In a year when much attention focused on Rio for the Summer Olympic Games, another group of competitors moved to a brand new venue to compete in a competition called the World Food Championships.
The World Food Championships is a world-class food competition that pits restaurant chefs against award-winning home cooks and recipe developers and championship barbecue teams from around the globe. It’s a level playing field in the world of food where the prize is cash – and lots of it. And this year, for the first time, the competition was held at The Wharf in (mostly) sunny Orange Beach, Alabama.
The Blogger Summit
Before the main event, a group of bloggers and food writers from across the country arrived in Orange Beach for a bit of a pre-game show. It would be hard to find a better setting than the views from Turquoise Place. Over several hours of workshops and speakers, we heard tremendously interesting food content from representatives from a number of household name food brands.
Among the most interesting was Ted Wampler, Jr., owner of Wampler’s Sausage in Tennessee. Despite what we all presumed to be his topic, he didn’t teach us about their sausage… but about the green technology they’re using to power their entire operation on trash and switchgrass. They’re going so green in middle Tennessee that they can spin the power meter backwards putting power back onto the grid out of his manufacturing facility!
Foodie Field Trips in South Alabama
The most engaging aspect of the summit was a trip to Bayou la Batre, Alabama, southwest of Mobile made famous as the filming sight of the movie, Forrest Gump. We discovered a flourishing seafood industry that supplying fresh seafood to the Southeastern U.S. – and the entire country and beyond.
While there, we learned about oyster farming at Murder Point Oyster Farm from “Dr. Oyster” himself, Dr. Bill Walton, from Auburn University. Then, oyster farmer Lane Zirlott explained how the variations in water salinity affect the flavor of the oysters.
Then Zirlott handed us his “butter love” oysters right out of the water. You can’t get any fresher than that! Truly a highlight of my entire trip to World Food Championships. It was a delight to see the baskets of oysters hoisted to the dock and shucked by the farmer and quickly passed to the group. There was no hot sauce, crackers or the like – just us and the oysters. Plump. Cupped perfectly. Sweet butter love. So good.
Our next stop was Graham Shrimp Co., where owner Ernie Anderson walked us thru their processing line where wild American shrimp are handled with the care of an artist from the moment they’re caught to the dock thru the cleaning, sorting and packaging – all with an unmatched effort to preserve the sweetness and integrity of the shrimp meat. Anderson specializes in offering a unique head-on IQF shrimp product that is handled in a manner second to none – and graded for size consistency to meet the needs of discriminating chefs and consumers.
Later, we feasted on a plethora of Alabama Seafood provided for us by the locals there in Bayou la Batre where they’ve got quite an arsenal of fresh seafood at their disposal with fresh oysters, crabs, fish and shrimp all being brought on shore in this quaint coastal village.
The Main Event
After the summer, our entire team arrived just in time for the main event: The 2016 World Food Championships. The “kitchen stadium” is an enormous collection of complete cooking stations lined up side by side and back to back under an enormous outdoor circus-type tent. The floor was slightly graveled and mixed with hay after rain on the first day to keep things dry and comfortable under the tent. And with a flurry of intensity, the competitors fired up their cooking stations and worked to beat the clock in their appointed challenges.
Chefs and cooks competed in divisional challenges first such as Desserts, Bacon, Seafood, Steak, Sandwich, Burger, Breakfast, BBQ, and Recipe where semi-finals moved to a final round where cash and prizes awaited divisional winners – and where the first place moved on to compete at The Final Table against the other divisional winners. We watched each day as some incredible plates came out of those kitchens and into the judges’ tents. Some dreams were shattered until next year as few remained alive through the second round.
The Tasting Village
Competitors and fans alike strolled through the Tasting Village. Eat Y’all had five tents with tasting stations alongside about a dozen more tasting tents in the village. The crowds were terrific with thousands a day coming thru to try the smorgasbord that we served. Among the offerings over the three days were grilled PB&Js sprinkled with powdered sugar, local farm cheeses and chocolate milk, Sweet Magnolia gelato, rice from Two Brooks Farms Mississippi Blue Rice label and Simmons Catfish dishes like Smoked Catfish Dip and Catfish and Vegetables prepared by Chef David Dickensauge from Corks & Cleaver in Mississippi.
It was quite a job to get that much food prepped and ready for the crowds each day, but we enjoyed the challenge. Even better, we also enjoyed visiting with some of our neighbors in the Tasting Village.
My favorite find of the week was probably Will Stitt of Bill-e’s Small Batch Bacon from Fairhope, Alabama. He’ll tell you how to remember his name if you ever meet him, and I won’t spoil that for you.
If you’ve never been to Fairhope to see Will, you’re missing out. I know because I went there just a week or so after the World Food Championships to see what it was all about.
Will owns the Old 27 Grill outside of Fairhope, and in a small room behind the stage, he has a row of smokers. And amazing bacon is made there.
Each week, he smokes pork bellies to the tunes of the songwriters playing on the stage that shares a wall with the smokehouse. Maybe there’s some magic in that little stage. I know this: it’s the best bacon I’ve ever had. And in case you don’t trust my credentials: yes, I’ve had a few strips in my life.
If you don’t cook the bacon enough (i.e. to at least moderately crispy), it’s almost got too much smoke. But as the bacon crisps up, it retains that hickory smoke – just the right amount. Pair that with thick meaty strips and a story in every bite, and it’s as good as it comes.
The Final Table
Ultimately the winner of the Final Table was was Kari Luke with her stunning rib-eye steak. Luke – who regularly competes as part of a KCBS team called “It’s 5 o’clock Somewhere” – took home the $100,000 grand prize check. Thousands of people visited Orange Beach over those ten days – many for the first time to the region. Orange Beach was a fabulous host and for early November, I can’t think of a better place to host such a competition.