Chris Sherrill was fresh off finishing third in the seafood category of the World Food Championships near Orlando last year when he looked around the empty parking lot of The Wharf in Orange Beach.
“I stood in this parking lot and I looked around and said this is a place that could host the World Food Championships,” Sherrill said.
Thursday, that once-empty parking lot was buzzing with activity as chefs and other cook team members prepared to head into the “world’s largest outdoor kitchen” to do battle in the seafood category of the World Food Championships, billed “The Ultimate Food Fight.” More than 400 teams from as far away as Tanzania to as close as Orange Beach are vying for $300,000 in prize money. The event runs through Tuesday, Nov. 15.
Sherrill, the chef at the Flora-Bama Yacht Club, had heard that there were some logistical problems with the location near Orlando and was hoping he could convince Mike McCloud, president and CEO of the World Food Championships, to bring the event to the Alabama Gulf Coast in 2017 or 2018.
“I never in my wildest dreams believed it would be 2016,” Sherrill said, a smile cracking his bearded face.
McCloud was skeptical at first. He knew how Sherrill felt about his hometown and thought his pitch might just be boosterism. Sherrill assured him it wasn’t. So, after Christmas in 2015, McCloud made an unannounced visit to The Wharf, a retail and entertainment development on the Intracoastal Waterway Canal in Orange Beach.
“This is a great place for food sport to settle in and grow some roots,” McCloud said as he surveyed the property.
The World Food Championships bills itself as the largest competition in “food sport.” Competitors qualified at regional competitions and compete against at least 50 other cook teams in nine categories. Champions will be crowned in the barbecue, chili, burger, sandwich, bacon, steak, seafood and recipe categories. The nine champions then battle it out at the Final Table.
“When you come to a competition like this, you have to realize that you are competing against 50 other competitors and you need to find a recipe and a dish that really shines to stand out and be a winner over all the other competitors,” said two-time Pasta Champion Suzanne Clark.
McCloud started the World Food Championships in 2012 in Las Vegas with more than 300 culinary champions and chefs taking part in the inaugural event. After two years in Las Vegas, the competition moved to the Orlando area for two years.
In 2014, it was filmed for a six-part reality series on the A&E Network’s FYI Channel. In 2015, it was filmed for another six-part series on the Discovery Network’s Destination America.
“In four short years we’ve had four different champions from four different categories,” McCloud said. “We think that’s a great sign of how we’ve developed a true, fair, legitimate sport.
“They are putting hours and dollars and sweat into their craft. For many of them this is a hobby or an addiction. We can’t figure out which it is yet.”
Sherrill agrees that competitive cooking is an addiction and competing gives him his “fix.”
“It’s indescribable how awesome it is to compete on a level with this many great chefs and come out well or on top,” he said.
The tented competition area features 50 complete kitchen areas where the cook teams prepare their dishes. As the chefs hustle around preparing ingredients and combining them into dishes, spectators hang over the railing to watch.
Marvin Brunick, a chef by trade, sees it all through a trained eye.
“The organization is very, very good,’ Brunick said. “From what I see, the quality of the food is good. This is a great venue, it’s beautiful.”
But more goes into it than the average person knows.
“Preparation to get ready to cook over a short period of time takes a lot of work by a lot of people,” Brunick said as he watched the chefs compete in the seafood category. “It’s very difficult. A lot of these people have done preparatory work all day for this two-hour period. This is hard work so they have to love their work.”
Amber Bodle of Gulf Shores came to support one of the chefs she worked with. It’s her first time to view a cooking competition.
“It smells delicious in here,” she said with a smile and then noted the number of RVs in the parking lot. “I didn’t know it is as big as it is.”
Cheville Blair, a self-described “foodie” from Jamaica with a culinary background, enjoyed the spectacle.
“It’s amazing,” Blair said. “There are a lot of great chefs competing.”
Gene and Patti Carden of Orange Beach came to watch their son-in-law compete.
“Just to watch them cook – seeing them throw it all together – is amazing,” Gene Carden said. “And I love tasting it.”
Patti Carden concurred.
“It’s a lot of fun to taste the food,” she said. “Their talent in preparing the food is incredible.”
The World Food Championships trains judges in a system it calls E.A.T., an abbreviation for execution, appearance, taste. The system is designed to allow judges to fairly compare different kinds of dishes against each other.
The public had the opportunity to buy tickets to various tasting events with tickets starting at as little as $5.
The Final Table competition to determine the overall champions drew celebrity judges seen on a variety of television shows. Judges included: Robyn Almodovar, owner of an award-winning food truck called Palate Party who has appeared on Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen and Food Network’s Food Truck Face Off; Katie Barreira, test kitchen director for Time Inc. Food Studios; Bob Baumhower, former University of Alabama and Miami Dolphins football star and restaurateur; Chris Lilly, executive chef for Big Bob Gibson’s Bar-B-Q; and Vic Vegas, TV celebrity chef.
The competition will bring an infusion of cash to the Gulf Coast.
“We have already surveyed our contestants and we know that they will spend more than $800,000 in your community,” McCloud said during the event’s kickoff. “That doesn’t include the 400 judges coming here from all over. It doesn’t include all of the team members that are part of those 419 teams. We fully expect that the economic impact on Orange Beach over the next 5 to 7 days will be $2.5 to $3 million.”
And it comes at a very good time, Sherill said.
“This is a tough time of the year for businesses to support themselves,” Sherrill said. “Our season is over.”
The competition may bring 1,000 to 2,000 families to the area.
“People are staying here,” Sherrill said. “They’re making small vacations out of it. They’re eating in the restaurants. We’re putting heads in beds.”