6 Secrets to Win Cooking Competitions

6 Secrets to Win Cooking Competitions

Short of “Free puppies,” few things guarantee that I’ll open an email faster than the promise of tacos. The email was an invite to bring my best to a competition in April. My relationship with cooking competitions is strained. I love the opportunity to win gadgetry and appliances that I have flagged on my TBD wedding registry, but I hate losing.

My first foray into the world of competitive cooking was a few years ago for a sausage battle royale. One of my best dishes at the time was arrabbiata sauce with hot Italian sausage. I made 3-4 batches of sauce, boiled 4 pounds of mezzi rigatoni, loaded up catering trays and headed to the city. I met some other bloggers/home cooks and presented my dish to three judges. They asked a few questions and shared that it was really good. “I have a shot!” I thought. Cooking for friends and family never gives you an objective perspective like a cooking competition. Unless your friends are in the business, they’ll likely tell you the food is good. Whether they go back for seconds is your best indicator of how good something truly is.

Emboldened by the positive remarks from the judges, I thought I had a chance to take home one of the many glamorous prizes. Names were called. Mine was not. Sullenly, I took the remaining sheet pan of good, but not good enough arrabbiata to my trunk.

I hung up my apron and swore off competitions.

A few years later, I received an email for a bacon takedown. They supplied the bacon. You did the rest. Again, the glamorous prizes were stacked high, taunting me. OK. I’ll do it. But just for fun. I opted for a new creation and made an elote-inspired dip/soup. Again, the people praised it. Many came back several times to get more. My former boss came with her husband, so I knew I should have two votes. Maybe. I promised myself I wouldn’t set any expectations to win. Getting the validation and trying something new were the motives, not winning.

Plus, free bacon is right up there with free puppies as an incentive.

All the competitors were called on stage for the dramatic award presentation. Winning names were announced.

And this time, my name was also not announced. BUT, I didn’t have any leftovers to pack up with my tears. Everything my girlfriend and I made was consumed, which made clean up incredibly easy.

And this time, my name was also not announced. BUT, I didn’t have any leftovers to pack up with my tears. Everything my girlfriend and I made was consumed, which made clean up incredibly easy.

I sulked all the way home.

Always a bridesmaid. Will my dream kitchen registry ever be fulfilled?!

With spring comes another opportunity to win (or cry in my car for 45 minutes). This time the competition is for tacos. I’ve strategized and come with a stellar taco. But will it be good enough? Is it different? Will the judges and people like it? Can it rival a traditional pork taco?

As part of my game plan, I’ve come up with 6 tips on:

How to Win a Cooking Competition

(from a guy who has never won)

  1. Mobilize your friends. Lots of these competitions are dependent on a crowd vote. If you get a bunch of your friends to attend, you boost you shot of winning.
  2. Stand out. What makes your dish any different from the others? At the sausage fest, people who made their own sausage were awarded ahead of people who made a dish with store-bought. Whatever the ingredient/theme is, how can you elevate it beyond the normal expectation?
  3. Differentiate your table. I’ve yet to do this and I have seen other competitors with matching outfits or a theme. It can be gimmicky and I hope good food trumps a theme. But there’s nothing to lose helping people distinguish you from the other entrants.
  4. Lower your expectations. These are meant to be fun. I tell myself this every time. Have some side goals like meeting the competitors or sponsors.
  5. Prepare a speech. You want to be prepared. Whether your speech is an acceptance speech worthy of the Oscars or just telling people who come to your table what you made, be ready to sell your creation. If possible, work in puppies or bacon.
  6. Raise the stakes. This will be my third attempt. I don’t want to be the Susan Lucci of cooking competitions. If I don’t win, I will forego eating tacos for an entire month. If you follow me on Instagram, you know how frequently I eat Mexican food.

If you’re in the Chicago area on April 19, come see if my tacos have what it takes to be the best. My stomach and pride depend on it.