Battle of the Food Champs

Alberta cooks compete at the World Food Championships

by Milena Santoro

Woodwork’s Lindsay Porter with her Tomahawk steak

Back in July, 120 competitors from all ends of Canada gathered in Edmonton for the Canadian Food Championships. The competition, open to both professionals and hobbyists, allows home cooks to sear, sauté and slice alongside top-rated professional chefs.

The prize? Cash, plus entry to the World Food Championships (WFC) in Orange Beach, Alabama last November.

My connection? I am an Events Edmonton board member and chair of the Canadian Food Championships. Most importantly, I am a lover of food who will take any opportunity to taste good eats.

At WFC there were 430 teams from 14 countries and 48 states hoping to win some of the $300,000 in competition money. Our Canadian team was the largest contingent, next to the Americans. We sent 21 competitors of which an amazing 12 were Albertans.

WFC is the largest culinary competition in North America, as far as I know and still growing. There were six categories in the Canadian championships; burgers, steak, sandwiches, dessert, seafood and the all-time favourite, bacon. The World Championships add three more categories, barbecue, chili and recipe.

I met competitors who had travelled more than 30 hours to participate in this showdown. People from South Africa, Germany, Japan and even some of my fellow Italians were there. But then again, we are everywhere!

These folks came from varied backgrounds and experiences. Some were professionals who had competed on shows such as Chopped. Others were home cooks competing for the very first time at this level. I asked them why they wanted to compete. Most said they loved cooking and food sport. The competition provided a platform where they could reach new levels in their cooking, meet like-minded people, exchange ideas and have fun. If they won, that would just be a bonus.

Everybody was cheering for Jonathan Giovanonni, the 13-year-old cancer survivor from Spruce Grove (and recent Chopped Canada Junior winner). Competing in Alabama was an opportunity to do what he loves.

Each competitor had a nine by nine foot space in the outdoor kitchen to work in. Every competitor was supplied with basic equipment and pantry items as well as a list of stores. There were also several ingredients supplied by various local sponsors, such as Bubba’s Burgers and Hormel Black Label Bacon. Each competitor had to provide a recipe card for each dish, detailing ingredients and preparation methods.

Our Canadian team faced many challenges. The moist Gulf Coast air made it difficult to dry fresh pasta or maintain the integrity of dessert items. Procuring specific ingredients was sometimes difficult. None of the markets had fresh thyme, so the search was on for dried thyme. Another contestant needed quail eggs. It took two hours to locate these only to find that they were rotten.

The World Championship is staged tournament style. For the first round, contestants had to produce two dishes in all categories. Cooks had an hour and ten minutes to produce the first dish. To create an even playing field the dish and the main ingredients were specified. For example, the burger entry had to be a Polynesian-style burger with fresh pineapple and teriyaki sauce and the steak Oscar had to be the classic recipe with asparagus, lump crabmeat and béarnaise sauce.

The contest rules specifically details garnishes, accompaniments and quantities. The chefs had to provide one presentation platter to display creations in their full glory as well as five tasting plates for the judges. Entrants were allowed to bring their own plates as long as they met specifications, such as a height restriction for both food and stemware. These rules were to prevent disasters during the fast run to the judging area.
The second item was the chef ’s choice signature dish. Winners moved on to the final round, which required them to produce a dish containing a specific infused ingredient; the bacon dishes required chocolate and the burgers, bourbon.

The judges had undergone training in the E.A.T. (35 per cent for execution, 15 per cent for appearance and 50 per cent for taste) methodology developed by the World Food Championships. They were under strict instructions to not let personal bias interfere.

How did our Albertan competitors fare? Russell Bird, an amateur cook, placed second in the bacon category. Shannon Minor (sous chef at Woodwork) placed ninth in the sandwich category and Jesse Woodland (sous chef, Chartier) placed tenth in the seafood category. (All scores can be found at worldfoodchampionships.com.)

I made sure to taste the Canadian competitors’ dishes. I still dream about the Chocolate Mole Sriracha Burger by Russell Bird (and his sous chef/ father- in-law Ron Yoneda): Wagyu beef, a bacon lattice weave (which sealed the deal for me) cheddar cheese, tomato, avocado, tempura jalapenos and pickles plus a bacon-wrapped fried onion ring on a toasted brioche bun slathered with butter and bacon fat. Holy Bacon, it was amazing!

Shannon Minor’s dish (prepared with sous chef/sister Ang Minor) was the Mighty Papawich: tasty layers of bacon cake, sunny side up egg, homemade beer cheese, maple and mustard pork tenderloin and arugula with a cheddar and thyme biscuit and citrus aioli. The sandwich was named after their father, who encouraged Shannon to see where her love of cooking would take her. It took her to 9th place at Worlds.

Jesse Woodland’s Creole Bombe.

Jesse Woodland’s dish was called the Creole Bombe: blackened cod cake filled with creole chicken, shrimp and lobster with saffron rice and sweet pea puree. For a fish lover like me, this was a stellar combination of flavours.

Lindsay Porter’s (Woodwork) take on surf and turf involved a humongous Tomahawk steak (a showy bone-in ribeye; she prefers the fat content and high-quality flavour of that cut) grilled over charcoal, served with smoked mashed potatoes and finished with jumbo grilled shrimp and a sweet and spicy aioli. I seriously died and went to heaven.
There is always room for dessert. Jocelyn Bird placed 13th with her ode to the classic milkshake, classed up with French macaroons and chocolate-covered strawberries.

I’m so proud of the tremendous support and encouragement the Canadian contingent gave to each other. But truly, the golden ticket was the opportunity for our cooks to compete on a world stage, to learn from all the other competitors and to strive to be an even more fantastic cook.

Milena Santoro is on a detox after eating too much shrimp and grits in Alabama.

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