As I sit back at my desk overlooking a gorgeous Autumn day in The Holler, it’s hard to believe that at this time 48 hours ago, my biggest concern was weighing the relative merits of “having a drink at the Flamingo” versus “having a drink at the Paris,” following our failure to advance past round two in the 2013 World Food Championships.
Las Vegas is so very far away, in terms of both geography and attitude. Though I’d visited several times before, it had never been with any kind of purpose, and it had never been with Jillian. Trips in my twenties resulted in a kind of three day rolling hangover so severe that they left my hands shaking and my brain unable to process information, skin chapped and blistered from the desert heat and the bourbon, bank account completely emptied into the hands of elderly Asian croupiers and the waistbands of scantily-clad go-go dancers. I had no idea what to expect from a trip to Las Vegas as a so-called adult, one with a wife, a daughter, and, lest we forget, a cooking competition to win.
A 5:50AM flight from Portland landed us in Las Vegas at 11:30AM. We had no hotel reservations; I watched hotel rates go completely out-of-control in response to our event, as well as some sort of car show that was in town and was, from what I could gather from a passing guest, mostly focused on trailer hitch pins. For the first time, we would be placing our faith in “Hotel Tonight,” a last-minute booking app that announces local hotel deals at noon each day.
As we were getting off the plane at 11:55AM, I began checking the app, to find a place to stay. Rates were still crazy, even at the skeeziest hotels in town. We settled on two nights at The Stratosphere, a 1990s-era hotel which straddles the line between the polished presentation and glitz of the strip, and the numerous taquerias and llanterias that seem to make up the bulk of the city.
After circling the airport terminal a few times for no reason in a confused haze, we settled into our rented silver 2013 Dodge Charger and made our way straight from the airport to the local Whole Foods, where we had phoned in an order to the meat department for last minute ingredients, and a rack of prepackaged sushi for lunch. PROTIP!: If you have never enjoyed tuna sashimi while driving a rental car, now’s not the time to start.
Next, we made a quick stop at our hotel to check in. The Stratosphere may not be much, but to my pleasant surprise, it was actually a lot slicker than a lot of hotels I have stayed in Las Vegas in the same price class, with large rooms and an inviting casino. Our fourth floor view looked out only on the concrete side of the adjoining building, but we reminded ourselves that if you’re in your hotel room in Las Vegas, you’re doing it wrong.
After quickly dropping off our stuff, we went straight to “Downtown Vegas” (another area I had never visited) for the mandatory on-site registration for the competition. We had very little to go on; though I had asked for information during a pre-competition online chat with the organizers, the responses to my questions were more clever than they were informative. Though we didn’t know at the time, this would be a theme that would re-occur occasionally throughout the event itself.
When we arrived on Fremont Street, the three or four block stretch of “Old Vegas” that has been closed off to traffic, covered in The World’s Largest LCD Display, and populated with a wide array of schizophrenic vagrants, street performers dressed up as Batman, and schizophrenic vagrant street performers dressed up as Batman, there was very little to go on; though it was hard to miss the “Kitchen Colosseum” (sponsored by Kenmore), there wasn’t much of a suggestion about what to do next. Another competitor pointed us toward “The D” hotel, where we took the elevator to the 14th floor conference rooms.
There was an explosion of activity upstairs, and we felt the huge scale of the event for the first time: Hundreds of cardboard boxes stacked lining the walls, tables full of smartly-dressed professionals typing manically into smartphones, young interns racing around and barking into handheld radios. We were steered first toward a registration table to pick up our informational packets and wristbands, as well as a swag bag full of things like coupons for butter, half-price drink tickets, promotional cookbooks, bottle openers, and tiny toy cows. We posed for our “team photo,” dropped off our ingredients at the outdoor walk-in refrigerator for storage overnight, and were set free to wander and rest for the evening.
Though it had been a long day of travel, it was also Jillian’s birthday, so we rallied for our early 6:00PM reservation at Strip House, one of my favorite steakhouses in NYC that maintains an outpost in Las Vegas. It was a strategic choice; though we were on a very limited budget for the trip, we decided to have one excellent dinner, rather than four mediocre ones over the course of the week. A perfectly-cooked porterhouse for two, wedge salad, two martinis, and a crock full of creamed spinach with black truffles and bacon later, and it was straight to sleep for the long day of competition that lay ahead.
