Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Blogger Summit at the World Food Championships 2016 - Orange Beach Alabama Day 1

I was fortunate enough to attend the Blogger Summit at the World Food Championships in Orange Beach last month.  I was excited not only about getting to see the competition itself but also learning about food trends, culinary science, and becoming a certified E.A.T. food judge.  

I drove down to beautiful Orange Beach, Alabama on Sunday and had the entire 3 bedroom, beach front condo to myself.  They put us up at Turquoise Place, which are absolutely beautiful vacation condos.  

As soon as I walked in and saw the kitchen with Subzero and Wolf appliances, I thought, "Yeah....I can 'make do' with this."

I had some food prep to do for a photo shoot scheduled for the following day, so I popped a cold beer and got to work.

The first day of the Blogger Summit included sessions that surprised me with how much I learned.

Gulf Shores/Orange Beach Tourism
We were welcomed to the Gulf Coast by Kay Maghan, the Public Relations Manager for Gulf Shores/Orange Beach, Alabama. There is a reason why 6.1 million guests visit each year, creating over 48,000 travel jobs with 1.3 billion dollars in wages.   I have been coming to this area since 1985 and we have family in the area, so I already knew about the stunning white sand beaches, amazing fishing, fine dining, and the incredible year round outdoor activities.  We love this area and always look forward to our several visits each year.

If you haven't checked this area out before or if you belong to an organization looking for a place to have a conference, the Gulf Coast must be on your list, trust me.  Here's a personal tip from me - check out the off season months. Sure, you save money that way but it's a great time to visit because the beaches take on a different look, it's not crowded, and you get to feel like a local. 

Best business locations.
The beaches of the Gulf Coast are famous for their white sand beaches.  The sand is so fine and pure that it literally squeaks underneath your feet.  Being a tourism locale like our nearby Great Smoky Mountains here at home, the entire area is geared towards making your visit spectacular. 

I am a beach rat and was on the beach before I could even walk.  Anyone who lives at the beach knows that during the winter months, visiting the beach is a special treat. When I lived on Florida's East coast, I loved walking on the beach when a Nor'easter would roll in.

Luxury Coffee Break - Cup of Luxury
One of the perks of being a food blogger is that we get treated to luxuries that a lot of people would never imagine and that I probably could not afford.  Case in point, on our coffee break we got to try a extremely special hand picked, hand washed, and hand roasted coffee from coffee purveyor, Cup of Luxury.  Did I mention, this particular coffee runs $1,200 per pound?

I waited until everyone else got theirs because I am not a coffee drinker.  I knew the nuances of this fine coffee would be lost on me the same way the intricacies of grade A5 Kobe beef would be wasted on a vegetarian. But I still wasn't going to pass it up :)

Oyster Farming Revolution
Dr. Bill "Dr Oyster" Walton from the Auburn University Shellfish Lab came to talk to us about the growing practice of oyster farming. I'm a geek and was fascinated by this session. I grew up on the waterways of Florida where oysters all over the place, so I was curious as to why anyone would bother to farm an oyster.  The short answer turns out to be quality control and creating a premium oyster are why oyster farming is taking off.

The long answer had a scientific yet easy to understand explanation.  Here are the take aways that I had from the session.
  • Traditional methods used the waterway bottom for growing the oysters in either private or public beds.  
  • They would seed these with "spat" (for lack of a better term, think oyster eggs) on old oyster shells.
  • These traditional beds are subject to fouling and overset.
  • The newer farming raises the oysters "off bottom" where they are grown suspended in the water.
  • This helps keep the oysters clean and free of fouling.
  • The "off bottom" farming simulates and extra long low tide where the oyster uses it's muscles more to stay closed tight, creating a premium oyster.
  • Off bottom farming provides benefits like regulating the shoreline, acting as a water filter, and creating habitat.
  • Instead of leaving things to nature and chance, off bottom farming lets the farmers chose the ideal environment to grow the best oysters, including water flow, oxygen levels, and perfect salinity.
  • This farming trend is taking off, in Alabama there were no such farms in 2008 and now there are 13.  Louisiana and Florida are following in suit.
  • On bottom oysters tend to go to canners while off bottom oysters are the premium oysters you get in fine dining establishments.
This session was surprisingly one of my favorites. I only say "surprisingly" because I've never even thought about how oysters get on your plate. But Bill has such a passion for this that you can't help but to catch his enthusiasm for oyster farming.

