My interest in competitive cooking contests began with a personal goal that I set for myself in 1999.
With all the talk and fears of the what the new millennium might bring, I decided that my hope for the year 2000 was to take part in the biggest cooking competition of all time: The Pillsbury Bake-Off.
Of course, there were far more noble causes that I could have chosen, but I've always believed that you should "bloom where you are planted." I come from a long line of good cooks, learning diverse ethnic specialties and techniques at a young age from my Slovenian and Finnish grandmothers. When I was a teenager, my mother took a job outside of the home and I took charge of the family suppers. It was an early lesson in the immense pride and joy a cook receives through people loving their food, although I have to honestly say that my two teen-aged brothers would have happily wolfed down just about anything placed in front of them.
My Pillsbury Bake-Off goal turned into near nightly recipe experiments for my own family, using every possible combination of required Pillsbury products. While my brain was constantly bombarded with ideas to try - even prompting me to need a pen and tablet by my bedside - my family soon tired of my obsession. They were relieved when the contest submission period came to an end, and we could go back to "normal food" again. Little did they know that while I was thrilled to be chosen to compete at that 2000 Pillsbury Bake-Off, it was just the beginning of my foray into the world of national cooking contests, as I was completely and utterly hooked. Life - and food - would never be the same for my family again.
National cooking contests and cook-offs are a big deal to recipe writers. The ability to simply get into a national contest is an arduous combination of perseverance, experimentation, research, skill, luck and possibly a tad of obsessive-compulsiveness. There are tens of thousands of entries submitted into bigger contests that offer large prizes. I've heard people insinuate that sponsors grab onto familiar names in the contest circuit, and that's the reason you see so many repeat recognizable names in these cook-offs. That's absolutely not true; the reason you see certain names over and over again is because those people know how to write a recipe well. In fact, many larger contests such as the Pillsbury Bake-Off and National Beef, restrict the number of times a person may appear at their contests to three, in order to prevent the same people from competing time after time.
To keep things on a level playing field, sponsors immediately remove the names from entries and a number is assigned. The sponsor's legal department then begins the task of whittling through the entries, verifying that the contest rules were followed. Each contest has their own specific rules and the most important lesson I've learned is also the most simple: follow the rules. I can't count how many times I've been told by a sponsor that no matter how good a recipe is, if any rules were broken in submission, the entry is tossed out. This can be as simple as the recipe not listing the ingredients in the order they are used.
I usually only enter the larger contests and have exhausted my appearances at the Pillsbury Bake-Off and have only one time left to go to National Beef. I've always said I'd never enter the Sutter Home Build a Better Burger Contest because it's an outdoor grilling competition in Napa, Calif., and I can't take heat very well and also have a sun allergy. But because I'm looking for these larger contests, I decided to throw my hat into the $50,000 Burger ring and submitted a couple of recipes last spring. About a week after my submissions, the Food Network aired last year's Burger contest. Napa had record heat temperatures of 105 degrees that day and I watched in horror as a finalist was unable to participate in the awards ceremony because they had to cart her away in an ambulance for heat exhaustion. I know of many fellow cooking contestants who have tried to get into this contest during the 19 years it's been around, so I thanked my lucky stars that on my first try, I surely wouldn't get picked. You can imagine my shock as I opened an e-mail from the Sutter Home Winery in mid-August, telling me I was one of the five beef burger finalists. From that day until I left five weeks later, I didn't have one peaceful night of sleep.
I practiced my burger over and over during those five weeks, wanting to get my timing down perfectly. This was the worst kind of presentation time for a contester: an instant presentation. While some contests allow you to turn in your finished dish to the judges whenever you wish within the cook-off parameters, this one had a precise minute when you had to present. If you had your finished dish on the serving platter five minutes early, it would sit there, getting cold with the quality deteriorating until that specific presentation time. If you were 30 seconds past your presentation time, you were disqualified. We were also admonished over and over by the head judge, James McNair, that the judges liked hot burgers with warm, toasty buns. No matter how many times I practiced my burger at home, by the time I assembled the whole thing, it was not warm and toasty. My family soon learned to just eat the burger and not say much, other than "mmmmmmmm."
Besides the timing issue, I also stressfully followed Napa's weather pattern. As the contest neared, I watched the slow, unseasonable rise in temperatures. Within a few days of the contest, they were saying possible triple digits, much like the previous year. My focus sharply shifted from serving warm burgers to simply staying alive.
The day before I left, I could no longer ignore the fact that I was going to have to stand in front of a hot grill for three hours in temps of over 100 degrees. I googled, 'surviving extreme heat' and discovered several links mentioning bead-filled neck wraps that were supposed to cool your body's core temperature. The beads are the type that swell when immersed in water and by soaking them in cold/ice water, they hold the cool moisture for longer periods of time than just a water-soaked cloth would. I actually had some of the beads, as well as plenty of fabric, so I made two of them with the idea that I could wear one and keep one in ice water and switch them out as needed. I honestly think they pretty much kept me out of an ambulance - well that, along with a few gallons of guzzled water and Gatorade. During the heat of the competition, I would pull a wrap out of the icy water, with ice still clinging to it and stuff the whole length inside my collar. It felt heavenly as the temps soared between 100 to 104 that day.
Seeing the beautiful grounds in person at the Sutter Home Victorian Inn was so exciting, since I've watched many of the previous Burger competitions on the Food Network. The road along the way through Napa was lined with precise rows of vineyard after vineyard. Pulling up to the Inn, I saw peaks of the white tents covering our cooking stations that were already set up for the competition. The skies were the bluest of blue and the yard was lined with heavy-fruited orange and lime trees. Tall, majestic palm trees stood guard over our grilling stations ... never in my wildest dreams did I ever picture myself grilling under palm trees.