Unaccustomed to waking up sober in Las Vegas, and without a crying baby to help us mark the passage of time, we woke up early on Thursday morning, the day of the competition. Though we knew we should try to lay in and relax before the pre-competition Cooks’ Meeting at 11:00AM, sitting still was impossible. We hit the pavement by 8:30AM, and made our way back to Fremont Street.
It was a much different scene on competition day. Kenmore’s “Kitchen Colosseum,” thirty complete outdoor cooking stations, were arranged in two rows of gleaming stainless steel appliances on a side street. Each workstation was humming with other competitors, already completely engaged in the “Bacon” category of the competition, which was blanketing the entire area with the comforting scent of frying meat. While the first competition of the day was already in full swing, other cooks were still arriving, some dragging giant coolers full of ingredients, or multiple suitcases packed to overflowing with cookware and utensils. We were amazed at the professional level of competition; instead of a group of food blogging amateurs like ourselves, whole teams were showing up in matching customized kitchen scrubs, real chefs who do the things we only talk about, like “owning restaurants” and “running food trucks.” We were awed by the level of competition, as we stood waiting with our cardboard box of ingredients from Whole Foods, the $12 dollar kitchen knife we had brought, and the cheap aluminum pressure cooker that had miraculously made it through airport security without attracting any attention.
Our equipment may not have been much, but we were otherwise feeling pretty spiffy, dressed in matching blue Dickies work shirts, printed with the “From Away” logo. Having a uniform does wonders for the psyche; I understand now why older couples wear matching tracksuits when they go on vacation to Orlando. We weren’t exactly calm, but we felt like we had a game plan for what we were going to cook, for who was going to do what, and in which order.
Before the competition was set to begin, we had to visit “The Pantry,” a U.S. Foods-provided courtesy that was supposed to provide some of the basic ingredients we would need to compete, like cooking oil, sugar, salt, and butter. After some difficulty finding the order we had faxed in days earlier (an issue being grumbled about by many of the competitors), the staff did their best to ensure every chef got what they had ordered, and did so with kindness and enthusiasm. It was just one example of the “we’re all in this together” attitude that was on display both among the competitors and most of the event organizers, and it made everyone feel at ease.
We learned that the “Cooks’ Meeting” that would be the start of our competition and was scheduled for 11:00AM, was running behind and wouldn’t be starting for about an hour. Jeff, the World Food Championships “Communications Director,” a larger-than-life figure with thick pseudo-hipster glasses and heavily-teased great swoops of messy black hair, was pacing back and forth issuing updates to the competitors. We chatted briefly with Nancy Judd and Sherri Williams, who I had previously met last February as competitors in the Today Show Buffalo Wing Cook-Off, and who apparently are a regular part of this small, dedicated group of food competitors. It was nice to see these two friendly faces, women that I had formed something of a bond with through our shared experience at NBC.
The Cooks’ Meeting was an informal affair, held standing up just before competition to go over the rules one last time. For the first round, a bell would ring, indicating that it was time to begin cooking. We would have an hour and fifteen minutes to cook our first sandwich, which Communications Director Jeff joked (?) was “at least an hour more than anyone would need” to make a sandwich. At the 1:15 mark, the “Turn-In Window” would open, and we would have ten minutes to get our sandwiches finished, divided into tasting portions, plated, and turned into the judges. After that, we would clean our cooking stations so that the television cameras who were filming the competition for a reality show for A&E could pretend we were starting from scratch. Then, we would immediately launch into round two, where we would have 45 minutes to cook a grilled cheese sandwich, before the second turn-in window for judging.
We were pointed to our cook station, Number #19, and began to set up our ingredients and equipment, which included several mixing bowls, a whisk and a spatula, a microwave, food processor, blender, outdoor grill, and an electric stove, all plugged into power strips fed from a central electrical cable running through the center of the competition area. A crowd began to gather around the outer perimeter set up around the Kitchen Colosseum, and a giant black boom-mounted camera swung back and forth overhead, filming the competitors as we were setting up to compete. After a few minutes of setup time, the bell rang without warning, signalling the start of round one.
But wait! There’s so much more to tell. Read part two of the saga, right over here.