Last month saw my first food competition: the San Diego Burger Battle. I’d judged KCBS barbecue, assisted Doug Keiles in Oakland, and covered the World Food Championships, but this was my first time at the helm of my own competition effort. I learned a lot from the experience and over the next couple of days I’ll be sharing those lessons here for anyone who’s thought about competing.
The Burger Battle itself was a great intro to competition for me; much simpler than barbecue. If you’re not sure competitive cooking is for you and just want to try it, don’t start with a big barbecue competition. The price tag for supplies and equipment is too big if you’re just curious. Go with a shorter local event like a burger or bacon contest. Hamburgers are cheap to make, don’t take all night to cook, and don’t require nearly the outlay in gear barbecue does.
Before I could dive in and start grilling ground meat into tasty burgers, though, I needed to know the terrain (i.e., the rules). Would this be gas, electric, or charcoal/wood-only? What sort of garnish am I allowed for presentation? Would there be electricity for plugging in a meat grinder? All of that had to be answered in advance. So, my first piece of advice: know the rules, know the venue, ask questions in advance. All of that may sound basic, but I can’t overstate how important knowledge beforehand is. Don Richie was the point man for chef’s questions at the Burger Battle.
There were no restrictions on heat sources, although I’m pretty sure nuclear reactors were a no-no. Don sent all of us competitors a PDF of the rules and guidelines. It was pretty comprehensive and really helped narrow my focus for what I could and could not do. Reading it not only answered some of my questions, it also brought up others of which I hadn’t considered. Once Don filled in the blanks for me, reconnaissance was over. Time to figure out what the hell I was going to make…