While our original recipe submissions were required to yield six burgers, the actual cook off required us to make 12 burgers in a three-hour period. I know that sounds like a long time to make hamburgers, but let me tell you, I didn't have one spare second in those three hours. We were required to prepare three burgers for the judged presentation; they were to be skewered and sliced in half, with each of five judges receiving a half-burger. It was up to our discretion to make as many of the 12 burgers as we wanted for our first round, and I decided on four, giving me one extra burger to choose from if any of them weren't perfect. After our journey to the judges, we were to return to our stations and complete the remaining round of burgers, which were then cut into fourths, skewered and served to the People's Choice judges. This cook-off was not open to the public, so the invitation-only guests included sponsors and special guests, some of whom comprised the pool of People's Choice judges. This prize was the second highest payout after the Grand Prize winner, so it was important to concentrate equally on these burgers as well.
My scheduled presentation time was 1:45. Unfortunately, I was the next to last to present, which put me and my fellow finalist at the hottest part of the day. We were assured that all the grills had been pre-tested, putting our fears to rest because a previous year's finalist occupied a grill that had a section with no heat in it. I had all my prep work done, everything was set up so I could assemble my burgers like clockwork, without any thought or decision-making left to chance. The first part of my recipe was completed, using a skillet and saucepan on the grill. They had cooked hot and fast, but it wasn't a problem because it didn't matter if they were done early, as I could cover and hold them without any consequence. I had timed myself to allow 20 minutes as my "final countdown" to put the burgers on the grill, leaving no room for error after that. I had done this before ... it worked well and I trusted in that practice and my experience. Then I discovered I had a runaway grill.
While I usually start the burgers on medium-high heat on my gas grill at home, I realized that this contest grill was running hotter than that. I lowered it to medium, placed the burgers on and 30 seconds later, lowered the heat again. I finally had to turn it all the way down to its lowest setting, yet I still saw no heat reduction. When it continued to spew heat uncontrollably and I had no lower setting to turn to, I realized I was in trouble; big trouble. I was the proud owner of a blazing inferno that was throwing heat like a blast furnace. I was also on my own, in the midst of my final countdown with no backup plan available, as all my ingredients had been used and accounted for. The judges expected me in less than 15 minutes. I had to work with what I had, and what I had was a view of my delicate burgers sitting in the throat of a fire-breathing dragon. They weren't burned black, as I was able to move them from direct to indirect heat, but that intense heat just seemed to suck everything out of them.
I kept looking in disbelief at the grill's temperature gauge, which was at its maximum red-zone of 500 degrees. I don't know if it was actually hotter than that because that's as far as the gauge would go, but I do know that I couldn't touch the outer grill handle without a mitt on. Between that 500-degree grill and the100-plus degree sun, it was hotter than I've ever felt in my life.
Between my burger baste and setting the completed burgers in the juices of my caramelized reds skillet, I was able to resuscitate their dryness slightly, but the texture was completely ruined. It was difficult to keep them in a pattie form as they simply wanted to fall apart ... kind of like I did. The assembled burger looked gorgeous; if only nobody had to touch them, or taste them. I held the platter as the judges began to take their half-portions. As the third judge lifted his half from the platter, a chunk of his burger's meat broke off and rolled back onto the platter. For a split second, I thought of picking it up and handing it to him - after all, it was part of his burger. Thank goodness I had enough of my brain left to leave the poor piece where it was. I'm glad I wasn't in the room when they discussed their deliberations.
Sutter Home had provided helpers for each of us once our judged burgers were presented. They had become familiar with our recipes and began the initial prep of the second round of burgers until we could get back from the judges table. When I got back, I informed my helper about the malfunctioning grill. He gave me that, "Yeah, that's what they all say, Lady" look and reasoned that it was just really hot out today. Once we put the final eight burgers on, he realized that I was right. When we couldn't get the temperature to drop below 500 degrees on low, he completely shut the grill down and admitted that yes, indeed, there was a problem with the grill. We continued to cook the entire flipped sides of the burgers on "off" until my instant thermometer registered done enough to serve. It took longer than my initial final countdown would have allowed for, but these burgers were what Burgers La Mancha were supposed to taste like. It was a sweet vindication for me when my name was announced as the People's Choice Award. Not the perfect outcome or the perfect day, but it was the best I could do with what I had to work with.
The unpredictability of cook-offs is pretty much the same as anything in life. There are no guarantees, no sure things, no re-dos and certainly no magic wands. There are, however, enough fantastic moments to keep me going back for more as long as I am able. I have met the most wonderful people, traveled to places in luxurious locations, been wined and dined in a fashion that I could never afford otherwise and I've won some pretty great prizes. I've dragged my family along this journey - sometimes kicking and screaming - and loved watching their joy and smiling faces when they finally admitted that, yeah, all that humiliation was worth it. With each cook-off, I'm constantly learning things that will help me in future cook-offs. One big tip I just learned last week was I never really had to worry about keeping those buns hot and toasty ... the sun and 100-dregree temps did that all on their own.
In a few days I'm off to New York for the Ocean Spray Ultimate Cranberry Recipe Contest Cook-Off. I'm sure there will be no 100-degree temps or grills-on-steroids to worry about, but I'm also sure that this will not be the perfect cook-off either. The only thing I can always be sure about is that I will have a great time and bring home some unforgettable memories.