If you have been following my Instagram or Twitter accounts, you have likely heard me buzzing about the California Strawberry Festival in Oxnard. I’m so excited to finally be able to share the whole, honest, and exhilarating story with you guys! I would LOVE to hear your thoughts, so please take a chance to drop a note!
One of the immense luxuries of being a food blogger is the ability to regulate your online presence and to carefully curate the public’s access to your day-to-day activities. Unlike celebrity chefs and basically anyone whose job requires interpersonal communication, I spend most of my working day where I’m most comfortable: behind a computer screen, heard but unseen, sounding incredibly witty (hypothetically speaking, at least) and yet sporting an unwashed pair of Imagineering sweatpants with brownie batter stains from the night before spattered down the right leg.
Well, all that glorious privilege went out the window this weekend when I competed in the 2015 California Strawberry Festival Berry Blast Cook-Off Competition: and–get this–took home the grand prize! I’m SO thrilled to announce that I will be competing in this year’s World Food Championships in November in Florida. In the meantime, we will be deciding where we want to spend our vacation getaway prize, and there is currently a $1400 Cutco knife set sitting in my kitchen, which is like $1385 more worth of cutlery than I have owned in my impoverished life, ever. If that wasn’t enough, the Daily Bruin has published a full article-length spotlight on my work and my blog this week. So yeah–this is all kinda crazy!
This was my first time ever entering a cooking competition, and what follows is my transparent, complete account of that entire incredible (and still hard to believe!) experience. I’ll just note that none of the thoughts expressed here reflect on, or in any way attempt to represent, those of the California Strawberry Festival. If you’re short on time, I’d suggest skipping ahead to the FESTIVAL and AFTERMATH sections of this post for a quick(er) read.
There is ALWAYS time for smiling. If you can’t find the time, please make your own
My foray into this year’s Berry Blast Cook-Off Competition was more like a tumble: at the beginning of April, my friend texted me about this recipe contest with the message, “You should enter!“
Of course, in typical fashion, I sent a big “yeah okay!”, opened up my (um) Neopets browser, and promptly forgot about the whole thing for the next three weeks.
Now if there’s one thing I’m incredibly thankful for, it’s my friends, and you’re going to hear a heckofalot about them here today (THANK YOU GUYS, ARE YOU READING THIS BECAUSE YOU’RE FAMOUS). On April 9th, the night before the contest deadline, my friend texted me again: “Hey. Have you entered?!”
Gotta love him for his pertanicity, I’ll give you that much.
So at around 2 AM that night, I finally flopped down at my computer (well, I stood with drooping shoulders at it–mine is a bright red standing desk) and began looking over the rules. They were simple enough: a dish that could be created in 1 hour flat, included strawberries, and……did not involve an oven or any kind of baking.
I vaguely recall being tempted at that point to just hit the sack (it was, after all, 2 frickin’ 30 AM) and forget about the entire thing–but of course, a minute later my mind was ablaze with the fire of whatever makes a thousand suns burn at the same time in Shakespearean literature. If there’s one bright spot to being a grad student, it’s that you learn to make do with never-enough–one summer, I owned exactly one plate, knife, spoon, and pair of chopsticks–so I racked my brain for baking shortcuts that I had used before when I couldn’t afford to turn on my oven all the time. My first thought was the microwave mug cake, but those can be finicky and don’t always yield the fluffiness that I wanted if I was going to make a cake. No, there had to be another way–something tried and true, something simple yet reliable…
And that’s when it hit me. In the wise words of one of my friends many years ago:
When in doubt, just steam the crap out of it.
And thus this steamed cake was born.
Entry: Steamed Strawberry Coconut Poke Cake
SEMIFINALS: THE INDUSTRIAL KITCHEN COOK-OFF
One time my parents decided to celebrate our Christmas vacation by going all-out and took us kids to a 5-star restaurant nestled in the far reaches of New Orleans. When I say “kids,” by the way, I mean that this happened about four years ago. As we drove up, my dad kept muttering the same thing over and over again to us in the back seat: “Don’t stare and gape when you get inside, okay?” And our repeated response: “Okay, okay.”
Well, he didn’t have to worry about a thing, because I didn’t last even to the immaculate curb of the restaurant. As soon as we pulled up, the valet strode over to our car with their neat white-gloved hands at the ready and whisked our doors open before I could even reach for the handle. If my jaw didn’t hit the floor, it was only because my head was tilted back so far in surprise that my jaw would have sooner flown over the top of my face instead.
