Monday, Oct 22, 2018
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Mary Bilyeu

Seven simple rules for cook-offs


We’re in the midst of two seasons, right now: summer and cooking contest season, which tend to overlap.

As someone whose primary hobby used to be entering culinary competitions (I’ve won/placed in more than 60) and as someone who is now considered a professional (really more of an enthusiast) who judges them — the Northwest Ohio Rib Off, Mobile Meals’ Great Chili Cook-Off, Pizza Palooza, and too many more to enumerate — I’ve seen both sides of this game.

So, with the Ohio State Fair coming up on the 25th, where hundreds of people will vie for blue ribbons in dozens of categories, along with county fairs and ethnic festivals that often host competitions, I thought this would be a good time to offer my guide to contester conduct.

Rule  No. 1: You can’t please everybody or satisfy every judge’s personal palate and preferences. One might like chocolate and also like peanut butter but not like them together — a sacrilege, I know, but it happens. Someone else might really enjoy spicy food while another has very tame taste buds. One of the judges may love coconut while another loathes it. Make it the way you like it and hope the judges like it, too.

Rule No. 2: Follow the brief and offer what’s been asked for. I was judging a chili cook-off in Ann Arbor once when a chicken variety was presented. It had exceptional flavor and without question tasted the best of all the two dozen entries. But it consisted of meat and broth. A debate ensued among the judges, including a restaurateur and a chef: What constitutes chili? Ultimately, it won taste points but lost on the issue of identity, because it was really a chile-infused soup.

Rule No. 3: Chocolate will win 99.999983 percent of the time.

Rule No. 4: Remember the goal of the contest. Is it to promote an ingredient? If you’re participating in an apple competition, then don’t bury the star of the show under a lot of spices or caramel or crumble or crust; shine a spotlight on it. Or is the intent to sell a product? The Pillsbury Bake-Off, for example, exists to increase sales. Use waffles in a stuffing mixture, as the $1 million winner did in 2006, and those frozen goodies are not just for breakfast anymore. Especially with the business-sponsored contests at the state fair, factor their goals into your game plan.

Rule No. 5: Don’t judge the judges. They weigh nuances while comparing, contrasting, and quantifying tastes and textures and try very hard to be fair and objective. Until you’ve also sampled a dozen or more chilis, pies, pizzas, or other food items in a row and been asked to discern a “best” one with many competing factors involved, please don’t vilify anyone for not choosing your entry no matter how stellar it may be. Judging sounds like great fun until you’re presented with people’s best efforts served up on a plate, with hopes and dreams lovingly stirred into the mix. It’s a really tough job.

Rule No. 6: Be a good sport. Congratulate the winners and thank the hosts/sponsors. In my very first contest, a woman who’d presented her offering on a silver, confetti-laden tray and clearly invested a great deal of time and effort on wooing the judges was named the runner-up. She threw quite the hissy fit and stormed off. She’s memorable more than 20 years later for being a sore loser rather than for her entry. If you’re disappointed or feel slighted, go home and grouse to your spouse or whine over wine with your BFFs.

And finally, Rule No. 7: You can’t win ’em all. But have fun trying — that’s what it should really be about.

Contact Mary Bilyeu at, and follow her at​thebladefoodpage, bladefoodpage on Instagram, or @BladeFoodPage on Twitter.

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