It was a foodie’s dream come true as 500 cooking teams and more than 1,600 competitors converged on the Alabama Gulf Coast for the World Food Championships Nov. 8-12.
“This is the World Food Championship and just like it sounds, it’s the biggest competition in the world when it comes to cooks and chefs,” said Mike McCloud, president and CEO of the World Food Championships.
The annual event crowns champions in 10 categories, with the champions taking home $10,000 packages in cash and prizes. Categories are barbecue, chef, chili, burger, dessert, sandwich, bacon, steak, seafood and recipe.
“If they do that, become champions, they’ll be allowed to come to what we call the final table, which is a $100,000 opportunity, which is the biggest payday in professional cooking,” McCloud said.
That motivates people to come thousands of miles to the competition. Craig Philpott and his family spent 23 hours in the air, flying from his home in Adelaide, Australia. He earned the right to compete in the barbecue category by becoming the Australian champion.
Orange Beach is a long way from southern Australia, but barbecue and barbecue competitions are pretty much the same “down under” as they are in Alabama, Philpott said.
“It seems pretty universal,” Philpott said. “Everybody is friendly and everybody helps you out. People have loaned us smokers and other things. The barbecue culture is great.”
Philpott, a firefighter by trade, came to see another country, meet people and make new friends and learn new cooking techniques. For others, it’s a chance to advance their career.
“What’s driving this industry is the ability to show off their craftsmanship and their culinary artisanship,” McCloud said. “Chefs are becoming the new ‘it’ in the world of celebrity and the World Food Championships have launched about 30 or 32 TV stars and TV chefs. They’re seeing the World Food Championship as a platform to launch them to the next level.”
It certainly worked for Kari Luke, last year’s World Food Champion.
“We left here in November and went back to our little town of 800,” said Luke, who owns a convenience store and restaurant in Cissna Park, Illinois. “I said to my husband in March, mind you this is from November to March, I went home that afternoon from work and I said, ‘This is the first day since we got home in November that I have not talked World Food with someone.”
After winning the steak competition and then taking the championship last year, Luke wasn’t about to retire as a champion and rest on her laurels.
“There’s no quitting once you get in this game,” Luke said. “It’s too much fun. We couldn’t wait to come back.”
“It feels like, looks like and is a great community for these championships,” McCloud said. “We felt welcome from day one and I can’t imagine a better place to develop a long-term presence. I can’t imagine a better place to build an epic culinary event.”
Contestants prepare their dishes in the “World’s Largest Outdoor Kitchen” under a tent in an open lot next to The Wharf. McCloud estimates the kitchen includes about $300,000 in equipment, some of it owned by the WFC, some of it rented and some of it provided by sponsors partnering with the organization.
The event has an estimated $3.5 million economic impact on the local community and comes at a traditionally slow time for the tourism industry. It brings to town more than 475 registered and certified judges and 400 local volunteers assist with the event.
In addition to contestants, judges travel to the event. Carl and Kim Slate came from Memphis to judge the contest.
“We got recruited by friends,” Kim Slate said. “They know we like to cook a lot at home and try new recipes.”
When they arrived in Orange Beach, they met a friend from Memphis, Perk Perkins, who judges barbecue contests.
“You’ve got to be consistent, you’ve got to be fair and you can’t take into account your own biases,” Perkins said.
Perkins, who cooked in barbecue contests before he became a judge, said he considers all that the cook teams must contend with to present a plate of food to the judges.
“I think about the cooks and how hard they had to work,” Perkins said. “I’m not going to mark him down because it rained on his plate.”
Judges receive training in a specific methodology used by the World Food Championship called the E.A.T. method. That stands for Execution, Appearance and Taste. The judging is heavily weighted toward taste.
“What they usually do is that they have an opinion when they sit down at the kitchen table,” said Michael McDearman, who trains the judges. “We just give them a structure.”
In addition to watching the cook teams, spectators could buy tickets to a tasting event and fundraising events. The World Food Games offered free family activities like team egg tossing and a corn shucking contest.
Championships in each category started with opening rounds including about 40 contestants each on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The top 10 contestants from each category then squared off in a final round Saturday and Sunday with the champions named Sunday night.