Welcome! It’s a new year and a new website (okay, so the new year was three weeks ago, but whatever)! I had outgrown my old blogger site for sometime, but it took me awhile to make the leap over but with plenty of encouragement from Justin, Shauna, and other, as well as Stephanie who gave me awesome technical support, I finally dove in, and surprisingly the water was quite warm and lovely. Thank you for all of you pushing for me to make the switch. Look for more frequent updates, hints on baking, and a whole slew of other stuff from me (but please bear with me with the old posts as I get them up to snuff). In the meanwhile, I’m starting this brand new site with something else new to me, an Insider’s Guide to the SF Food Wars, which is back with their “Return of the Mac and Cheese” competition as well as my own recipe for smoked gouda and white cheddar mac and cheese with swiss chard AND a chance at winning tickets to the VERY SOLD OUT event!
Last year I competed in the SF Food Wars. It’s a pretty amazing event where 15 to 20 people (professionals and amateurs) compete with their own variations of whatever the theme of the contest is in the hopes for prizes and glory. You have to make enough food for at least 250 people (I baked 20 pies) and make sure it’s better than everyone else! The competition is fierce. Most recently SF Food Wars, after taking a break for the holidays, is back with “Return of the Mac and Cheese” and it occurred to me, as a double rainbow winner (winner of both judge’s first place and people’s first place) as well as someone who has attended the event, that I had some advice to give about the SF Food Wars as people has asked me in the past about it. So Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you the Insider’s Guide to the SF Food Wars:
Why you should compete:
Not everyone should enter this competition, as it is not for the weak of heart! The entry forms always tell you that you need to make enough food for at least 70 people, but the reality is, you don’t want to run out of food. With, on average, 200 people plus the judges and press there you want enough food for 250 people. The more people who taste your food, the better chance they will vote for you!
But keep in mind that out of the 15 to 20 competitors there are six awards and people can win multiple awards (in my competition two teams, including myself, won double awards, which meant that out of the 20 competitors only four teams won prizes). In other words, sixteen people went home with nothing. That’s a lot of work for nothing at all. Or is it?
The reality is, as a competitor, you get to not only pit your own goods against others but you get to great exposure to the community, winner or not. If you are thinking of starting up a business, want greater exposure for your food blog, or just want to meet other bakers/cooks in the industry it’s a great chance to get the word out there.
My blog post about the competition was pretty frenetic. But it captured the high of competing & winning. The post was retweeted a number of times (including by @sffoodwars) picked up by SF Weekly’s SFoodie blog and then Bon Appetit’s Daily Blog Linkery afterwards, and months later over the holidays, The Pioneer Woman put it on her post Pies, Pies, Pies! later tweeting me that she loved the post. I’ve had people walk up to me on the street and tell me they recognize me from the SF Food Wars and they remember my pie. It’s a pretty wonderful feeling.
No other competition in San Francisco pits professional cooks and chefs against home cooks and bakers. It’s a chance to see how your wares stand up to others, have fun, and hopefully see if you have what it takes to win. And I’ll be completely honest with you, I was pretty intimidated by the idea of baking pies for 250 people. I almost didn’t enter the competition. Ha! I’m glad I did.
How to get picked to be a competitor:
Each competition has it’s own theme. From Pie or Die to The Return of Mac and Cheese, each competition is pretty unique, and the people who want to compete are plenty. But how do you stand out from the other applicants?
The minute the competition call for entries is announced, submit your entry form. The faster you submit an entry form, the better chance of you getting picked. If four people submit entries for “apple pie” for the pie competition, you have a much better chance of getting picked if you are the first entry, not the last one. Most themes are announced with plenty of time beforehand (often at the end of the competition event when the winners are announced, Jeannie, the organizer of the event will announce what the next competition will be). Follow @Sffoodwars on twitter and they’ll announce the theme and when the call for entries are in real time.
Keep in mind as well, that you want your entry to be unique and descriptive. If you four people submit entries for apple pie, but three of them describe it as “cinnamon apple pie with crumb topping” and the fourth one describes it as “cinnamon, ginger, cardamom and a handful of dried cherries, mixed heirloom apple pie with a cheddar cheese bottom crust and a graham cracker coconut crumb topping” which one do you think gets picked?
