A one-month span before the holidays has delivered Blue Wahoos chefs Travis Wilson and Carl Sackman a pair of special memories.
The tandem recently placed fifth in the sandwich category at the 11th Annual World Food Championships in Dallas, an event at the Texas State Fairgrounds in mid-November which attracted more than 1,500 chefs from around the world, all competing in categories with combined prize money exceeding $300,000.
The two earned their way into this first-time experience, after being awarded “best overall” in the Innisfree Food Challenge, a qualifying event held in October at Pensacola Beach.
“There were teams from France, Australia, Thailand, Hong Kong, so it really was a lot of global competition,” said Wilson, the Blue Wahoos executive chef, who rejoined the Blue Wahoos culinary team prior to the 2019 season. “And with a lot of these people, that’s all they do. They are competition cooks.
“And for us to have the chance to represent Pensacola, the Blue Wahoos, RS3 (Ryan Sanders Sports and Strategic Hospitality) to showcase we’re more than just hot dogs and hamburgers, it was great. We have done some local competitions in past years and sometimes you feel those are judged with a little more bias.
“So going to something like this, where it was a case of, what you put on the plate, how good was it? (Judges) didn’t know who put the plate down in front of them, it was so awesome to be part of competition like that.”
The event was held in a fairgrounds warehouse venue right outside of the famed Cotton Bowl Stadium, which has been operational since 1930.
“There were 20 identical stations with the same cooking equipment,” Wilson said. “And throughout three or four days, there were competitions going non-stop in 12 different categories
You had 90 minutes to prepare and the last 10 minutes, you had to place the platters on the table or you got disqualified. There was a team in the first round that got disqualified for missing that timer.”
Wilson and Sackman, the Blue Wahoos executive sous chef, advanced from the first round by preparing a delight they called a Thanksgiving stuffed waffle, complete with raspberry, cranberry and gooseberry jam, along with sweet potato butter, plus an additional dish of chicken-fried, turkey breasts.
It met the required theme of a different style food dish on Thanksgiving and something able to be created from leftovers.
“We knew a lot of people were going to do a turkey burger, so we went with a next-day leftovers type of dish,” Wilson said. “What is the best part of Thanksgiving? Leftovers. And what do you do with leftovers? Well, make an awesome brunch the next day.
In the second round, Wilson and Sackman prepared a lamb meatballs sandwich with goat cheese, which was a required ingredient, plus caramelized onion, shallots, and garlic and goat cheese spread.
“I was ecstatic (to finish fifth) because the margins are so slim, it’s such a high level of competition,” Wilson said. “And we got pushed through the first round by the master chef, so again, we got recognized for our hard work and our creativity by not just judges, but by someone who gave us his own vote to move on to second round.
“And in the second round to get top five… we have never done this before. And there are people who have been doing this kind of thing for eight, nine years. It’s a tough setting they put you in, but it really makes you raise your game up.”\
Both chefs grew up in Pensacola and developed their love for culinary specialties and working in the industry. The two have been part of the Blue Wahoos food and beverage team for the past four years, including the 2020 season without baseball due to the coronavirus pandemic.
They’ve competed in local and regional cooking competitions, but never anything of this scale.
“For them to be able to go to the World Food Championships was really an extraordinary thing for two of our chefs and RS3 and representing the Blue Wahoos as well,” said Eric Kroll, the Blue Wahoos general manager of food and beverage. “It is really cool and much deserving for them.
“Travis and Carl have a lot of experience working in a restaurant. So, they are able to cultivate that restaurant experience into a baseball sports entertainment dynamic… they draw from that in a lot of things they do.”
For the first three weekends of December, the Blue Wahoos culinary team will be preparing different kinds of food for special private events with small businesses and large scale Christmas party events with the City of Pensacola and the Escambia County school district.
It is part of the mission to have Blue Wahoos Stadium as a year-round events venue, rather than just a baseball season operation. Few minor league stadiums are able to operate as year-round event venues, either do to the weather, or the size of the full-time staff. The Blue Wahoos have made events part of the entire 12-month schedule.
“On (Wahoos) game days we make memories, but events at the stadium are just so different than a regular baseball game,” Wilson said. “It is just unique. And the way we use our stadium is unique and I love doing it. Anything you can think of we can do it, or have done it.”
The duo’s passion and willingness are qualities that have been reflected in the array of event food preparation and the specialties during baseball season.
" I think their ability to work together as a team is tremendous,” Kroll said. “You don’t often see two guys in their role able to click as well as they are able to click.”