environment and being so supportive and helpful throughout the whole process of this contest.
And to my family, I am nothing without you. And the support and love that you show me each day makes what I do worth doing.