BroTorch Food Trend
The folks at Hormel gave us a fiery introduction to a twist on the food trend of blow torch cooking....the BroTorch!  They weren't sure they were going to be able to pull it off because of the winds roaring off of the Gulf.  The Orange Beach Fire Department was on scene and had to give the thumbs up.  After testing, talking, more testing, more huddled talking, it was finally a go!

World Food Championships 2016 Orange Beach Alabama
Why yes, that is two rakes with a bunch of hot dogs on them....how else do YOU make chili dogs for 2 dozen of your friends at one time?

Okay, no, they don't expect you to do that. It's a publicity thing, not an instructional video.  But you can do your own BroTorching at home.  

World Food Championships 2016 Orange Beach AL
Eric Harland, of the MadPig BBQ competition team, demonstrates ways to cook at home using a hand held torch.  Here he is grilling strips of flank steak on top of a pineapple.

World Food Championships 2016 Orange Beach AL
I might have to make myself one of these just for fun.  I wonder if the same attachment would fit a MAPpro gas cylinder. MAPpro burns hotter than the propane that they used and propane can sputter when held inverted whereas I understand MAPpro does not.

Keynote Speech - Mike McCloud
At lunch, Mike McCloud, CEO of the World Food Championships, came to talk to us about the championships and the phenomenon of food sport.  At this event, 430 teams, some 1,421 chefs from 48 states and 14 countries are all in Orange Beach to claim their share of a $350,000 prize purse.

World Food Championships 2016 Orange Beach AL

The way it works is that teams have to qualify via competition events for one of 9 categories.  This year the 9 categories are bacon, burger, chili, dessert, recipe (breakfast), sandwich, seafood, steak, and of course, BBQ.

Republished with permission from the World Food Championships.

For the opening round, the teams have to cook a structured dish and their signature dish. Their signature dish is most likely what got them there and the structure dish is just making sure they aren't a one trick pony.  The top 10 of each category go on to compete against each other.  Then the 9 category winners compete against each other for a grand prize of $100,000.  Yeah, that's a chunk of change.  The BBQ section is different but I'll cover that in it's own post.

Wampler's Sausage: Farm to Future
This session blew me away.  Wampler's Sausage is a company based in Lenoir City, TN, just a stone's throw from our home in West Knox county.  That's not what blew me away.  What did is that they are leading the way in renewable energy and will be energy independent in 2017.

Ted Wampler explains how their family farm grew from a simple farm in 1935 to a cutting edge facility that is about to become fully energy independent.  That's incredible.

They started with solar power in 2009 and now are using a innovative biomass process to generate the electricity to run their plants. They are working with Dr Sam Wheeler and Proton Power to run these scalable generators for clean energy.  Even more insane is that a byproduct of these biomass systems is graphene, which is a material that is the future.  Graphene has the potential to blow the silicon chip for computer processing and more.

I was impressed with how much Wampler's is all about reducing water use, increase recycling, and reduce waste both on the processing and customer end. They aren't just talking the talk, they are speaking with their wallet.

Food Styling for Social Media - Michael Sewell
The WFC brought photographer extraordinaire, Michael Sewell, to coach us through a food photography session.  

World Food Championships 2016 Orange Beach AL
Michael Sewell demonstrating his approaches to food photograpy.

Then they cut us loose to shoot our own recipes that we had created using Saucy Mama's products.

World Food Championships 2016 Orange Beach AL
It was fun chaos, food bloggers everywhere looking for the best lighting, angles, backdrops, and more.

World Food Championships 2016 Orange Beach AL
My recipe is Cashew Ginger Chicken Spring Rolls that I made using Saucy Mama's Sesame Ginger Dressing.

What a day!  Coming up is Day 2 when we spend the day on a field trip to Bayou la Batre learning about the Alabama seafood industry.