I’m finally back in California, where the weather has dipped into the high 50s at nighttime and the wonderful lack of humidity limits my showers to one a day. I’m exhilarated, exhausted, and trying my darndest not to fall asleep at my desk as I type these words…
But there’s so much news to share that there’s really no good way to ease into it, so I’ll just say it:
Um, guys–I just won the 2015 World Recipe Championship.
Let me back up. As most of you know, I was away all of last week to compete in this year’s World Food Championships in Kissimmee, Florida. While we were certainly there for the competition, my family had tons of other things planned–5 days of Disney World and another day at Universal Studios, to be exact–and originally anticipated taking only Thursday (11/5) off so that I could compete. Little did we know what mad adventures awaited us over the next few days!
On Thursday morning, we arrived early at 6:30 AM to set up in the arena. The whole scene was a bit overwhelming, which is not surprising since the Kenmore Kitchen Arena is the largest outdoor cooking arena in the world. With over 50 cooking stations set up–complete with prep areas, every appliance you could ever dream of using, and the most amazing convection ovens I have ever laid my grubby grad student paws on, this gorgeous place was enough to turn any girl’s head!
Fortunately, there is no team in town quite like my family to keep my head from spinning off my shoulders. Within an hour we were all set up: two suitcases’ worth of dishes, pots, pans, utensils, and ingredients magically sprang up around our station, mostly thanks to my sous chef pro tempore brother, who took charge of all the nitty-gritty details that I overlook in the kitchen when I get excited. After a brief cooks’ meeting that oozed of Master Chef bravado (for the record, WFC will be broadcast as a six-episode reality TV cook-off show, details TBD), we were sent back to our stations–the starting bell rang–and absolute mayhem broke out all around us.
I say “all around us” because, in the midst of what seemed to be self-contained chaos at every station, my brother and I were–well, we were having one heck of a time, frankly. It’s not often that you get to pull your older brother into your kitchen and boss him around and still share enough general excitement with him to do stupid dance moves together in the middle of an international cooking competition. I had practiced the dishes enough times to know that we were right on schedule: Round 1 consisted of a structured build that required the use of an infused ingredient–corn–while Round 2 could be any signature dish that fit into the theme of “Fresh.” We had an hour each and turned in our sampling trays with 5 minutes to spare and promptly did flour-covered high fives all around:
Round 1: Japanese souffle cheesecake with corn bourbon cinnamon creme anglaise
Round 2: Steamed Chinese coconut poke cake with strawberry gelee
After the competition ended, my family–bless their hearts–actually contemplated going to Disney World, and I am so glad we ended up opting out in favor of a giant, well-deserved nap. And I gave my brother a t-rex t-shirt that says: “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your…….oh” because he loves dinosaurs and my kitchen would have literally crashed and burned without him around to keep me from forgetting about the candied walnuts on the stovetop. Meanwhile, my mom and dad (who also deserve waaaaay more than t-shirts) tackled the daunting task of washing and laundering two suitcases’ worth of my kitchen crap. One huge shut-eye later, we piled sleepily into the car and drove back to the arena for the opening round awards ceremony, where they would be announcing the contestants who would move onto the final category round.
One of the really cool things about the food sport community is that it truly is a community. Everybody in it knows everybody else, and I found that when WFC president Mike McCloud took the stage to announce category winners, he had a story or personal connection to go along with just about every name that he listed to the crowd. We listened with interest as he rattled off the names of the Recipe finalists: #10 had moved up from #18 after her second dish, #9 was a familiar friend of Mike’s, and so forth–by which time, we had so little thought of qualifying for the next round that I was hardly paying attention when a voice from the stage called my name (or some version of it).
Number five. I had qualified!
The roar of my brother’s exultant yelling rang in my ears as I hurried up to the stage, hounded by cameras–and the rest is, as they say, history.
The rest was history–or so we thought. Because none of us had anticipated so much as eking past the first round, we had a lot of prep to do between Thursday evening and Saturday morning. We had thrown out virtually all of my supplies, which meant that a raid on the nearest Super Target was in order late that night. And another confession: I didn’t have a speck of an idea what I was going to make. The lovely folks at Duda Celery were sponsoring the finals round, meaning I needed to come up with something to do with celery, and quick. I tried to imagine what everyone else would be making–salsas? Meats? Savory appetizers? We had two hours this time to perfect our creations, so I knew it needed to be more than a simple throw-on. In the end, I decided to create an amalgation of some of my favorite desserts: a spiced celery butter rum cake with a cheesecake bottom and candied walnuts & a celery garnish of sorts on top. Then we crossed our fingers and prayed really, really hard.
