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At the World Food Championships, anyone can be a food star

A scene from the 2018 World Food Championships, held in Orange Beach, Ala. Photo courtesy of the World Food Championships.
A scene from the 2018 World Food Championships, held in Orange Beach, Ala. Photo courtesy of the World Food Championships.
Published Dec. 28, 2018

ORANGE BEACH, ALA. — The flames shoot seven feet, easy, a greasy plume of smoke coming out the back. No one panics, but competitors look over, worried. Stone-faced officials come to assess. Do we need an extinguisher?

The contestants examine their hunk of wagyu beef, charry now from the grill fire, shellac it with a little more horseradish mustard and wrap it in foil to let it rest. They move on. No second chances, no do-overs.

Joe Arvin came in 23rd two years ago, the first time he entered the sandwich category of the World Food Championships. He came in sixth last year.

With the timer counting down, his team goes into high gear. They have their trays to the judging table minutes before the crowd begins to chant ten-nine-eight. Tristen Epps lifts Arvin around his burly middle while Arvin whoops. All around the tent there is hugging, high-fives, celebratory sips of Jim Beam and Wild Turkey.

Thousands of cooks from New Port Richey to Springfield, Mo. have come here in pursuit of prize money, yes. But they're in search of more than that. Food is big business now. Cooking can mean six-figure incomes, instant celebrity, endorsement deals, your own line of pans on HSN, pizzas with your face on them in the freezer aisle.

In the past, that has been just for some, the privileged few who went to the Culinary Institute of America or studied in France. The fancy folks in the tall white hats and crisp white jackets.

This is about taking cooking back.

And maybe it's a microcosm of what has happened in our culture more broadly, a reflection of our unprecedented, polarized political landscape, from the White House to the pages of the news. It's a refutation of elitism and rarefied pedigrees. It's about breaking down barriers and giving regular people the opportunity to do something remarkable, to change their lives, to defeat the odds and come out on top.

• • •

Mike McCloud stands outside. He's the president and CEO of this affair. He pops a cherry cough drop in his mouth, refolds the bag efficiently and sticks it into the zip pocket of his World Food Championships jacket. He's losing his voice, trying to conserve energy so he can make it through, like a politician on the stump.

McCloud compares it to NASCAR, the World Series of Poker, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. He says it's "like Cutthroat Kitchen times a thousand and on crack."

Detractors argue, there are already world food competitions like the Bocuse d'Or and established arbiters of culinary excellence like the James Beard Foundation or the Michelin guides.

"I would challenge any Beard chef, any Michelin-starred chef, any TV celebrity chef who thinks they have the chops to win to come try it."

It wasn't an epiphany. More of an awakening. McCloud, 50, grew up in Monterey, Tenn., population 2,850 at last check. His parents were blue collar factory workers, one in a filter factory the other in heating elements. A three-sport varsity athlete, he was the first in his family to go to college, studying communications at the University of Tennessee. While doing marketing for the Kansas City Barbeque Society, he started seeing something:

Bacon bashes. Burger throwdowns. Steak and chili and barbecue contests. This industry was exploding.

He started the World Food Championships in 2012, held for the first several years in Las Vegas. At this year's competition, the third held in Alabama, 5,994 dishes were created, 501 teams registered from 42 states and 13 countries, 550 volunteers and 377 certified judges.

This year he's reeled in his personal white whale: Walmart is a sponsor. The biggest retailer in the world supporting what McCloud thinks of as the Super Bowl of food sport.

He uses a lot of sports analogies to describe it. There are "cheferees" in the arena suited up in black and white stripes. There's a tap-in-tap-out rule, only three competitors on a team allowed in the kitchen at a time. Teams have one hour to cook; five seconds late with your dish and you're disqualified. The field is whittled down like March Madness.

With a showman's knack for hyperbole, McCloud is pushing back against the lofty culinary establishment. This is real food made by real people, no sous vide equipment, no foams or spherification, no precious farm-to-table messages that pander to the James Beard cognoscenti. McCloud is an evangelist, a populist, a preacher.

"As you learn about food sport you're going to get sucked up into a vortex," he says. "There are high-end opportunities for elite chefs and town square opportunities for home cooks. This allows them to compete together. We don't care about your age, race or culinary pedigree."

And it's true. Roam around the arena and talk to the hundreds of chefs in baseball hats and cowboy hats and jackets checkered with sponsor logos, and themes emerge. Where did you go to school? The school of hard knocks.

A third of the contestants are professional cooks, a third are members of teams on the chili or barbecue circuit, and a third are home cooks. The oldest competitor this year was 91, the youngest 14. Some have qualified by winning a cooking competition, some by submitting a winning recipe to a contest.

But then there's this: the World Food Championships has the world's largest purse of any culinary competition, awarding $350,000 in prizes. Win World Sandwich Champ and it's bragging rights plus $10,000 in your pocket. Go on to win the whole thing when the ten category champs go head to head and you walk away with another $100,000. And so they save their money, they borrow from friends, they max out credit cards and they come, from Maine, from Germany. From Florida.

• • •

Josee Lanzi zips around the arena tent in a high tech-looking knee stroller, seven screws and two plates in her broken ankle. She'd competed the previous six years and the ankle injury wasn't going to prevent a seventh.

On the way to Alabama from her home in New Port Richey, she sat in the backseat and kept her leg propped up.

Every year, she has butterflies and a stomachache before the competition starts. Once the clock starts, she's cool. She times it, practices each dish six or seven times. Maybe she's nervous because she overthinks it.

Lanzi, 49, is a home cook, never a professional. She works for a broker at Raymond James in St. Petersburg.

The best she's ever done was second place in the seafood category in Orlando in 2015. This is not her year. Maybe it's the ankle, maybe because she only brought one helper. Or maybe the judges just don't get her mac 'n' cheese seafood souffle signature dish. Maybe it was too high-minded.

Lanzi places 26th, the lowest she's ever come in. And it's not cheap to take her shot. Some years there's airfare, condo or hotel, schlepping equipment, all the food you need, the entrance fee — it used to be $225, and it's up to $295 this year. Then there are all the ingredients you run through for the practicing. She estimates she spends an average of $1,500 to compete.

Is she coming back next year? Heck, yeah.

It's a place she belongs. It has boosted her confidence. She has a blog and does YouTube cooking videos. It's where home cooks can pursue a dream of greatness.

"It's the largest competition in the world," she says. "You take pride in that."

• • •

Competitors clean up stations, nesting dirty dishes and wrapping the stacks in plastic film to take home.

Their sweat cools, sending a shiver up the back of wet T-shirts and chef coats. An abandoned pile of pickled okra sits in the middle of a stainless-steel work table next to an empty gallon can of Red Gold tomatoes meant to capture competitors' waste and mistakes.

Everybody eats a bite of something, a leftover part of an entry, chewing appraisingly, hopefully. And on the sound system, Tom Petty sings.

Running down a dream. I felt so good, like anything was possible.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

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