Last September, Keith Browning found himself competing against three other chefs on the artificial turf lawn behind his Meat Shop on Lovers Lane for a golden ticket to the World Food Championships, to be held in Dallas October 16–20. That’s when, he says, he got his first taste for blood.
Don’t get it twisted—the butcher and chef has been a connoisseur of all things red and meaty for years, and he’s no newbie to competitive cuisine. He traveled the world with the Epicurean World Master Chef Society team. But, for the most part, the competitions he participated in were somber affairs. American Culinary Federation judges in chef’s whites would stoically peer over his shoulder, silently jotting down notes.
This time, WFC founder Mike McCloud was in charge, and it felt like a party. While handling marketing for the Kansas City Barbeque Society, McCloud had tripled the organization’s sanctioned barbecue contests and taken them international. During his travels, he discovered there were a lot of food competitions out there, but not many that treated amateur chefs like TV stars. He launched the first WFC in Las Vegas in 2012, with 286 amateur and professional teams competing for more than $200,000 in prizes. Seven years later, after taking the show on the road and increasing the prize purse to $350,000, McCloud was bringing the WFC to Dallas, training everyday people to be certified food judges and hosting preliminary competitions with chefs like Browning.
“The way we work, he’s very OCD and I’m very ADD, we make a good team.”Keith Browning
“The way Mike McCloud DJs, he turns it into an Iron Chef competition. He keeps everyone entertained the entire time,” Browning says. “We had a mystery basket with culotte. Some guys went Cajun. Some guys went Spanish. I went kind of Italian with risotto, and this other guy went French. He was tourneeing his potatoes, and he got really fancy. It turned out to be a really good time.”
Browning ended up losing to Sonny Pache from Ocean Prime, but then McCloud invited him to compete at the Dallas Observer’s Iron Fork in May. “I didn’t realize how big it was,” Browning says. “I downed a beer in front of 2,500 people because I was cooking with it, and I got a standing ovation. It was pretty fun.” This time, with his hominy-stuffed quail on a bed of red lentil chili, Browning won.
He’s not sure what ingredients he’ll be working with at the WFC, but he’s ready for even bigger crowds and confident in the abilities of his co-worker and partner in tongs, Jeff Harper. He says the secret to their success is simple: “Sauce. The protein is always going to be great, but that’s just the easy part. It’s what goes to accommodate that protein. And, yeah, I’m a sauce king.”
As for McCloud, he’s not just auditioning chefs; he’s also auditioning the city. “We moved to Dallas because we wanted a bigger population and a better media market,” he says. “And we wanted to be centrally located in the country, so teams from the West Coast and East Coast could get to us equally easily. We look forward to hopefully making it our permanent home, so we can build this out for the next 10 years and make it a staple in the food scene.”