Be enthusiastic. This doesn’t mean you have to put a lot of exclamations points in your entry form. But it means you should know what you are doing and be excited about what you are doing. Like writing a good blog post, you want your entry form to be something that makes people want to eat the food that you are entering. Being descriptive helps, but telling a story helps even more. “A combination of spices, dried sour cherries, brown sugar caramel and hand picked heirloom apples, from the small organic orchard I went to up in Sonoma last month, all wrapped up in a white cheddar cheese crust and exotic coconut crumb topping will make you rethink the phrase ‘all American apple pie!’” Sounds good enough to eat? Then it’ll probably be good enough to get into the competition.
How to win.
You’ve sent the most awesomest entry you can think of and then it’s been announced! You’re number #12 in the competition and you’ll now be making you dish for 250 people! Now how are you going to win it?
Be unique. The people who throw the competition are pretty good about picking variant entries so you aren’t going to have two entries that are the same. But when people are eating 16 to 20 of the “same thing” whether it’s pie, salsa, cookies or mac & cheese, you are going to run into overlap. Give your entry a bit of a unique spin, whether it’s in the container it comes in, a special garnish, or something that gives the attendants a reminder of who you are and makes your dish stand out. My pie was the only one with a fresh berry sauce to go with it, which was a total pain in the butt to serve up (the berry seeds kept on clogging up the bottle tip, until I finally had to cut the tip of the bottle off), but it was worth it. People remembered that sauce and because it was unique, it got it’s own place on the plate they were given.
Don’t be TOO unique though. Remember you want to please 250 people AND the judges. Sure that amazing cilantro infused chutney sounds like a good idea and will definitely be memorable for it’s brightness but cilantro is a pretty polarizing herb. If it’s integral to your recipe include, but don’t include it just for uniqueness sake. At my competition, people came up with some pretty awesome, pretty unique pies. The one that stood out in my head was the borsht pie. It was unique enough to push the boundaries of what a sweet dessert pie is, and kudos for them for attempting it, but at the end of the day not enough people were willing to vote for it as the “best pie” of the competition and they went home empty handed. Remember, your entry has to be unique enough to stand out, but not unique enough to invoke the “hmmm, well that was interesting…” death comment.
Decorate your station. You aren’t just presenting your dish to the people you have to present yourself as a competitor. Make sure you pick a theme that goes with your team name or dish and decorate your station so people remember it! I baked a chess pie, which is a traditional southern pie, but because of the name, I went with a chess theme, went to the fabric store and bought some black and white checkered fabric to function as a makeshift tablecloth, chess pieces from a few cheap chess board games I got at Target and a few cheap vase I borrowed from a friend. This and some elevated platters gave me a little height and professional air to my station that was a head above everyone else. More than one competitor asked me if I was a professional and the photographer judge confided in me that he was torn between awarding me or another contestant (sadly the other contestant won). The fact is, you don’t have to spend tons of money to have a great station, but you should spend a little time thinking about what it will look like.
Have a great dish. This goes without saying, but you gotta make something great that will blow away everyone else. Keep in mind how long it will take to make enough for 250 people (these are 250 small portions, not full size portions) and keep in mind that you will probably be serving it at room temperature, in the middle of the afternoon and start making the food at the appropriate time (if there are things do ahead of time, great. Otherwise you may be stuck making things last minute, day before, or day of – early in the morning). Plan it out, make a schedule and stick to it.
Have fun. If you’re having fun, people will notice and will root for you. Connect with people. Chat them up, tell them about your dish, explain to them why you made what you made. The more you charm the attendants, the more they are likely to vote for you. And be sure to bring business cards or literature/menus about your company if you have one. People like to connect and follow up. Many competitors have spun off and created their own catering companies or have their own restaurant. It’s a great way to spread the word.
How to score tickets if you want to attend to eat and not compete in the contest.