Okay, that’s not how it really happened. We went back to the apartment that night and immediately set to making this Frankensteinian monster work. When the cake came out of the oven, it was far too moist, though the edges were already done–but then the butter rum went on and oh. my. word. Paired with the cheesecake on the bottom in lieu of a traditional cream cheese frosting, this celery cake knocked carrot cake out of the park and forever made sacred the unassuming vegetable. Who’d’a thunk, huh?
We were far more tired come Saturday morning, when yet another 7 AM role call dragged us out of our beds and into the arena. We were shuffled into the second-to-last station (since we were the last ones there), but that was the best thing that could have happened to us because our neighbor turned out to be the loveliest lady in the world, a home cook named Lori who, I later learned, makes the meanest celery fritter on Earth. She was full of vibrance and good-natured charm, making us feel right at home as we jumped into the fray of a Top 10 competition.
Let me qualify the word”fray”–we had just enough extra time on our hands that my brother wanted to use the celery to make Ants on a Log. Thankfully, we still had some experimentation to round out with the celery garnish and spent most of our time testing different variations while the rest of the cakes baked up. We ended up settling on stir-fried celery with just a dash of butter rum sauce to caramelize the celery bits, which helped retain that bite of sweet freshness I wanted to top off the cake. While that cooked up, I also made my first ever attempt at spinning sugar in the 90% humidity of Florida weather–never a good idea, but fools who know no better will try it anyway, and–it worked! We turned in the dishes with a few minutes to spare, gave away all of our supplies, and–yes–went to Magic Kingdom for the afternoon.
Yes, my family and I are totally woven from the same cloth.
Granted, we were all so sleepy in Disney World that we nearly fell asleep standing up, and by 2 PM we finally conceded defeat and trekked back to the condo for a humongous nap. Our dad (who, yet again, washed every single dish in the place) woke us up just in time for the second awards ceremony, and we hauled our butts to the car. The plan at that point was to nip in until the Recipe category results were announced, then make our way back to the Magic Kingdom for evening fireworks.
Oh ho. ho. ho. ho. It was not to be.
A funny thing happened when they began making announcements. By some weird trick of the ear, both my brother and I thought that they were announcing the Recipe category finalist order–so when numbers ten through five were listed without even a mention of my name, we flew into something of a frenzy. Top five!!! Of course, by the time numbers three and two rolled around, we realized suddenly that we didn’t recognize any of the names they were listing…..and lo and behold, it was the Chili category. Not the recipe one. Anyone else intent on winning the championship would have been mortified, but we just started cracking up so loud at our mistake that the people around us edged away warily. Not that we cared.
Finally, the Recipe category came up and they called all of the finalists onto the stage. I don’t know whether it’s the fact that the competition is styled as a reality show, but those fraught silences you hear on TV actually do happen in real life. And the number three Recipe finalist is……..wait for it……
My lovely friend Lidia!
Did I tell you about Lidia? I met her during the finals cooks’ meeting, and she’s just about the most wonderful, smiley person on Earth. Her son came with her as her sous-chef, and I couldn’t be more happy about somebody winning than for her. I loved the look of utter shock and joy that lit up her face as she stepped forward to receive her prize.
The team on our left (not Lori’s, but Veronica’s) during the competition took home second–and (I apparently have a bad habit for doing this) while I was still beaming around at both of the winners, somebody thrust a giant plaque under my nose. A pair of thin arms enveloped me (they were Lori’s) as I realized that Mike McCloud was grinning at me and calling out my name.
The photos here say what I can’t quite describe–a feeling somewhere caught between disbelief and joy and tears coursed through my body and turned my legs to jello as they pushed me up to the front of the stage, under all of the scorching spotlights and winking cameras. I remember responding to questions in the microphone about my sous chef, but that’s about it. By the time I had finished wobbling off the stage and being pulled aside for an on-camera interview, my parents had arrived in front of the stage as well. The silent, overjoyed disbelief as my dad thumped me on the back and my mom pushed my hair aside–as my brother just sort of grinned and took pictures (he told me later that he had roared so loud that everyone around him stared)–was by far my favorite moment of the night. That, and my mom telling me that the first thing she said to my dad when they heard my name was: “Oh NO…our vacation!”
