MenuDirections’ cooking "show"

At MenuDirections 2014, chefs reveal character and creativity at our unique culinary competition.

By Paul King, Editorial Director

The teams were given 75 minutes to prepare six portions of an entrée, which they would then present to five judges: Annemarie Vaupel from Hormel, Erik Henry from Bush’s, Chef Andrew Hunter from Kikkoman, Chef Peter Fischbach from Gourmet Dining LLC and a member of our advisory board, and Darrick Henry from Baylor Orthopaedic Hospital, one of the winners of last year’s culinary competition.

We kicked off the competition at about 3:25 Monday afternoon, with Joe Kraft and Robert Winther drawing the first time slot. The other three teams started at 10-minute intervals. After all four teams were on the clock, conference attendees were encouraged by our MC, Stephen Gericke from the National Pork Board, to take a close-up view of the competitors as they worked and even to ask questions about what they were preparing.

It was an interesting dynamic early on, as Gericke walked around and “interviewed” the sponsors about their products and the chefs about the dishes they were creating. People milled about, some watching the event but most chatting amongst themselves.

The atmosphere in the room changed dramatically, almost precipitously, as the first team neared the T-minus 20-minute mark. People drifted toward the tables and the energy level ratcheted up several notches. Our MC took a break, letting the action speak for itself—and it did. We were keeping a watch on time, but even without the stopwatch you could tell as the chefs neared the completion of their dish.

Finally, it was “time’s up!” and Joe and Robert brought their plates before the judges. As they presented their dish, the crowd moved over to the second team, now with only 10 minutes to go. And so it went for another half hour, the excitement building as each team’s efforts were seen by the crowd and reviewed by the judges.

With less than 10 minutes to go for the final team, Darla and Melissa, disaster nearly struck. One of the induction burners apparently shorted out, leaving the team one burner short at a critical time, as both of their burners were needed. It was fortuitous that they were last, and we quickly moved Melissa to a now-empty station to complete her cooking task. To be fair, we added a couple of minutes onto their time to make up for the time lost in the shift.

And then, it was over. Darla and Melissa completed their presentation to the judges, who then retired to discuss what they had seen and fill out their ballots. The teams now had three hours to wait before the winner was announced, during the Awards Banquet that evening.