Tickets sell out FAST. With only 200-300 tickets available (depending on the venue) the tickets can sell out in less than a minute. In my particular competition, tickets were gone in 30 seconds. THIRTY SECONDS. Everybody loves pie! In the most recent competition there were over 6700 hits on the eventbrite site for only 200 tickets. So what’s the best way to get a ticket?
Click fast and often. Follow @sffoodwars on twitter or like them on Facebook and watch their website. They will announce when tickets go on sale. Usually it’s around noon on a specific day. Start refreshing their page at 11:59am and keep hitting refresh. Refresh constantly for at least ten to fifteen minutes. Tickets sell out, but occasionally people don’t claim the tickets fast enough with their credit card and they don’t go through. The last time I bought tickets, everyone else was complaining on twitter that they clicked until 12:03 and it was sold out. I didn’t click on it until 12:06 (I forgot to set an alarm) and still scored tickets. Don’t give up, and keep clicking until 12:15pm to 12:20 or until @sffoodwars tells you they are truly sold out.
Figure out the eventbrite URL link early. SF Food Wars probably doesn’t want me telling you this, but they sell all their tickets via eventbrite, and they are usually a fairly easy URL link to figure out. The most recent contest was called Return of Mac and Cheese and the URL to the ticket page was http://returnofmac.eventbrite.com. If you can figure out the URL page, beforehand, you won’t be able to buy tickets earlier than when they get released, BUT you are one page ahead of everyone else who is refreshing to try to get tickets.
Make friends with contestants. Contestants get a courtesy of purchasing two extra tickets ahead of everyone else. If you know of people competing, cozy up to them and tell them you love them and will support them throughout the competition and chat them up to everyone else there, and maybe you’ll get a chance at buying those early tickets. Better yet, offer to help them out during the competition, as all teams can be one or two people, which means if they are a solo competitor, you can help them out during the competition AND get yourself into a sold out event.
Finally, follow @SFFoodWars on twitter. They will often times give away tickets, even after the event is sold out. Make sure to follow them and check their twitter stream often.
How to attend the competition as an eater.
You’ve scored tickets. You’ve shown up and you’re ready to judge. And now you have to eat twenty slices of pie/fifteen servings of mac and cheese/sixteen different salsas?!? What are you going to do?
Show up early. You don’t have to camp out in the morning, but you want to show up near the time that the event starts. Even though contestants are warned to bring enough food, I’ve seen contestants run out of their entrée, which means you lost out on trying something that may just be your favorite new thing. If you show up early you have a higher chance of sampling everything that the competitors have to offer.
Take it easy. You don’t need more than a bite or two of an entry to judge whether or not you like it. If you are there with a friend, have them take half the entrees and you take the other half. Camp out and share the portions and decide on what you like. If you like something a lot, go back for seconds. But you don’t want to overload on a few things and not get to everything.
Be polite. The contestants worked hard to compete, with no compensation and a slim chance of winning. If there is a line at a station, be patient and don’t stand there rolling your eyes. The competitors want to serve as many people as possible, it’s only in their best interest. They are working as fast as they can. And if there is a competitor who’s station decorations rock or their food was the absolutely best tell them. Even if they don’t win, it means the world to them to know that they have fans rooting for them. Even though I won at my competition, I still have vivid memories of the woman who came over to me and told me “I’m totally voting for you and I told my friend over there to vote for you too.” It makes an impact. On top of that, if you make friends with the competitors, and they have leftovers, guess who might have first dibs on taking leftovers home?
Ask questions, but only if the competitor isn’t busy serving food. After the initial rush to get food, thing slow down at the food wars. That’s the best time to go back and approach the competitors and ask them questions about the food. Everyone likes to talk about the food, that’s what brought the competitors there, and what brought the attendants there, but in the mad rush when everyone is trying get a portion of food as fast as possible, is not the time to ask the competitor if they cows that the cheese if from, is local and organic. Wait until there’s a lull in the line and then approach the competitor and ask them your question. They’ll gladly answer it and probably tell a million other things about their dish.
Ask other people their opinions. Meeting other people at an event like this is pretty awesome, because you have an instant point of connection. Find out what others like and don’t like and maybe it’ll be the start of a new friendship. You never know!
