Our guest blogger, award-winning chef HEATHER WALKER, who placed 5th overall in the dessert category at this year’s World Food Championships, gives us the scoop on competing in the ultimate food fight.
Ever wondered what it feels like to be under the gun at the largest high stakes cooking competition in the world? It’s not much different from making a huge holiday meal for a group of hungry guests, or trying to beat the crowds for that one special holiday gift!
As a long-time baking enthusiast and lover of all things competitive, dessert and baking contests quickly became a passion of mine soon after I quit my job to raise my son. It started as an occasional online submission, grew into live cook-offs, and then skyrocketed all the way to the World Food Championships. This was my third year competing in “The Super Bowl of Food Sport,” my second year finishing as a top ten finalist, and my first year competing with secret weapon and sponsor, LorAnn Oils!
This year at the World Food Championships, I finished fifth overall in the dessert category and finished in the top 5 percent in a field of over 1,100 professional chefs, competitive home cooks and avid food enthusiasts. Over the course of seven days, competitors served over 1,000 dishes to judges, ambassadors presented hundreds of cooking demonstrations, and visitors consumed almost an entire ton of food!
Our preliminary round of competition was composed of two dishes. The first was a structured dish, where we were required to make a cupcake. I NEVER use anything but LorAnn Oils Vanilla Bean Paste in my cupcakes, so my Blueberry Basil White Chocolate Lemon Curd Cupcakes were an instant smash this year when I also added LorAnn Oils Buttery Sweet Dough Bakery Emulsion. Out of 50 other competitors in the dessert category, the cupcakes finished 6th place in the first half of the preliminary round.
Next was our signature dish. We had two hours to complete our absolute best dessert. Again, LorAnn Oils Vanilla Bean Paste and Buttery Sweet Dough Bakery Emulsion helped make a great base to a vanilla bean layer cake, and with some rich cream cheese frosting, some fresh strawberry filling and some salty strawberry crumble, I was confident I would make it to the next round.
Only ten finalists would continue on to compete in the championship round. As the top ten were announced that evening, we were all shocked to see so many new faces. I was lucky enough to be awarded the fourth place position going forward, and only three of us that finished in the top ten from previous years made it to the stage again. New judging criteria, and the unexpected 90 degree heat with matching humidity took a destructive toll on many competitors’ dishes. We were sad to see some of our fellow friends and competitors get left behind, including last year’s champion, but that meant that one of us would soon take home the title and $10,000!
So now it was crunch time. The theme and required ingredient for the Top Ten Championship Round was fresh strawberries. It would have been very easy for me to do the same vanilla layer cake that got me into the finals, but I needed to step up my game. I decided to do a warm dessert, so that cooling time in the heat and deadly humidity wouldn’t affect my dish. I started with a strawberry basil compote on the bottom of a small mason jar. I then added that famous vanilla bean vanilla cake and stuffed it with the white chocolate lemon curd from the cupcake round. I topped it again with a cream cheese frosting and sprinkled it with a freeze-dried strawberry crumble. I brought out all the stops and executed perfectly, but as it turns out, four of the new finalists also executed perfectly and landed me in fifth position overall.
I can never complain about how I finish. Just getting in the door at the World Food Championships is a feat in itself. And with all of the curveballs thrown at us this year, with all the veterans who didn’t get as far as I did, and for everyone who didn’t have an amazing sponsor like LorAnn Oils, I am full of nothing but gratitude, pride and relief that I made it as far as I did.
So what’s my secret? What puts me over the top and puts my scores up higher than the professional pastry chefs from the hoity-toity hotels and restaurants? I don’t re-invent the wheel. I use the basic recipes I’ve been using my whole life. When something scores well, I use those ingredients and elements over and over. The judges are always different, but a great flavor combination can win them over every single time.
For those of you who have ever thought of doing any kind of baking competition, use the same basic recipes you’ve used since you started baking. Have a consistent foundation flavor (vanilla or chocolate) and then add elements that change-up flavors, textures and colors. Be sure to always include an element of citrus or other fruit for acidity, an element of salty crunch for texture and balance, and ALWAYS use LorAnn Oils products as a secret weapon for flavor enhancement!