Daddy, I’m sorry I made you facepalm in front of a five-star restaurant. I really, really am.
I relived that entire jaw-dropping experience (minus my dad facepalming) when I stepped into the hotel’s industrial kitchen in Oxnard. Frankly, the most pristine cooking equipment I had personally used up until that point had been my friend’s KitchenAid stand mixer, and even then I had been terrified of it ripping an amateur like me to shreds with its gnarly professional-grade steel (it didn’t–but it was a close call). I’m talking enormous commercial stoves, shelves lined with bulk spices, 1000 salad plates (who knew we owned 1000??), and bright shiny wide counters as far as the eye could see…
My stash. My super dupah fancy Mickey Mouse spoon is hiding somewhere beneath my mess…
I got there early, so I decided to set up my stuff and ask the extremely nice executive chef, Chuy, to help me figure out how to use the equipment and navigate the kitchen. Once that was done, I still had an hour to kill, so my friend and slipped out for a stroll around the area.
By then, the kitchen was buzzing with activity: the other entrants had arrived, and one by one I went through and met the lovely ladies. There were five of us in all: one runner-up from last year’s contest, one who declared herself Bacon Babe and was dressed in her full Bacon Queen tiara/sash/heels getup, a transfer student from Germany, and a lovely lady named Brenda, with whom I shared the work space behind me. (We chatted before, after, and even during the competition–though I haven’t seen her since, I’m totally wishing her the best!)
I thought I’d be more nervous – but once the timer actually started, it was easy to slip back into the zone and let the rest of the bustling scene melt away into the background. Suddenly I was back in my own kitchen again, whipping the holy heck out of some eggs with my hand mixer and humming “Dancing in the Moonlight” to myself as I danced around from counter to counter. Whenever my mind jolted back to reality, which it did every time a reporter came over to ask what I was doing, I would take a mini-break and peer around at what everybody else was doing – if I had it my way, I probably would’ve left my station altogether and simply poked my nose around like Aunt Petunia in her neighbors’ wilted flowerbeds instead of cooked. (Ten points to use you get the reference!) Even with my easily distracted brain, though, in the end I finished making and plating my dish with a good 15 minutes to spare, so I lurked around trying to look as inconspicuous as possible and ended up just Instagramming food photos while everyone brought their dishes into the judging room.
Long story short: at the end of about an hour, during which time we each one in turn to present and serve our dishes to the judges, we were all called back to the judging room and the semifinalist placers were announced. I heard the names of last year’s runner-up, Brenda, and the transfer student, which left….
Mind-numbing, paralytic shock. No way–I was going to the festival!
KEYT, the local news channel, did a great little piece on the process and results: you can see the short video here. (Please notice me trying – and feeling – to remove my steamed sponge cake from its ramekin while the cameras were trained on me. Also note how I subsequently hide said ramekin from camera sight by covering it discreetly with a towel…)
It’s sponge cake steaming time!
FINALS: THE FESTIVAL
If I had to rank my life according to its most memorable moments, this experience would be up there near the top, right next to finding out I got into grad school, hugging Baymax, and discovering that wonderful feeling right before you begin to fall in love and only just realize that you hadn’t seen it coming at all. And I’ll give you a spoiler: it wasn’t about the outcome.
My friends and I arrived at the festival a few hours early to set up and make sure everything was in order (and okay, to gape and gawk at the VIP Pavilion, which is where my contestants’ tickets got us).
By 1 PM, the large tent was packed with eager, raptly attentive people waiting for the event to start. What happened next was probably just about the best thing I could’ve hoped for: the circuit overloaded and blew out the power.
Now while I’m not a big fan of crowds, one of my favorite parts of being a baker and blogger is getting to really connect with other people – so while we waited for a new generator, I topped off the stage and went around to some of the people sitting around on haystacks. That was probably my favorite part of the whole afternoon, listening to everyone’s stories and experiences and really getting to know them on a personal level. One couple, who had been sitting without speaking to each other and messing around on their phones, got really excited and started asking me all about how I got involved in the competition, what sort of recipe I would be sharing, and what my life as a blogger was like. I don’t even think I was aware of it at the time, but these serendipitous interactions calmed me in a way that face-to-face interaction alone can do. Before I knew it, the hour of waiting was up – suddenly I was being ushered back up on stage, a microphone nightmarishly hooked back onto my person, and cameras trained directly on us in front of a hundred odd strangers. In the split second before the countdown started, I saw my friends flash me thumbs-up signs from the side of the room – I flashed double thumbs-up back, and suddenly, without my knowing it, I was cooking!