And there you have it. The next SF Food Wars is the Return of Mac and Cheese, Saturday, February 12, 2011. The theme circles back to the inaugural SF Food Wars back in 2009. Tickets sold out in less than 3o seconds with over 6000 people trying to buy the 200 tickets.
However SF Food Wars was kind enough to provide a pair of tickets to ONE lucky Eat the Love reader! There are two ways to enter (but you can only enter once – sorry, no stuffing the ballot folks). Become a fan of my shiny new Facebook “Eat the Love” fan page by hitting the “like” button OR become a fan of the “SF Food Wars” Facebook page. Then come back here and leave a comment on this here post, letting me know you became a “fan” of either one and that you want to be entered in the drawing for the tickets. I’ll be picking a comment by a random generator by Friday, Jan 28th, 2011 at 9am.
And sorry folks, you gotta provide the transportation to the event, so it’s probably best if you live here in the San Francisco Bay Area and can get to Public Works here in San Francisco where the SF Food Wars is being held. Good Luck!
Oh yeah, I almost forgot. This here is my favorite recipe for Mac and Cheese. I’m not entering the mac and cheese competition, but trust me, if I did…I’d probably win with it. Ha!
*Edited* By the way, I forgot mention, but congrats to Randy Fong who won two tickets to the SF Food Wars Return of the Mac and Cheese. Hope you had a good time at the event!
Adapted from Bon Appetit magazine
6 tablespoons unsalted butter (divided), plus extras for buttering casserole dish
1 medium yellow or white onion, chopped
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup all purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
2 cups packed coarsely grated smoked Gouda cheese, plus 1/2 cup finely grated (10 ounces total)
2 cup packed grated white Cheddar cheese (divided)
1 tablespoon fresh cracked pepper, plus more for taste
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 1/2 pound Swiss chard (hard stem and center rib removed)
1 pound elbow macaroni or penne
1 cup fresh sourdough breadcrumbs (see Note)
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1. Preheat the oven to 350˚F and butter a 9 x 13 inch casserole dish.
2. Fill a large post with water, add salt, and bring to a boil.
3. In another large pot or Dutch oven, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring, until they soften and start to turn translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until the garlic starts to smell fragrant, about 30 second more.
4. Add the flour and cook, stirring, until the onions and garlic starts to clump up and the flour had dissolved, about 1 minute. Gradually whisk in the milk and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture begins to boil.
5. Add the 2 cups coarsely grated Gouda and 1 cup of the white Cheddar, stirring until they melt. Season with the cracked pepper, cayenne, and nutmeg and add salt to taste. Remove from the heat and set aside.
6. By this time, the pot of salted water should be boiling. Add the Swish chard leaves to the water and cook for 1 minute. Then, using tongs or a slotted spoon, remove the chard to a plate to cool; do not drain the water because you use it again to cook the macaroni pasta. Once the chard has cooled, squeeze out the liquid and chop finely.
7. Bring the water back to boil add the macaroni or penne, and cook “al dente,” meaning tender but still firm and not soft or soggy.; don’t overcook. Drain the pasta and add it to the cheese sauce stirring well.
8. Add half the cheese sauce and pasta mixture into the casserole dish. Sprinkle the remaining 1 cup of Cheddar cheese over the pasta, then evenly distribute the Swiss card on top. Spread the remaining cheese sauce and pasta mixture over the Swiss chard.
9. Place the breadcrumbs in a medium bowl. Melt the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter, drizzle it over the breadcrumbs and toss together. Then add the 1/2 cup finely grated Gouda along with salt and pepper to taste and toss to combine. Sprinkle the breadcrumb mixture over the casserole, then sprinkle the cumin seeds over the whole dish.
10. Bake in the preheated oven for 40 minutes or until the bread crumbs are golden and the cheese sauce is bubbling. Remove from the oven and let stand for 10 minutes or so before serving.
Note: To make fresh sourdough breadcrumbs, just cube some sourdough bread (a few slices should do) and place in a food processor. Process until breadcrumbs.