The Austin Pork Experiment last Sunday was my very first, ever, competitive food experience. I must admit, that I was humbled by the many facets of the cookoff arena that I had not considered when planning my contribution. Though I would still stand by my dish, 100%, I think I have a better understanding now of what it really takes to win one of these contests. It's more than a great recipe, painstaking attention to detail, and good handle on flavor and texture. It takes showmanship, presentation, and a real ability to sell your food. Despite my many years in front of the house food service, I just don't have a knack for enticing folks to eat what I tell them to. That is, unless you give me a pen and paper. Anyway, without further ado, here's a little something I learned from my experience on Sunday.
People want to try what looks good, and is easy to get. At first, I was overly concerned with keeping every bite hot and fresh. Later, when we started putting bites out on the tray pre-assembled, folks started gobbling them up. More tastes = more votes.
A judge is a mysterious thing. It's hard to tell what will please the pros. The folks who bested me all had great dishes, but what set them apart from mine, I do not know. When three people are asked to choose their favorites in such a large venue, personal taste surely plays a part, as does expectation, and style. I have a feeling that working the crowd is a lot easier than working the judges.
Beer helps. Not only does it get the crowd into a more amiable mood, it helps me, the chef, loosen up a little and dish out some sass along with my samples. Go beer!
Be prepared. This is one area that I am happy to say I delivered on. My time at The Community Culinary School certainly paid off in my learning to plan portion sizes, and knowing what equipment and supplies to bring, and what to leave behind. We used almost every item that I brought, and needed nothing that I didn't. Planning, check.
Put on a show. The fellows next to me called themselves the Holy Smokers. These guys had it all. Their food was good, their concept was unique, and man, were they likable. Everybody loved them. They got the crowd to stop at their table, an important step in and of itself, one that I definitely did not have in my pocket. Once they got someone at their table they kept them there, insisting that they eat their bite then and there. I'm sure they gave out the most bites out of any other table. What's more, they made themselves and subsequently, their dish, totally unforgettable. And guess what? They won the crowd vote.
Don't be afraid to ask for help. You can't lean on everyone all the time, but it's good to know that when opportunity strikes you do have people you can depend on to help pull something like this off. My sister, Sarah, was with me all day at The Pork Experiment, despite the fact that she is a very dedicated VEGETARIAN. The spirit of helping was not unique to our table, but was present in many of the other teams, including the Phillipino sister duo that won two separate prizes that day with their amazing mole. We chefs also leaned on eachother from time to time, sharing equipment and supplies, helping eachother during setup and breakdown, and even swapping leftovers at the end of the day. Team work is an essential part of the food industry. As my Chef Blythe would say, "even when you compete, you are all brothers under the coat. "
People freaking love Pork. God, they were excited. There are just some things in life you can hang your hat on, and the popularity of all things pig related is one of them. Just look at these people.
Thanks again to my lovely sister, Sarah, for helping me out on Sunday, and to my brother-in-law to be, the Kam, for taking such great photos. Congrats to all the winners. You're pork was awesome!