How to Win a Cookoff

In 2009, Nick Suarez set out to win the Great Hot Dog Cookoff, an annual tradition in Brooklyn, NY. His dog was an all-beef frank topped with bacon, fried corn, cilantro, cotija cheese and hot sauce. After taking the top prize, Nick shared the winning recipe on Grill It with Bobby Flay, then was challenged by Bobby to a Hot Dog Throwdown, which Nick won. Two years later, Nick is back to compete in this weekend’s 6th Annual Hot Dog Cookoff with his newest creation, a riff on the classic chili cheese dog. Nick shares his secrets for winning.

Having competed in various cookoffs and hosted even more, I’ve tried to pinpoint a formula for winning. While preference is a subjective thing — I’ve noticed that audience members tend to vote for more homestyle, comfort dishes, while judging panels tend to prefer dishes with refined, nuanced flavors — I ultimately believe you can win any cookoff with any dish by keeping two things in mind. I always say that winning cookoffs is 50% logistics and 50% flavor balance.

The first question any competitor must ask themselves is, can you logistically pull off your dish within the parameters you’ve been given? Can you keep hot food hot and cold food cold? Is it humanly possible to serve your dish to hundreds of people in a timely manner, while maintaining your sanity? They key to winning is to create and shape your dish according to the competition parameters, instead of picking a recipe first and hoping you can pull it off on competition day.

Make sure your recipe isn't impossible to prepare on competition day.

The second thing to keep in mind is balance of flavor. At most cookoffs, people are only getting one small bite of your dish. Therefore, you must pack as much punch as you can by essentially creating the perfect bite. People can instantly taste if something is not balanced. Does your dish have enough salt? Nobody likes a bland dish. You’d be surprised what a few pinches of salt can do. Keep tasting your food and seasoning until you’ve found the right amount.

Also keep in mind the balancing act of sweetness, bitterness, sourness and acid. Veer too much in one direction, and you throw everything out of whack. Constantly adjust and trust your tongue. If you have to spend days refining your dish and tasting it multiple times to get it right, so be it.

Nick's winning entry -- "Brooklyn's Corniest Dog"

One of the most important aspects of cookoffs — and cooking in general — is the layering of flavors and complexity. If you are competing in a chili cookoff, you could take the easy route and just throw the meat, seasonings and other ingredients into a pot and call it a day. Or you could use basic techniques to heighten the flavor and complexity, like browning the meat to get caramelized flavors, slowly sweating the onions to develop their sweetness, and using homemade stock the give your chili the fullest possible flavor.

When planning a cookoff dish, try to utilize as many techniques as possible to push your culinary boundary. Cookoffs are a great way to experiment and try something you’ve never done before. Just make sure you perfect your recipe in advance, and nail down your cookoff-day plan of attack.

Keep reading for a preview of my hot dog recipe for this weekend’s 6th Annual Hot Dog Cookoff!

Taste Nick’s dog and 22 other competing hot dogs this weekend at the 6th Annual Great Hot Dog Cookoff in Brooklyn, NY. Proceeds benefit Food Bank of New York, a 28-year-old non-profit working to end food poverty throughout the five boroughs. 

More Hot Dogs: 

Learn more about Nick Suarez and his national cookoff series, Food Experiments, at thefoodexperiments.com.

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