I have served as a judge or have helped organize quite a few cooking contests in the last 12 years or so...here are some facts and thoughts I would like to share
Cooking Contest Definition
There is confusion in many quarters as to what consists of a 'Cook-Off', a 'Cooking Contest' or a ‘Recipe Contest'. Some people use the terms interchangeably, but they are completely different type events.
A "Cook-Off" is an event where an individual or a team in which the individual participates cooks a dish in place. Depending on the rules of the Cook-Off, a recipe might be submitted first and approved/rejected or you can just enter and cook whatever the cook-off focus is about - BBQ, Chili, baking, etc. These type contests are usually sponsored by a company or entity to showcase their products; ie: Pillsbury Baking Contest, National Egg Board, National Chicken Council; National Beef or Pork Associations, etc.
The event provides the venue, equipped with kitchen facilities (unless it is a BBQ cook-off and then the entrant brings their special grills, etc. The participant brings his/her ingredients and special tools, equipment they need (if not provided by the event sponsors) and cook in place competing head to head against other individuals/teams. Sometimes a time limit is set.
A "Cooking Contest" is where you prepare your entry dish at home or the location of your choice, following the contest rules and bring the dish to the event's venue to be judged against other contestant entries. Cooking Contests can also be a part of events in State or County Fairs and other events where entries compete for best cakes, pies, preserves, etc.
In a Recipe Contest, just a recipe is sent to a designated mailing or e-mail address or website (no actual dish to be tasted) and if selected, the recipe then has to be made by the entrant to be judged or in some cases, the recipe is made by the kitchens of the contest sponsors, tasted and then judged by a panel selected by the sponsors. These type contests are usually sponsored by a brand name and their product(s) must be featured prominently.
So you’re thinking of entering a cooking contest…
As a foodie who has participated as a judge in many cooking contests, I feel I need to address an issue that causes distress to the judges at every contest. There are entrants who seem to forget to read the instructions and follow them, thus sabotaging their efforts to win.
1) Regardless of how delicious your entry might be, if you didn't follow the rules (late drop-off, recipe not written out correctly, etc) your dish might get disqualified or passed over during judging.
2) If the contest furnishes their own recipe forms, then use them. They are there for a reason; if you need more space it is alright to add an extra page.
3) It is very important to list the ingredients "in the order they are used".
4) If the contest rules say to type or write out the list/amounts of ingredients and explain the method of preparation, then please, don’t just turn in a poorly handwritten paper that says: AP flour, coconut water, ginger and salt. Mix and bake. The judges need more than that to determine all the ingredients used, amounts used and how the dish was prepared. Sometimes winning recipes end up in a cookbook and the recipe needs to follow the proper format.
Food allergies: another important point when listing all ingredients used in the recipe is that there are many people who suffer food allergies; seafood, nuts, gluten, dairy, onions, etc. You would not want anyone who tastes or samples your dish to become ill because the person might be allergic to an ingredient you forgot to list.
Even though taste and originality are big parts of the scoring process, the presentation or appearance of the dish goes a long ways in adding points to a dish. Remember that when it comes to a beautifully presented dish with ‘eye appeal’ or food just thrown into a bowl, the “eyes” will have it (misquote and pun intended).
Mango Sushi - winning recipe at a Mango Festival Cooking Contest
Basic judging criteria used in most contests:
Best use of main ingredient
Creativity or Originality
In some of the contests I have helped judge, criteria can also include: use of local products, use of organic products; use of healthier ingredients. If the particular contest you're entering mentions any of these as part of the rules/criteria to follow, be sure to write next to the ingredient if its locally sourced, organic, low or no fat, natural sweeteners (sugar, cane juice, honey), etc.
Molded Avocado & 'Ahi Poke - winning recipe at an Avocado Cooking Contest
Here are some guidelines to keep in mind:
1) Unless otherwise specified, dish is to be cooked / prepared off premises and brought to be judged within a specified date and time frame.
2) Final dish assembly and presentation can (usually) be done at the contest site.
3) Presentation of dish in foil or plastic disposable container is frowned upon. Please use a regular dish, bowl or tray.
4) Pies or cakes cannot be brought in foil pie dish. A pie dish/cake plate or pedestal dish is required.
Items brought in foil/disposable dishes are subject to being disqualified no matter how good the recipe. The name of the contestant (with a phone number) should be attached to the bottom of each dish.
Very important: a big no-no is to copy a recipe from a cookbook, magazine, website or any other medium and passing it off as your own. Cooking contests are fun because they can give free-reign to a creative cook’s mind. Judges are usually cooking professionals or food writers and are quite savvy about spotting copy-cat recipes. Just switching an ingredient or two does not make a ‘borrowed’ recipe yours.
Judging dishes in a contest is usually done as a 'blind taste' and the judges are not aware of whose entry they are judging. Usually a number is assigned to each entry as your name and contact information should never appear on the recipe form - but it is always a good idea to have a cover sheet with your name, address, phone and e-mail contact information along with the recipe sheet.
The winning recipes are usually featured in articles or websites about the contests and if there is any question about an ingredient or procedure, the writer will need to have a way to contact you for clarification before the recipe is published.
(*) Presentation means how the dish is plated. Contestants are allowed a certain amount of space and the setting cannot exceed the space allowed. Please, keep it simple; do not bring elaborate set-ups. The judges are only interested in the food and how it’s presented ON THE PLATE. Although a nice setting might be pleasing, no extra points are given for any accouterments.
Sometimes less is more...let the food shine!
Liliko'i Crème Brûlée - a winning recipe in a Liliko'i Festival Cooking Contest