I am no stranger to that spirited, most all-American of pastimes: the cook-off. Over the years, I’ve judged everything from chili to hot dogs, gumbo, barbecue (at Hogs for the Cause, though I doubt I’ll be invited back after gleefully excoriating their byzantine ratings system), and, of course, bacon. So when I was invited to be a judge at the 2016 World Food Championships in Orange Beach, Alabama, I jumped at the opportunity. The WFC is not a small event. Chefs and their teams come from all around the globe to compete in one of nine categories. I’d been asked to judge the top ten finalists in the bacon round, the winner of which would score ten grand and go on to compete for the grand prize: the lion’s share of the $300,000 pot and bragging rights.
It was a sunny, gorgeous day on the Gulf Coast when I showed up to gather my judge’s T-shirt, media credentials, and goodie bag. Making my way around the site—stopping only to snap a few photos of the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile—I entered the judge’s tent and found out what the vaunted position of WFC judge would actually entail. The World Food Championships, I learned, has a proprietary judging method that I had to quickly become familiar with if I wanted to attend to my duties in good conscience. First of all, there’s no talking at the judge’s table while tasting. That means no “Oh wow, look at that,” no mmm mmm noises, no startled grunts, and certainly no, “Oh my god, that’s horrible!”
As for the ratings system, the WFC goes by its EAT™ methodology, an acronym describing the three areas by which the contestants are ultimately scored on a 1-10 basis: execution, appearance, and taste, representing 35 percent, 15 percent, and 50 percent of the entrants’ overall score, respectively.
Every judge has two placemats, each with five spots, for a total of ten entries. After turn-in, staff members ceremoniously parade an “appearance plate” in front of the judges. Then we immediately score the entry solely based on its looks. Once this has been done ten times and both of our placemats are filled with food, we begin our tacit sampling, rating each entry on its taste and execution. Overall, it’s fairly simple, but the gravitas of the silence and watchful eyes of the table captain and other solemn staff members ensured that we weren’t having too much fun. This is grave business, after all, with reputations and buckets of Benjamins at stake.
The first thing I noticed while tasting is that these weren’t dainty bites of food. We received full-sized portions. In a couple of cases we were served small, whole pies. “Wait,” you say, “pie? I thought this was a bacon competition.” It is! However each category got one “infused ingredient” that every chef-testant needed to incorporate into their entry. This year, the bacon round included chocolate as its challenge component. It was going to be fascinating to see how the entrants dealt with this twist. Would they go straight to dessert with a savory bacon element, or stick to savory with a sweet chocolate tweak?
Both, it turns out. Some of the entries were unremarkable, including the two aforementioned pies, one a chocolate bacon pecan and the other a BBQ bacon upside down mini Bundt cake with chocolate ganache and cream cheese frosting. There was also a straight up breakfast twist, a Maple bacon bourbon banana-stuffed French toast with chocolate bacon bourbon sauce that made me realize I need to add more bacon to my French toast. Also making the rounds were a salted caramel and bacon chocolate cake with bourbon bacon chocolate sauce, a chocolate bourbon bacon pecan tart with cayenne whipped cream and bourbon chocolate drizzle, and a chocolate polenta cake with bacon, all of which weren’t bad, but they didn’t quite wow me out of my pants.
Thankfully, my pants were in for some wowing with a few of the bacon entries. An insane chocolate pot de creme with balsamic bacon marmalade, bacon-infused chantilly cream, and pecan bacon tuilles arrived in a painstakingly crafted, multi-colored chocolate tulip cup. The sight of it was stunning, and the flavor even more so, with the crispy, salty bacon serving as a perfect counterbalance for the rich chocolate mousse in the bottom of the cup and the cloudlike cream on top. Listen: If you’re going to make a bacon dessert, THIS IS HOW YOU DO THAT. According to the chef, a self-proclaimed “bacon babe,” there were five pounds of bacon in the recipe. I was floored, and my spirits immediately lifted. My pants said, “Wow.”
On the straight-up savory side, there were three bold entries that tickled my bacon fancy. The first was a big, beautiful, unapologetic Sriracha bacon burger topped with tomato, avocado, fried pickle, and a rich mole sauce, accompanied by fries and a bacon onion ring. Amidst a table filled with desserts, this burger was an umami oasis. The mole was a nice touch, and I adore fried pickles, but what really tugged at my heartstrings was their incorporation of the bacon. They had worked it into a square lattice so that you get a solid sheet of bacon instead of several haphazardly placed strips. “I’m totally stealing this idea,” I thought. If you can compel me to eat an entire hamburger even after I’d filled myself with bacon cakes and pies, that truly speaks worlds about the quality of your burger. Kudos, team Alberta Pork Canada.
The next admirable savory offering came by way of Chef Colleen Curley, who placed second in the World Bacon Championship last year. Not resting on her laurels, Colleen showed up with all guns loaded (with bacon) and ready to blaze, and she was the only contestant to include an active presentation element to her entry. Each judge was presented with a tiny glass cloche, underneath which was a mysterious-looking brown something wreathed in thick grey smoke. Lifting the top, the smoke billowed forth and revealed a chocolate coffee-rubbed beef tenderloin stuffed with bacon jam. It hit the mark of both sweet and savory square in the bullseye. At the end of the day, Colleen was the one to walk away with a well-earned win.
But my personal favorite of the day sadly won no high accolades from my fellow judges, much to my dismay. Chef Stephen Coe, of Mirabeau Inn & Spa in Plymouth, Massachusetts, took to the bacon theme like a hog to slop. Instead of making a dish with bacon in it or on top of it or as a sauce, he decided to just bacon bacon. Specifically, bacon-wrapped bacon. As you can imagine, this delighted me to no end: a thick wedge of pork belly wrapped in bacon, drizzled in a lovely chocolate sauce, and served with a chocolate foie gras and bacon mouse and a white chocolate coleslaw. It was refined and beautiful, a careful and artful balance of sweet and savory, and, most importantly, it was some hot bacon-on-bacon action. I adored every bite of this dish.
“We stepped outside of the element a little bit,” Coe said. “From the way people think around here, they go sweet, or they’re going to do a mole, which is a savory chocolate sauce. So we went completely the other way and focused on bacon, with a bacon-wrapped bacon crusted in chocolate, with a chocolate and cranberry sauce, so the acid in the cranberries is in there, a jicama slaw with chocolate and bacon, and a chocolate au poivre with port to balance the sweetness with a little bitterness. There’s also a foie gras and chocolate mousse with a bacon praline. It was over the top, a really cool dish. I cure the bacon like a pancetta, so it’s peppery, and then I cook it like a porchetta. So there’s a homey, comfort food quality. It eats nice and soft, just melts, you know. Zero calories… until you eat it. And then it’s like ten thousand.”
I, for one, would gladly accept those ten thousand calories if it meant eating more of this divine dish, and I still think it’s a little nuts that Chef Coe’s creation didn’t fare better in the judge's tent. But alas, you do all you can do, and then you move on. I’ll surely be back in Orange Beach next year to see what the chefs will do with bacon in 2017, although this year will be tough to top. But do you know what would truly shake things up? Have the bacon round’s special ingredient be bacon.
Yeah, you heard right: bacon infused with bacon. Now that’s a challenge I can truly get behind.