World Food Championships: A View From the Judges’ Table

Judging the World Bacon Championship.

Judging the World Bacon Championship

The World Food Championships returned to Las Vegas the weekend of November 7-10, and year two was quite an improvement over the inaugural festival. After stashing contestants in the back parking lot of Bally’s last year, the Championships moved Downtown with cooking demos and competitions stretching from the 3rd Street stage of the Fremont Street Experience all the way to the back of Fremont East.

More than 400 professional and amateur cooks worked in outdoor kitchens provided by Kenmore and Bull Outdoor Products as they competed for more than $300,000 in prize money in seven food categories: barbecue, chili, burger, sandwich, recipe, dessert and bacon. The winner of each category moved to the Final Table, where Dave Elliott from Olathe, Kansas, walked away with the title of World Food Champion and the $50,000 grand prize for his carrot cake dessert, which he re-created from his mother’s recipe.

I judged the first round in the Chef’s Challenge, in which 20 professional chefs—including eight from Las Vegas—were winnowed to three, then to one.

I was judging with Vic “Vegas” Moea, and our money was on chef Joe Parrino of Andiamo at The D. Not only did he enjoy home-field advantage with the competition kitchen mere steps away from his workplace, but also chef Joe was a cool customer.

In the first portion of the competition, a knife-skills challenge, contestants had to dice three large onions in two minutes, and then cut two potatoes tournee-style. While the younger chefs struggled to get through the onions, Parrino tore through his bulbs and was calmly cleaning and putting away his knife before anyone else finished chopping their second onion. After a quick finger-count for the contestants (still 10 apiece, phew!), Parrino made short work of tourneeing his tubers. Some of the young guns apparently had not attempted the complicated seven-sided oblong cut since culinary school, but Parrino had likely made thousands of these classic side dish potatoes during his long career.

For the Signature Dish portion, some competitors tried to wow us by pulling out huge sexy hunks of filet mignon topped with precious slices of white truffles or thick smoked pork chops coated with sticky-sweet glaze. While we certainly appreciated their generosity and finished every bite of the truffles, it was Parrino’s pasta that he literally cranked out from scratch that won the day. Perfectly formed parsley ravioli served alongside a delicate piece of Swai fish made for an elegant and flavorful dish.

In the end, youth triumphed over experience as chef Michael Chen from Yellowtail took home $5,000 and a commercial smoker from Southern Pride for winning the finals. His dish of scallop and lobster with a tomato puree broth bested Parrino and 2012 Chef’s Challenge winner Travis Brust. Perhaps Chen’s experience as a contestant on Food Network’s Chopped gave him a leg up in the pressure-packed competition.

“Going into the Chef’s Challenge, I expected to see fantastic dishes,” says WFC organizer Mike McCloud, one of the judges for the Chef’s Challenge final. “I have a residence here, so I know how great the culinary scene in Las Vegas is. But I was blown away by the final three dishes that were put in front of me, two of which were created by chefs who work here in Las Vegas. And then for Chen to come out on top just proves what we knew from Day 1: that Las Vegas is truly an epicenter for great cuisine and unbelievable chefs.”

In a city that regularly showers prize money on partygoers and beauty contestants, $5,000 may not seem like a lot, but for home cooks with a dream, the title of World Food Championships winner is a pretty big deal. I mean come on, $10,000 for the best potato salad recipe? That’s some serious cabbage. The idea that anyone can win, through a series of escalating competitions from local to regional to world, is a powerful driving force for the contestants and should lure even more of them back to Las Vegas next year.

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