Bentonville stepped into the international limelight this weekend to host the “Final Table” event of the World Food Championships, and the winner has close ties to Arkansas. For the first time, the competition was sponsored by Walmart Inc., and held at the region’s new culinary center, Brightwater: A Center for the Study of Food.
A camera crew from Dick Clark Productions filmed the two-day event, as the WFC is in negotiations with a “major food-related network” to air the competitions, said Mike McCloud, WFC’s CEO and founder.
Lisa Gwatney of Memphis won $100,000 for the execution of her recipe, The Last Supper: Steak & Taters.
“We want you to say that if this was your last supper, you’d want this steak,” Gwatney told the panel of five judges Sunday (April 22), including celebrity athlete Bo Jackson. “This is actually something we’d serve to guests at our home. I’m known for cooking fancy meals, but I like things to feel comfortable.”
Gwatney used wagyu beef ribeye fillets from Snake River Farms, sprinkled with rosemary salt and held at room temperature for two hours. The steaks were seared in a cast iron skillet, rested for seven minutes and topped with Arkansas-grown mushrooms and carrots, and seared foie gras and truffle oil. She served them with a demi-glace reduced with Amerone wine, alongside a potato galette.
Gwatney’s husband Russell is an Arkansas native and 1975 graduate of the University of Arkansas. The couple owns Gwatney Chevrolet in Jacksonville. He served as her sous chef. He also is the brother of former Arkansas Sen. Bill Gwatney, who in 2008 was murdered in his Little Rock office while serving as chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party.
Gwatney is a home cook who’s competed only two years, and she was the “most unbranded” of the 10 contestants, according to McCloud. Gwatney has two sponsors, one being Portable Kitchen Inc. of Little Rock, which manufactures the PK Grill, her preferred way to cook steaks. She owns three of their grills. She replaces the grate with a GrillGrate to aid in searing. Gwatney purchased her mushrooms from Fat Top Farms in Farmington and carrots from Whitten Farms in Tyronza.
Several other local Arkansas products were featured in recipes, including Petit Jean bacon and fresh basil, grown in the Brightwater greenhouse. Crazy Mike’s Crawfish in Springdale provided the crawfish for a seafood entry.
Three professional chefs, three professional cooking teams and four home cooks competed in the “Final Table” event to end the 2017 season. Most food competitions last one day or a weekend, but this series is extended like a football season – with a regular season, playoffs and this Super Bowl-type finale, McCloud said. Contestants were invited to enter the series after winning various local and regional events. Last November, 449 teams from 42 states and 13 countries competed in the semi-finals in Orange Beach, Ala. The 10 category winners received $10,000 each, and then had several months to perfect their recipes and techniques before the “Final Table.”
McCloud produced the now-defunct National Pro BBQ Tour, which was sponsored by Sam’s Club. The annual championship had been held each October for seven years, in the parking lot of the Sam’s Club headquarters in Bentonville.
McCloud said when he visited Bentonville to negotiate terms for Walmart’s sponsorship of this WFC event, he met with Greater Bentonville Area Chamber officials, who suggested Brightwater as a venue. It’s too small to open the event to the public, but a venue such as the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion (AMP) in Rogers could be used for that in the future, he suggested.
There were 107 companies involved in the WFC this year, including sponsors, vendors, and exhibitors. The prize purse totaled $350,000. Walmart provided ingredients for contestants to use in their recipes, and several of them shopped in the local stores on Saturday. Walmart also provided one of five judges, Shawn Baldwin, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of produce and floral for the retailer.
The sponsorship reinforces Walmart’s commitment to freshness and quality ingredients, and brings greater exposure to the WFC, McCloud said. National polls indicate as many as eight of 10 adults watch cooking shows.
“This is the American Idol of food. We’ve had 30 contestants who went on to shows such as ‘The F Word’ with Gordon Ramsay (on FOX) and ‘Chopped’ (The Food Network),” McCloud said. “Our platform is giving birth not just to celebrities but also entrepreneurs. Every cook at this level thinks they have the world’s best something, be it a sauce or seasoning.”
Barbecue contestant Fred Robles owns a butcher shop in Weslaco, Texas.
“Customers often ask, ‘Hey, what does Fred put on his steak?’ So I would like to create my own seasonings and sauces,” he said.
Gwatney, the champion, said she’s interested in creating a steak rub. Craig Baker, an Indianapolis restaurateur who also owns a brewery and winery, said he’s also interested in producing his own sauces. Another “Final Table” judge was foodie venture capitalist Mart Massey, who acknowledged that sauces and spices are challenging categories to enter. Customers for those products often have regional preferences, such as for Texas- or Louisiana-style flavors.
Massey once lived in Northwest Arkansas and worked for Tyson Foods in the 1980s, which he described as a time when “we were throwing the wings away; nobody wanted them or knew what to do with them.” Massey said he’s amazed to see the changes in Northwest Arkansas since that era.
An audience of 50 – sponsors and family members of the competitors – was sequestered in Brightwater’s Ozark Culinary Theater for two hours on Sunday afternoon as dishes were presented to the judges, who quizzed contestants about ingredients and methods. The final two of five judges were Katie Dixon of MasterChef fame and Pitmaster “Big Moe” Cason.
The only glitch was a fire alarm that persisted throughout the building on Sunday during the live filming and judging. The cause was undetermined and the show went on despite the alarm sounding about 10 minutes. Brightwater culinary students were paired with the teams to help with preparations and clean up.