Monday, November 11, 2013

Trip Report - Judging BBQ at World Food Championships '13

By Dru Chai

From a judge and visitor's perspective, the 2013 World Food Championships trumped the inaugural 2012 event by a wide margin. The event was held at the Fremont Street Experience in Downtown Vegas -- a vast improvement over the crowded Strip location last year. There were no grumpy bodyguards shadowing Adam Richman's every move.

400 competitors, 7 categories, and $300k in prize money. That's a lot at stake, for sure. Thousands applied to be a judge, and I was lucky enough to be selected (having a BBQ blog doesn't hurt either). Here's my quick and dirty Vegas trip report:

11/7 - I arrived in Vegas around noon and my first stop for lunch was Monta Ramen. I slurped my bowl of Kuro ramen (with black garlic oil) within a matter of minutes. People barely sat down and I was already out the door. I was really, really hungry.

Kuro ramen has black garlic oil -- perfect to keep the vampires away

After a satisfying lunch, it was time to visit my favorite casino -- The Mirage. It doesn't have that glitz like the newer hotels, but its location and comfy casino keeps me coming back. I played several sessions of double deck blackjack, hit some lucky streaks, and cashed out on top. Next, it was on to the sportsbook. Between college football, NBA, and the Lakers, I sat my ass on a plush leather chair for the next 5 hours. Yes, I was in heaven.

I got my fruit and vitamin C for the day

Having to wake up bright and early the next day for recipe judging, I decided to turn in early. Visions of ramen, blackjack, and the Lakers awesome 1-point win over the Rockets (take that Dwight Coward!) danced in my head as I slept the night away.

11/8 -  I woke up feeling refreshed and headed north on the 15 to downtown Vegas. There was some light traffic but not too bad. When I arrived at Fremont St, it was still bright and early, so I did a walk-through of the entire venue. Kitchen stadium was impressive, with dozens of stoves and ovens lined up row after row.

Smack dab on Fremont St in downtown Vegas

Look at all that exposed wiring... good thing it didn't rain!

After checking in at the judges table around 9am, it was time to judge the recipe category -- both pasta and mac 'n cheese. The group of judges included chefs, B-list food TV personalities, bloggers, and foodies. My six pasta dishes were less than impressive. One dish was overpowered by bleu cheese and another looked like something a 5-yr old could make -- it was just spaghetti with bolognese sauce.

I judged these mac 'n cheese entries --  good thing I like cheese.

The mac 'n cheese entries scored a lot better. One dish had awesome presentation -- huge lobster chunks in a mini skillet. Unfortunately, some of the lobster meat was a bit overcooked and chewy. My favorite was the shrimp mac 'n cheese. The shrimp was perfectly cooked, the pasta was al dente, and the cheese sauce was nice and creamy. I asked other judges if they were going to eat their leftover lobster and shrimp. I know, I have no shame.

After about an hour break, it was time to judge BBQ (preliminary round). The top scoring teams would then move on to compete in the final "World" food round -- given the choice of using different meat and more elaborate presentations.

Just in case anyone forgets.
Behind the judging tent... lots of happy judges eating BBQ.

Unlike KCBS sanctioned BBQ competitions, this one was missing the chicken category -- so just ribs, pork, and brisket. The ribs were the best of the three, by far. Most all of them were sweet, juicy and meaty -- not overcooked. Some ribs even had a slight hint of spice in the background, which was a welcome surprise. Usually competition ribs have a very sweet profile.

Leftover ribs after judging... gone within minutes.
This judge described BBQ like a seasoned CNN reporter.

The pulled pork and brisket weren't impressive at all. Perhaps one decent entry per category. It was a far cry from last year's judging experience, in which everything I had was excellent. After judging was done around 4pm, I was asked by the A&E crew to do a quick interview. Must be the shirt I was wearing, or they wanted some diversity (I'm not an old white guy with a pot belly).

"Uh, do I have anything stuck in my teeth?"

After a long day of judging 12 pasta dishes and 15 BBQ entries, I was more than stuffed and needed a nap. Talk about carb and protein overload! This was a well organized event, and kudos to all those involved. Fremont St is the perfect venue and brought a lot of energy into downtown Vegas. I definitely hope to be back for next year's World Food Championships -- whether as a judge or as a media member.

To view more pictures, check out the album on the Dirty Smoke Facebook page.