Two years ago she was a restaurant consultant who entered cooking competitions as a weekend hobby. Then Jennifer Daskevich blew the judges' socks off with the "perfect fried fish sandwich" - a sriracha and macadamia nut crusted tilapia on a toasted King's Hawaiian bun with too many other components to name.
Daskevich took first place in the sandwich competition at the World Food Championships and $25,000 in prize money. As the reigning champ, she returned the following year and hosted a "sandwich slam." The winner was a Tampa Bay chef, Pat "Shubee" Bearry, who owned his own beachfront restaurant.
"They would never have met except at the World Food Championships – Jennifer lived in California and Shubee lived in Florida," WFC president Mike McCloud said.
Their story is an example of the type of business deals that can come out of major cooking competitions. McCloud calls it "food sport."
"It is a sport – you have to know your stuff. You have to be able to perform under great pressure," he said. "They all spend as much time practicing their trade and their skills and pumping up their pride and passion as a professional athlete."
Now in its fourth year, the World Food Championships has moved from Las Vegas to Kissimmee. It kicks off a week of competition Nov. 3 and brings with it hundreds of chefs competing for cash prizes, sponsorships and television deals. The ultimate prize is the restaurant.
"A colleague of ours called us both when this restaurant opportunity opened up," Daskevich said. "He recruited Shubee to do back of the house and he offered me front of the house. It was a beautiful space, and we just felt like it was an amazing opportunity. It was one of those right place - right time situations."
She said the competition gave her instant credibility in food circles.
Larry Oliphant, vice president of the WFC, was staying at the resort and noticed the empty restaurant space. He recommended the duo to Regal Oaks Resort, Daskevich said. McCloud said Central Florida is a great market to launch new restaurant concepts, so it was a perfect location for championships.
"The beautiful thing about Orlando is it's a great tourism destination," he said. "Tourists want great entertainment, great weather and great food. You have James Beard finalists and nominees in that area. You have the Epcot Food and Wine Festival. More importantly, you have a leadership team in Kissimmee who want to create a signature event."
For local companies looking to develop new restaurant concepts or scouting culinary talent, the competition can be a treasure trove. "It's the largest casting call ever put together for food," McCloud said. "We know there are restaurants looking and watching because of the creativity these people bring to their food. One day I think there will be a lot of food chains, whether it be Darden Restaurants or someone else, that will be tied to our competition."