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Lessons Learned

Two weeks ago, we went to Gainesville, Florida for the weekend, and I realized that Gainesville is exactly how I expected it to be - hot, crowded, and boring. I'm not a sports fan, I'm tired of the heat, and several years ago I lived in Florida long enough to develop a deep and incurable distaste for the entire state. Nothing against anyone from Florida, it's just not for me. That said, we were there for a food competition. The competition wasn't in Gainesville, it was in Williston. If you've never heard of Williston, you're not alone. I don't think anyone other than the twelve people who live there have heard of it either. We were competing on a farm, which was a really cool setup, and it was a fundraiser for their high school, so it ended up being a good thing. I did not score as well as I have in the past, but I learned a few things that day.

Lesson 1: Fundamentals are key. While cooking my steaks, my thermometers started giving really strange readings. Two thermometers side by side were showing internal temperature differences of about 40 degrees. I later learned that when batteries need to be replaced, that is the warning sign. I keep a container of batteries in the same box as the thermometers, I just didn't think to change them. Instead of getting over the malfunction and just cooking like I know how to do, I let it take over, and it affected my scores. I was not rattled by the huge gusts of wind that picked up one side of my tent while I was cooking, blew most everything on my table across the field, and knocked over my drink into my turn in box. Laney and I quickly tied the tent down, she chased the random stuff flying toward cows, I wiped out the box, and continued like it didn't happen. I couldn't shake the thermometers, though. I should have set the thermometers aside and cooked by feel and instinct, and I would have been fine. I have done this hundreds if not thousands of times without the benefit of technology, but that particular time, I did not recover from it.

Take care of your equipment. I am adamant about changing vehicle oil, HVAC filters, taking vitamins, sharpening knives, cleaning out the dryer vent, and everything else to take care of myself and my investments, but I did not consider batteries in my thermometers until now. Now they will get changed before every competition. I even got all of my thermometers out and threw away the batteries so I would be forced to do it at the start of the next use. Lessons learned.

Lesson 2: Know your audience. On the rare occasion I speak to groups of people for my other job, I don't talk to them the same way I talk to my friends in normal conversation. Partly because normal conversation is often peppered with things that could be considered inappropriate, but mostly because it is a different setting and a different environment. I spend time researching and planning discussion points, make notes on certain things, and make sure I'm prepared. When catering events or doing private dinners, I consider the venue, the physical space allowed for food, and have conversations with whomever is hiring me about likes and dislikes. I get as much information as I can about guests, and try to make everything I do meaningful to as many people attending as possible. (This is a lot easier with smaller groups).

For the competition in Williston, I didn't do any of that. I did not consider the location, venue, time of year, and potential weather impact. I did not scroll Facebook groups looking at other peoples' entries from previous years. I didn't think about my exposure to food and the palate the average clientele that I have being different from the judges that were deciding my fate for that particular competition entry. Had I done that, I would not have turned in boiled peanut hummus for the "Anything Peanut" ancillary category that has been continually dominated with desserts. In my defense, it was as good as hummus can be. But, as a whole, hummus is boring, and there's not a lot of room for creative freedom in garnish and plating. I made the best boiled peanuts I could, bought the best tahini I could find, made a garlic confit, and ran it in the food processor until it couldn't get any smoother. Matt Moore would have been proud. I carefully plated it six times (six judges) in one box, closed it, and walked through what I am convinced was a monsoon to turn it in.

When it was time for awards, I felt like at least one of my ancillary entries was going to do well. It did, but it wasn't the hummus. My hummus lost to diabetic inducing desserts, many times over. My other ancillary entry was for anything with blueberries. I used the Escoffier recipe for crepes, and made a blueberry jam. It looked and tasted good, and got tenth place in that category. I walked away from there realizing I didn't research my audience well enough, and knowing that valuable lesson will serve me well in the future.

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