Local chefs take first place at sixth annual World Food Championships
Writer / Jon Shoulders
By the time Craig Baker and Ben Hardy found out they’d advanced to the final round of 10 chefs in their category at the World Food Championships (WFC) in Orange Beach, Alabama, last November, they knew they had a fighting chance for victory – despite being in eighth place at the time.
“Our category, which was World Chef Champion, was stacked and super competitive, and there were more accolades amongst the chefs in our category than all the other categories combined,” says Baker, chef and partner with Bent Rail Brewery & Restaurant in Broad Ripple and The Local Eatery & Pub in Westfield. “The spread between first and 10th place was only two points as we were going into the top 10. We knew we were in the hunt.”
Baker survived three rounds to win the World Chef Champion category, which came with a $10,000 prize package. Each competitor was allowed up to two sous-chefs, and Baker chose to bring Hardy, chef and owner at The Gallery Pastry Shop on East 54th Street, with whom he had become friends during the past year and had come to respect as a chef and pastry expert.
More than 450 chef teams from 14 countries and 40-plus U.S. states competed at this year’s WFC, and more than 8,000 dishes were prepared for various panels of chef and celebrity judges. Other categories included Seafood, Steak, Chili, Burger and Sandwich.
“The hardest part is that they basically just give you a table and an oven, and that’s it,” says Hardy, who was a first-timer at the event. “It’s maybe 10 square feet of walking-around space. You’re working in a brand-new space and you’re supposed to represent your best dish.”
Qualification for the annual event requires a first-place performance at a qualifying food contest predetermined by WFC officials, and Baker secured his ticket back in 2016 with a victory at the WFC seafood boil in Alabama.
“It still hasn’t really set in, and it was a ride of emotions,” says Baker, who has cooked professionally for nearly 20 years and made four WFC appearances prior to November. “In my previous years, the highest I ever scored was sixth and that was in seafood. I’ve done burgers three other times and scored between 11th and 23rd. There’s definitely a learning curve to it.”
The victory took some ingenuity and a willingness to stand out from the crowd. Since competing chefs were required to incorporate cream cheese into their final-round dishes, Baker and Hardy decided to attempt a dessert rather than a flashy entrée, and in the allotted 90-minute time frame he and Hardy created a white chocolate napoleon, with a macaron and macerated strawberries with lime juice and honey as accompaniments.
“It was a huge risk, and we literally knew we were going to come in first or 10th,” Baker says.
A major setback occurred 30 minutes into the final round when Hardy realized the initial batch he’d prepared was not up to his standards and chose to throw all of it away.
“I looked at the clock at that point and worked backwards in my mind figuring everything we had to do,” Hardy says. “Craig turned to me and said, ‘We’re not going to make it.’ But at that point we had about an hour left, and I felt we were still good.”
While other chefs competing in the finals were submitting savory dishes like lobster and lagu beef, Baker and Hardy stuck to their guns, and submitted their dessert with just 52 seconds remaining on the clock.
“Basically, it was like a white chocolate mousse between layers of puff pastry,” Baker says. “It was kind of like a riff on strawberries and cream. We found out no one had ever attempted to do a macaron at WFC. When we were talking to one of the judges afterwards he thought the macaron was store-bought, which made us laugh.”
Baker and Hardy made sure to use ingredients from their multiple Indiana-based sponsors throughout each round of the competition, including duck from Maple Leaf Farms and Red Gold Tomatoes for their first-round paella dish. Piazza Produce and Indy’s annual Fantastic Food Fest were also sponsors.
“When we do our dishes, we make sure we represent those companies in our plates,” Baker says. “We try to do as much as we can to represent the state and be ambassadors if you will. We had our Red Gold shirts on while we were competing. We were logoed out.”
The winners from November in each category will now compete at the WFC Final Table on April 21-22 at an as-yet-undisclosed location, and the victor will take home $100,000 in cash and prizes.
“Ben and I are really focused on the next round,” Baker says. “We’re splitting the winnings from the last round, but we don’t want to enjoy anything yet. We’ve talked a lot about strategy and what we want to do. We have a dish in mind that we’re playing close to the vest, and as long as they don’t pass any restrictions on what the chefs can do, we know what we’re going to do. I feel like we’ll be ready.”