How to win a cooking contest

21 Feb


This past Saturday, I was in my first live cooking contest. It was part of an annual food bank fundraiser–the Mac & Cheese Bowl–hosted by a food critic and blogger for our local newspaper. Now in its third year, the event draws about 2,000 people who crowd a Marriott ballroom on a mid-winter Saturday to sample a variety of macaroni and cheese recipes from 30 or so area restaurants. Before the doors open to the carb-clamoring public, a handful of pre-qualified “home cooks” shows up with ready-to-eat original recipes for a panel of judges to taste. This year, I was among the 10 finalists, chosen for my Muumuu Mac & Cheese recipe. I did not walk away a winner, but do share these tongue-in-cheek tips for how to win, based on the success of the now two-time Mac & Cheese Bowl “home cooks” champion, a ringer named Christian Noe.

#1. Be tall, aloof, and too cool for contests.

Notice the J.Crew dude amidst us rag-tag amateurs? He knows he’s already got this thing in the bag. He’s done this before. Laid back, unassuming, just-rolled-out-of-bed casual. Yet possessed of that certain celebrity “aura” and quiet confidence. He was the last to arrive and set up his dish. The rest of us in this motley crew were on time, eager, chatty. He rolled up almost fashionably late, taking his place at the home cooks’ table as we fellow competitors looked on with a sort of hushed reverence at last year’s title holder. Classic winner power play.

#2. Don’t have too much fun.

As we were arriving at the venue and hustling to set up promptly as instructed, Hubby gently mocked my earnestness, even comparing me to Little Miss Sunshine. Personally, the experience felt a bit more Westminster Kennel Club. As we posed for the cameras, I turned to the fun fellows beside me, two guys from Manhattan who were competing as a sort of challenge to their winner friend Christian, masking my insecurity as I often do (with humor) by querying: “So, do you think the judges are going to, you know, cup our groins like they do at those dog shows?”

#3. Make a dish that gives a subliminal directive to the judges.

In this case, the winning dish sported a “churro garnish”. To me, it looked like an edible “#1”. Or like a mocking “we’re #1” finger pointed skyward. Or like an exclamation point at the end of “Pick me! Pick me!”



#4. Already be somebody, so that the judges can be confident that they are not picking a “flash-in-the-pan” contestant. 

Apparently, having your own catering business does not disqualify you as a “home cook” at the Mac & Cheese Bowl (at least, not until next year). So, if you can pull it off, establish a company, call it “Nighthawk’s Kitchen”, and have a loyal posse show up with sweatshirts bearing your business name. Instant dedicated cheering section when you are announced as the winner.

#5. Have friends who really can cook, and will still be your friends, even when you win with a dish that is clearly inferior to theirs.

I never expected to win this contest with my submission (so please don’t interpret this post as a case of sour grapes). But I didn’t expect the defending champion to win either. “Nighthawk” Noe’s dish was mediocre at best. On paper, Christian’s recipe looked good. But in presentation? Just awful. It really needed that silly churro to stand out, since it lacked any sort of flavor except “spicy”. While the home cooks’ dishes were not offered to the general public for tasting, we all tasted each other’s once our samples had been served to the panel of judges. Each dish was so different, how to choose a winner? No apples-to-apples comparison. But on taste and uniqueness, the gents from Manhattan who giggled at my groin joke should have won. It is with hats off to them that I share their recipe here.


Tequila Mac & Cheese

by David Press & Tim Scholler


  • 8 oz. Spanish chorizo, casings removed, diced
  • 4 jalapenos, diced (or one 4-oz. jar of jalapenos, drained)
  • 3-1/2 c. half-n-half
  • 1/2  c. Mezcal or Anejo tequila
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 1 lb. Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
  • 1 lb. sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 1 lb. cavatelli pasta, cooked per package directions and drained
  • 1/2 c. flour
  • 1 tsp. dry mustard
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 stick unsalted butter
  • 1-1/2 c. crushed tortilla chips
  • Salt & pepper, to taste


  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  • In an airtight bag, crush the tortilla chips into small pieces and set aside.
  • If using fresh jalapenos, slice the jalapenos in half lengthwise, removing the seeds and all of the white parts. Place the jalapenos on a baking sheet in the center rack of the oven and roast for 12-15 minutes, turning once. Once cooled, dice the jalapenos and seat aside.
  • Heat frying pan over medium-high heat and add the olive oil. Once the olive oil is heated, add the chorizo and cook 2-3 minutes until lightly browned. Set aside.
  • Heat the half-n-half in a small sauce pan, but don’t boil it.
  • Separately, melt (4) tablespoons butter in a large pot and add the flour. Cook over low heat for 2 minutes, stirring with a whisk. While whisking, add the warm half-n-half, tequila, and mustard, and cook for a minute or two more, until thickened and smooth.
  • Remove the mixture from the heat and add the cheeses, jalapenos, and chorizo. Add the cooked cavatelli and stir well.
  • Pour into a 3-quart baking dish. Sprinkle crushed tortilla chips evenly over the top.
  • Melt the remaining (4) tablespoons of butter over low heat, add the crushed garlic, and let it infuse in the butter for 2-3 minutes. Discard the garlic and drizzle the butter over the top of the crushed tortilla chips.
  • Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbly.

5 Responses to “How to win a cooking contest”

  1. Sarah February 21, 2012 at 9:21 pm #

    I am dying over here! Girl, you can tell a story! We’re both LOLing ….GREAT TIPS for winning a cooking contest!

    Both Hubby and I agree, you should have won. We’ve had your Mac and Cheese, we know it’s fantastic. You win. Period. I think you need to take it out on the Mac and Cheese Bowl circuit. Clearly these people know zip about what they were judging. We already know you’ve won Hubby’s office over with yours!

    This is fabulous Tara. Thanks for posting….especially on a Monday!

    Tequila Mac and Cheese????!!! O M G.

    • ramblings&roasts February 21, 2012 at 10:15 pm #

      Glad you found this entertaining, and not snarky! Didn’t realize how competitive I was with this. 🙂 It’s so much more meaningful to me to know that a cadre of Midwest architects like the Muumuu!

      • Sarah February 21, 2012 at 10:33 pm #

        Well, they are experts in eating. Believe me!


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