Backyard Chef Cookoff

Backyard Iron Chef

The culinary world has a longstanding tradition of competitions for cooks at all levels, from culinary students competing against their classmates to top-flight chefs facing off against one another in the Culinary Olympics. Most follow what's called a "black box" format, meaning each team or competitor has to use an identical set of mystery ingredients. It can be a lot of fun for both participants and spectators, which is why cooking-competition shows are a staple of reality TV. They can also make for a great day of fun in your own backyard, pitting two friends or groups of friends against one another. Here's how to organize your own.

Choosing and Preparing the Venue

You'll need a location that's central for most of the people who will be involved, one that's large enough to hold two grills and provide plenty of space. You'll also need a couple of tables for food preparation and for serving once the meal is prepared. The grills should be comparable in size and features, so the competitors start with roughly equal cooking capacity. If the grills don't have side burners, you can use camp stoves for extra cooking capacity or simply provide equal access to the stovetop in the host's kitchen. Provide each team or each competitor with a similar set of staple ingredients, basic utensils and small appliances such as blenders or food processors. If they come from multiple homes, make sure each piece is labeled so it goes back to the correct owner.

Purchasing the “Black Box” Ingredients

The mystery ingredients for your cook-off can come from any source, from a friend's garden to Main & Vine! Whichever source you choose, hold the competition later on the same day you buy the food so the ingredients will be at their freshest. If they're perishable items, such as fresh seafood or raw-milk cheese, make sure the buyer takes along a picnic cooler and gel packs to keep the ingredients cold and safe. Usually the goal is to create an appetizer, a main dish and a dessert, so choose appropriately. Ingredients can be more or less exotic, depending on the skill level of your competitors or how long of a history you have together.

Playing the Game

Professional competitions tend to have elaborate rules and scoring systems, but you don't have to be that formal. Just decide how long the teams have to create their dishes and who makes up each team. Try to balance the teams so each group has at least one experienced cook. Then sit back and enjoy the show, shouting encouragement at the competitors. When the meals are ready, taste each dish head-to-head and vote for your favorites. For additional fun, pick out a few inexpensive prizes for the teams. They can be practical – aprons and kitchen gadgets, for example – or laugh-inducing gag gifts from the novelty store.

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