These days, you can't count on your 401(k), your pension or even your paycheck. But how about your favorite recipe? There is no shortage of contests out there where you can translate your favorite dish into a windfall. Prizes range from cookware and trips to $1 million for the Pillsbury Bake-Off.
Last fall, I won Mario Batali's Ultimate Grilling Challenge, with a prize that was worth — according to the tax forms — $12,000. Part of me would tell you that the prize was worth much, much more. Though maybe not the part of me doing my taxes.
Batali's contest did not have a big cash prize. But I did get to go to Texas and hang out with him for a weekend. I learned to cook by watching the Food Network, and Batali was always one of my favorites, so that was a big deal. I've seem him again since then and have access to the super-secret reservation line for Babbo in New York, one of his restaurants, which can be difficult to get into. And Rachael Ray bowed to me. That was cool.
But here is the crazy thing: I almost didn't enter. When I heard about the contest, I almost instinctively came up with the dish that won. It was on-the-spot original. I had never made it before. And I was sure it could win. But there was one thing that nearly ended my quest before it started.
I didn't want to do the required three-minute how-to video. I wanted no part of being in front of the camera, a fact that is not lost on anyone who watches the finished product. But I did it, and it paid off.
So if you have a favorite family recipe, or love to improvise dishes with a minimum of inspiration, here are some tips for recipe contest season:
• Simple wins. A clear, simple recipe is what is going to get you through the initial round of judging. People think that more ingredients show a complexity or wider understanding. More often than not, it shows lack of decisiveness and someone who is trying to show off their pantry. I'm often left slack-jawed by how simple the Pillsbury Bake-Off contest's winning recipe is, and that's worth $1 million. My winning recipe had seven ingredients. Some of the other candidates had more than triple that, and I couldn't tell what they had really made. My recipe had three basic flavor profiles: pork, orange and fennel. You could read the recipe and know how it was going to taste.
• Make sure you're clear. After you write your recipe, give it to friends and ask if they think they could make it based on what you have written. If it makes sense to you but not to them, they're right. Fix the written recipe, because you won't be there to explain it to the judges.
• Keep the sponsors in mind and follow the rules. Some contests require that you use a sponsor's product. Many contests do not have such a requirement, but it is always smart to look at the sponsors. If your recipe calls for hot sauce, and Tabasco is a sponsor, put Tabasco on the ingredient list instead of keeping it generic or listing another brand. But don't shill. There aren't any bonus points for getting the most sponsor products in your recipe.
• Keep the personalities in mind. Paula Deen has a contest right now that has a top prize of $25,000. Do you think a low-fat salad is going to win that contest? No. You better include a stick of butter in any recipe you enter. And maybe put another stick in the envelope if you mail the recipe.
• Do what you know. Your recipe can be something you've never made before. A recent finalist at the Build a Better Burger Contest told the judges she hadn't made her recipe until after she had been named a finalist. She's unusual. You are better off sticking to ingredients and processes you are familiar with than trying to impress with things you don't know how to use.
• Be willing to leave your comfort zone. Contest requires a video and you hate being on camera? Suck it up. Contest requires an essay, but you don't like to write? Do it anyway. If you think you have a recipe that can win and you believe in it, push yourself. Fewer people enter these kinds of contests because so many are turned off by the extra effort. That makes the chances better for anyone who does.
• Know what you're getting into. There was an online voting component to the contest I won. Unless you have a very impressive social network, I do not recommend that. It was rough knowing I could be eliminated by people who didn't have a better recipe, just a better campaign. Also, given the chance, someone will cheat. Don't assume everyone will have as much integrity as you.
Jim Webster can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.