Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Evolution of the World Food Championships

By Dru Chai

Three years ago, Mike McCloud didn't know what to expect when he launched the World Food Championships (WFC) in Las Vegas. It was the inaugural year and even the President & CEO/Co-Founder had "no idea what he was doing" as he shared his candid thoughts during the Food/Fight/Write food blogging conference at The Plaza Hotel & Casino.

2012 - Adam Richman with WFC President & CEO
Mike McCloud taking a picture

The Dirty Smoke has attended as media and judged the WFC each of the last three years in Las Vegas. While the competition has been an evolution, it was not without any mishaps. In 2012, Adam Richman from Travel Channel's Man vs. Food was hired as the high profile host (along with one overly serious bodyguard) to lend some credibility and give the competition some visibility, but it only seemed to take the attention away from the true stars of the show -- the competing chefs, the home cooks, and of course the food.

2012 - Main stage setup in front of Bally's

While the WFC set up their main demo and presentation stage directly in front of Bally's Hotel & Casino -- prime real estate with high foot traffic along The Strip -- most of the chefs and home cooks toiled in obscurity behind Bally's parking lot. There were many "VIP" events set up that required hundreds of dollars in admission fees -- only to see meager attendance numbers. This was just one of many failed attempts at trying to capitalize and recoup the high costs of hiring celebrity chefs that endorsed and judged the competition.

2013 - Move to Downtown Vegas and Introduction of Kitchen Coliseum

Learning from their mistakes, the 2013 competition was a vast improvement. The focus shifted to the chefs, the home cooks, and their journey towards earning a spot to compete at WFC. The best move was a change in venue -- instead of the glitz and glamour of The Strip, the WFC organizers opted to move to the burgeoning Downtown Vegas area on Fremont Street. Gone were high-profile celebrity chef endorsers, instead opting for Food Network B-listers Ben Vaughn and Jeffrey Saad.

2013 - Jeffrey Saad super focused during an interview

2013 - Kitchen Coliseum setup

At the centerpiece of the Downtown Vegas move was "Kitchen Coliseum," a fantastic way for diehard fans as well as casual observers to feel the beating pulse of the WFC. Taking a cue from Food Network's Iron Chef, it was a way for the competitors to cook on an even playing field. The most thrilling part of Kitchen Coliseum occurred when chefs sprinted to the judge's table in an effort to beat the clock. It was also a chance to showcase just what the WFC was all about -- passionate people cooking their hearts out not only for bragging rights, but also for some serious prize money.

2014 - Ben Vaughn filming in Kitchen Coliseum

2014 - The chefs are super focused to make the best burgers in the world

Fast forward to 2014, and the WFC remained mostly unchanged with the same location. But the WFC upped the ante. The number of competing teams doubled in size. There were more sponsors, and total prize purse swelled to a staggering $300k. Each category winner squared off to compete in the Final Table, with the winner earning a cool $100k and the bragging rights to hold an oversized check in front of other competitors on the main stage.

Richard Heredia's Final Table dish - Bacon Tamal w/ Salsa Verde
(photo courtesy of World Food Championships)

San Diego based chef Richard Heredia, winner for both 2013 and 2014 bacon categories, took home the title of 2014 World Food Champion with his final dish -- bacon tamal with salsa verde. Over the course of two years, Heredia's total WFC winnings total a staggering $120k. Insert cliche here -- not a bad way to take home the bacon.

San Diego based chef Richard Heredia, 2014 World Food Champ
(photo courtesy of World Food Championships)

After 3 years, the WFC has established itself as the ultimate food competition in the country, with over 400+ competitors. The WFC will even expand to host the first-ever Canadian Food Championships in Edmonton in July 2015, as well as a move cross country to Kissimmee, Florida in November 2015 for the main event. Safe to say, Mike McCloud and the WFC organizers learned from their mistakes -- they now have the winning recipe to a successful World Food Championship, which is to focus on the food and the stories behind the food.

Pictures from WFC '14.