An Insider’s Peek at County Fair Recipe Contests

GeorgeGearyLACountyFairCulinaryCoordinator.jpgMeet Chef George Geary, the Eveready bunny o’ food. He and I have known each other for ages, and I’ve seen him in action as (1) a corporate spokesperson, (2) prolific cookbook writer, (3) pastry chef, (4) culinary tour director (he takes travelers to Paris to walk Julia Child’s French life), (5) culinary competition judge, (6) professional speaker, (7) cooking school owner, (8) guest instructor who travels constantly, (9) cruise ship celebrity chef. He is exhausting.

This week I witnessed him in action as (10) Culinary Coordinator for the LA County Fair’s Culinary Styles Competitions. Smiling the entire time doing it, too.

For 29 years, George has been on the County Fair’s culinary staff. The last five, he’s run the process, which starts as early as January each year and culminating at the Pomona Fairplex each autumn. The event I was privy to cover was Cheesecakes, nosing my way between serious judging of some very enticing entries. Some competitions, like Chocolate, have corporate sponsors with prizes quite glam and competition, wild.  Imagine the Spam competition.

Blue-Ribbons Here at the Fairplex, yes you can watch. No, you can’t taste. It’s in the Culinary Showcase, Club House side of the race track grandstand. Go on in (air conditioned, whew) and view the cabinets of already judged things, like jams, breads, rolls, cookies. Pickles look so friendly all lined up in a mason jar.

Trivia: the LA County Fair is America’s ONLY county fair that accepts entries from anywhere in the world,* so if you are reading this in England and have a great Lemon Curd recipe, ship it on over!  (*“County” not “State” to keep that clear.)

Why enter? You won’t get rich (Ann Turley’s Apricot Cheesecake won her $25, although Spam has a $500 prize). You do it for the thrill of the chase, mostly. Pride. Validation. Makes you feel good.

Entry-lineupGeorge offered these 10 helpful insights if you REALLY want to win. Some may seem obvious, but he confided “you’d be amazed.”

  1. Use fresh ingredients. George doesn’t mean “don’t used canned,” he means “go to the store and buy a fresh bag of pecans, don’t just pull your supply out from the freezer.”
  2. Over-salting happens a lot. Watch that salt level.
  3. Overcooking happens a lot. Entry even slightly singed? Make a new one.
  4. Don’t enter a recipe you’ve seen everywhere. What may appear to be the “latest trend” really means “been there, done that.” Take the best ideas from a few different sources and combine them into your idea for a recipe.
  5. Be new and inventive. This is your time to shine.
  6. Test your recipe on someone who doesn’t love you. They hopefully tell you the truth.
  7. Be consistent. Some competitions, like cookies, require submitting up to 6 of one item, so make sure they all match perfectly in size, color, crispness.
  8. Don’t be intimidated by Old Timers Who Enter Every Year. Judges pay no special attention to people by name, just good food.
  9. Some categories have quite a few more entries than others. If you are a gambler and want a better chance at winning, seek out categories with the fewest number of entries.
  10. If at first you don’t succeed, try try again.

George Geary’s sixth cookbook just hit the bookstores:  500 Best Sauces, Salad Dressings, Marinades and More.


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Janet September 22, 2009 at 8:39 pm

I heart George!!

2 Denise Vivaldo September 13, 2009 at 11:24 am

I was a judge for George once at the Fair…several of the entree ladies ….really wanted to win…
it got ugly…I was afraid to walk to my car alone.
Quite an expereince!
Good George is big.

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