We all had tons of plans to move around as a result of this completely unexpected curve ball. My brother, who was fairly worn down by this time with sous-chefing (not that I blame him), booked a new flight for both of us, while my parents had to cancel their cruise to the Bahamas and find a new condo for the next few nights. (My mom later justified the cruise cancellation when she learned that a hurricane was pretty much storming right underneath the cruise ship, and that it would have been a ride from Hell at any rate.) We went on yet another grocery store run, though we did manage to squeeze in a visit to both Harry Potter World (WHICH IS AWESOME) the Epcot’s Food and Wine Festival over the weekend. I also got to do a scheduled interview with the lovely television crew putting all of this together, which was a surprisingly fun and laidback experience.
The only thing my dad kept repeating as I went into this final round, to compete against professional chefs and restraunteurs, was: “Remember. Just have fun.”
With three hours during this final table round and cameras under our very noses, my brother and I set out to finish the final leg of the marathon. With a few tweaks here and there, I was recreating the celery butter rum cake from my finals’ round, so we weren’t too worried about time. At one point, the president called us over and pranked everyone by suggesting there would be a surprise mystery ingredient, but otherwise it was smiles around at our station when time was finally called and we brought the final trays up to the judges’ table. I was third to go up and explain what I had made for the judges, who were a group of the most generous folks a new-comer like me could ask for. They asked why I had decided to spin sugar on the presentation dish but not on their tasting portions, and made a fair point later on about the cheesecake’s slight crumbliness. Beyond those comments, however, they also told me how fun it was to see me in the kitchen, and one of the judges even congratulated me on getting so far in my very first large-scale cooking competition. If their graciousness surprised me at first, it made me incredibly happy to know that I was sitting in the presence of individuals who are so passionate about what they do, and have devoted their lives to connecting with other people who love food as much as they do.
I won’t go into detail about all of the other contestants–all of them looked so impressive going up onto that final stage that I couldn’t help feeling awed just to be seated there–but in the end BBQ took first, Bacon second, and Burger third. All meats! And amidst the whole affair, I don’t think I could have been grinning any wider.
Because we came. We saw. We had fun.
And that, my friends, is how the cookie crumbles.
As for the aftermath? Well, it turns out I had placed far beyond my expectations–5th place overall!!–and that meant celebration with the family immediately afterward. Of course, we were all so dead on our feet by that time that we could hardly trudge through dinner before promptly collapsing onto our beds back at the condo. At 4 AM the next morning, we pulled our sorry selves out of bed and made our way to the airport, where my brother and I boarded a 5-hour flight back home so that we would return in time to go to work and grade exams, respectively. If there’s one thing for sure, it’s that I definitely owe this crazy family a new (and real) vacation!
As for thoughts concerning what it was like to win part of an international food championship: I hope it’s not a cop-out to say that it really hasn’t fully sunk in yet. One of the loveliest surprises upon resuming my daily life was realizing just how many people it had taken to make even this chance encounter possible–I’ve been absolutely blown away by the support and excitement my friends have shown me since I’ve gotten back! From friends and family who had spent tireless hours helping me taste-test food and making suggestions for new recipe ideas, to all the tireless volunteers and camera crews at the event itself, it’s humbling to think how so many little gestures can culminate in one amazing, unexpected whole. I started this adventure without the faintest inkling that it would end the way it did–but I wouldn’t change a thing, not for the world. So thank you all–readers, friends, family, and everyone else out there–for helping make this experience possible! Please come over for milk and cookies as soon as possible, okay? 🙂
Life goes on here as usual. Minus the fact that apparently all of my totally sweet students now know about my exploits in the WFC and have been perusing my blog (hello, hello!), teaching and lesson planning and blogging and trying to figure out whether or not the meaning of life is really 42, continues. Yet this whole experience has transformed my way of thinking about what I do as a food blogger; it has expanded my appreciation and love for my family, without whose support I might as well have summoned the apocalypse; and above all, it has reaffirmed my confidence that no matter what life throws at us, it really is possible to face it with a smile, and with just a few simple words to guide us through.
Just have fun.
Thank you all for accompanying me on this incredible journey!!!