Ever since Madison’s local Chef Tory Miller beat Iron Chef Bobby Flay in a head-to-head contest on the Food Network, people have been talking about competitive cooking with a bit of local pride mixed in. This is the emerging world of competitive cooking, where cooking meets competition in a festive atmosphere. Communities are capitalizing on food events as a draw for visitors.
Competitive cooking can feature celebrity chefs and last-minute ingredients or a single ingredient that inspires the professional or amateur chef to concoct a new or signature version of a standard dish. Think chili and barbecue competitions. And for an amateur who has been told that they should enter a competition, local, county, and state fairs offer an opportunity to earn personal gratification and bragging rights.
Every state seems to have at least one competition that challenges chefs to reinvent recipes for a well-known state ingredient, food product, or dish. Think bourbon in Kentucky, seafood in Maine, and grilled cheese in Wisconsin!
The next Wisconsin Grilled Cheese Championship will be held in Dodgeville, April 27. There will be professional, amateur, and youth competitors, and spectators may cheer the chefs on. All entries are required to contain 60 percent Wisconsin cheese. Competition categories run from the classic grilled cheese and build up to dessert.
This is a great for families. Not only does the featured dish resonate with younger eaters, but they’ll also appreciate the youth chef category.
For barbeque contests, you just need to find one of the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) sanctioned events and watch the pros. The title of barbeque champion has to be one of the most sought-after titles in the country. Barbecue, with its roots in the Caribbean, features cooking with indirect heat while grilling uses direct heat.
KCBS holds a series of competitions—the NASCAR of barbecue. Competing in one of these events has become a real team sport. Teams have some pretty creative names and uniforms (branded t-shirts) for the fierce competition.
In 2018, out-of-town teams dominated the Manawa-based event with our homegrown Croix Valley Sauces coming in ninth overall. Croix Valley Sauces, with their winged pig shield, has a variety of barbecue, tailgate, and grill-related products: Croix Valley Foods. They started as a northwoods steakhouse, and customers kept suggesting they bottle that sauce—so they did. Entering barbeque competitions has only improved their brand recognition. Be at the next Wisconsin event to pick up some tips from the pros and cheer on our local competitors.
For a unique take on cooking beef, travel to Minocqua for the Beef-A-Rama. The event started in 1964 as Fishorama to celebrate the season’s opening day, but it evolved into a beef celebration, and the community never looked back. Chefs start cooking their signature beef dishes before dawn and are judged midday.
The community offers many activities and music to keep you entertained, such as the cow pie plop. It’s a game of chance for where will the cow poop land in a gridded paddock area. You buy a deed for a space in the paddock and then hope the cow likes your real estate. Part cooking competition, part street festival, Beef-A-Rama is for the entire family. And make sure you wear your best cow-themed accessories.
For a less-formal competition, but one that still earns bragging rights, enter a chili competition, such as the long-standing Wisconsin State Chili Cookoff in Green Lake. If you’re not competing, you can be a spectator, taster, and judge—Green Lake’s event features a People’s Choice award. Bid high for your favorite batch of chili at the end of the day to take it home.
But don’t underestimate the competition at this event—it’s a qualifier for the International Chili Society World Championship.
Do you have a signature pie or cookie? A favorite pickle, condiment, or jam recipe? Enter them at the Wisconsin State Fair. The rules are pretty specific, so read them once and then read them again. Make sure that you have all the required elements of the category. Culinary days at the fair include judging categories for yeast breads, quick breads, fresh fruits and veggies, cookies and bars, pies, and canning. Your budding chef may want to enter the Kids Culinary Challenge.
A new event introduced in 2018 and sponsored by Patrick Cudahy LLC was the Bacon Tailgate Bake Off. The key ingredient: minimum one pound of Patrick Cudahy bacon. Who can resist this competition?
The fair offers true amateur competition, but be prepared to share your secrets. One of the entry requirements is a copy of your recipe that the fair gets to publish.
You can be a spectator or a competitor at a food event, but don’t just stay home. Get your firsthand food sport experience and maybe even pick up a tip or two for your own cooking.
Liz Wessel is the owner of Green Concierge Travel, which has information for honeymoons and other ecotravel at greenconciergetravel.com .