The next 15 minutes passed in what I can only describe as an incomprehensible gust of wind: I was aware of the emcee, a wonderful comedian and chef, asking me questions on occasion about what I was doing and about my background in cooking; I must have answered him reasonably, or at least without profanity, because nobody sprinted up on stage to un-mic me in the middle of the family-friendly show. I remember floating almost dreamily between my prep station, on-stage cooking table, and the fridge, occasionally humming into the microphone and stopping short just before everybody heard me burst into the chorus of “A Whole New World.” I ended up switching off my microphone for about 75% of the competition – the audience was probably not thrilled with my lack of commentary, but if any one of them could have proved that my cooking would be significantly improved by my ability to wow an audience through speech, I would have gladly eaten my words right then and there. As it was, there was plenty of talking happening from the other side of the room, more than enough to cover up the silence that mingled discreetly with my concentration.
(Digression about microphones: for someone who admittedly likes talking, I really dislike microphones. There is no reason in holy hell that I would ever want to subject more than five people to the cadences, tone, and idiosyncrasies of my voice at any given time – but major props to those precious folks who just can’t get enough of the sound of their own voices projecting Almighty-status over the sound system!)
At 57 minutes, the cake had been steamed, soaked, topped with whipped cream, and plated. I was actually starting to wash my dishes in a makeshift sink (i.e. my mixing bowl) when the Bacon Babe (that’s the self-declared title of the other competitor, in case you forgot) put her things down as well. I was sweaty, and at a certain point it occurred to me that my hands were shaking – but we were done! We were done. Now all we could do was sit, wait, and (if you’re me) take silly pictures of our friends on our phone cameras:
Sometimes real life is so much better than the movies. In the movies, you can feel the buildup and you anticipate the plot twist: but nothing could have prepared any of us for what happened next. In spite of what seemed like a statistical impossibility (all of the judges were using a point-based, blind voting system for each of our dishes), in spite of the odds…
It was a tie.
What happened next was a whirlwind. The reporter asked me after the event how I felt about all of the proceedings: the fact that the emcee (who had tasted both dishes) ultimately deferred his decision to the audience, and that they had made a final decision based on everything they saw unfold over the past hour, without having tasted a bite. I’m going to repeat here what I told her, and that is simply this: that I didn’t envy the emcee’s job at that point; that I was in no position to judge what actions he took, since they were clearly to the best of his ability under extraordinarily difficult circumstances; and that, given the fact that there was no single solution that would have satisfied everyone, I was fully prepared to respect whatever decision to which he came.
So when the host announced that the tiebreaker would be broken by popular vote-by-cheering, I didn’t think twice. If he had told me that he wanted to flip a coin (which, in hindsight, I’m actually really glad he didn’t), I would have shook his hand and wished him fair game. While it might sound passive to say so, looking out at the audience – some smiling, some concerned, some unreadable – reminded me of exactly why I had come here in the first place. It wasn’t to win: it couldn’t have been to win, alone, because when I entered the Berry Blast contest I hadn’t even known there would be prizes or titles involved. I was here to make a connection, and I had done that already. As they say in that ill-fated movie, Moulin Rouge: come what may.
Here’s what happened:
It shouldn’t amuse me as much as it does now that while all of these thoughts were passing through my head, I had no idea that the decision process had already begun. At one point I heard some cheering and realized that the host had put his hand over the Bacon Babe’s crowned head; I looked quickly away, my eyes flitting back to the safety of the cluttered table in front of me. Faintly, in my muddled mind, I thought I heard the cheering died down – but suddenly there was an explosion of noise, that’s when the realization hit me.
There was no way I could top a roar like that. So that was it.
I hadn’t been chosen.
I had just lifted my head to reach over and shake her hand in congratulations when, over that loveliest of sound systems that is the bane of my existence, I heard an incredulous voice shrill: “Really? Really?“
I looked up quickly and my heart stopped.
The emcee’s hand wasn’t over her head. It was over mine.
My eyes darted back to the crowd for confirmation, and there it was, written in so many strangers’ beaming faces as the hands continued to applaud and the voices continued to cheer: approval.
If a Dementor had popped up at my table at that very moment, I could have expecto patronum’d the living shit out of it, pardon my French.
That was the crowning moment of the day. Not the prizes and the vacation getaway and the Cutco knives set–not what they called a “victory” or a title or even the ticket to the World Food Championships, which I honest-to-goodness had not heard of until the moment they handed me my qualifying ticket. No, that was not it at all.
I’m incredibly happy about the prize and honor of winning, of course, but it was the fact that an entire crowd of near-strangers was willing to support me on stage that made this afternoon an experience that I will never, ever forget. That, along with my friends jumping up and down to hug me once I had stumbled off the stage–my mom’s shriek of joy over the phone, a noise she has never made for any of my accomplishments, ever–the texts and messages and calls of support and happiness from the important people in my life–that is happiness.
And it’s a bright spot in my memory that I’ll carry with me not only to this year’s World Food Championship in November, but throughout my life as well.
“The audience overwhelmingly voted by clapping and shouting that Shih’s poke cake was the winner.” — VCStar, 05.16.15
Now that I’ve come to the end, you’re probably asking yourself: “But you said that you co-won this contest, after all. What happened?”
To be completely honest, I’m slightly frustrated that I can’t tell you in clear detail what went on behind the scenes. I would love to think (and still do believe) that everything was done according to the book, with an impartial eye for fairness – and again, I respect the final decision completely. I’m not here to dispute it in any way, and I’m not here to throw anything into disrepute, because clearly I loved working with all of the festival members and organizers a million times over. At the same time, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed with the process of resolution that followed the cook-off. With the conclusion of the event came a distribution of prizes, and I went over to shake hands with the Bacon Babe as well before we headed our separate ways.
Over 24 hours later, I received an unexpected phone call informing me (very professionally) that the previous by-audience decision had been reversed by a committee, who had been deliberating, and that the judges’ original decision of a tie had been upheld. There would be a public statement issued the next morning in the papers. Surprised, I discussed it briefly, thanked the member, and ended our call.
To my surprise, however, when I talked to a friend about the changes a few minutes later, he revealed that an official press release had already been printed about an hour prior to our phone conversation, officially announcing the reversed decision. Together, we sifted through and found a press-affiliated Tweet from even earlier that afternoon: it, too, confirmed the decision reversal. I suddenly felt hopelessly out of the loop, as if somebody close to me whom I trusted wholeheartedly had just announced on social media that they had gotten engaged, and only subsequently sent me a text about the big event. The other contestant (who had expressed considerable dissatisfaction through social media immediately after the initial outcome) had already reposted the press-affiliated Tweet on multiple social media outlets (and with complete confidence) soon after it appeared, which signaled to me that I was the only one floundering in the dark.
As a blogger, I share these thoughts because I respect the people and the organizers who put all of their effort into making moments like these work. The cooking world is an amazing world in which to be immersed, as this unparalleled experience has shown, and I have nothing but the deepest appreciation for that vision. I’m sure that nobody intended to pull the rug out from underneath anyone else, and I have complete faith in the integrity of an important (albeit delayed) decision. I only wish it could have been done in the right order, with the proper attention to communicating at the precise moment when communication was so integral to keeping things in the balance of fairness. I know that they are working through this (rightly) unanticipated bump in the road, though, and I’ve done my best to take it in stride as well–writing about it here gives me a chance to express thoughts that would have remained silenced otherwise, but it also gives me a chance to understand how much must have gone on behind the scenes during those 24 hours. To this end, I could not be more grateful for the experience that this amazing event has offered all of us–participants, supporters, and organizers alike, and I hope that they will continue to strengthen those lines of communication as needed.
Buying amazingly sweet, fresh strawberries by the half-flat after the competition
Post-festival celebratory treat: salted caramel ice cream with sea salt!
And let’s not forget: obligatory celebratory selfie.
I want to conclude this (insanely long-ass) post by expressing my gratitude for the AMAZING support systems who have helped keep me afloat when the light at the end of the tunnel seemed too distant to pinpoint; the countless folks who willingly put forth their palates to try (and retry, and retry) my recipes, and everyone else in between who has just been very much present in my life. This competition has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, all outcomes aside, and the one thing that this entire process has really driven home for me is how critical it is to build and appreciate your support system. I couldn’t have accomplished even a fraction of what I have without my friends and family behind me every step of the way, and to build rapport with an entire crowd of strangers in such a short time just shows how lucky I am to have such great mentors and role models in my life. So in my final words of all seriousness, all sappiness, especially to those of you who have born through that entire Frankensteinian post:
Come hit me up and I’ll send you cookies or something <3 (Just like, not all of you at once. Pretty please. Still living under poverty line kthxbye.)
Until the next fruitful post!
I’d love to hear your thoughts about the festival, from start to aftermath! Any insights?