The event that bills itself “the largest culinary competition on the Gulf Coast with the largest ‘Best of Show’ purse [$10,000] in America,” the Acadiana Culinary Classic returns to Lafayette Monday, May 17, from 7-9 p.m. at the Cajundome Convention Center.

Arrive an hour early and enjoy great wines at Republic National Distributing Company’s wine expo.

This year, the competition offered a truly special treat — an opportunity for a sponsor and seven of guests to dine with renowned New Orleans chef John Besh, winner of the 2006 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef in the Southeast. On Monday the event announced that Paragon Casino out of Marksville had secured the slot, ponying up $5,000 for the Classic Sponsorship and helping out a great cause in the process. The Acadiana Culinary Classic is a benefit for Hearts of Hope, formerly known as Stuller Place, a non-profit agency that aims to reduce the trauma experienced by child and adult victims of sexual abuse and sexual assault. Hearts of Hope services Lafayette, Acadia, Vermilion, Iberia, St. Martin, St. Mary, St. Landry and Evangeline parishes.

Besh will also be selling autographed copies of his first solo-authored cookbook, My New Orleans, on site for $45 and will assist in handing out the evening’s awards.

This high-powered competition requires each chef entrant to bring all of his knowledge, experience, skill and creativity. The classic’s judges and chefs travel from around the country to participate. In the past the competition has been featured in Southern Living, Food and Wine, Travel and Leisure, and other respected publications that cover the food beat.

Each year a local artist creates and donates an original painting that is auctioned at the event — though early bidding, which starts at $500, is already under way. Last year Francis Pavy stepped up to the plate, and this year’s contributing artist is Hope Hebert.

Become a sponsor or purchase a table of 10. Sponsor levels range from $500 to $10,000. Tickets are $100/person and $1,000 for a table of 10. Call 269-1557 or visit here for more info.

The Culinary Classic is presented by IberiaBank and Popeyes, with Republic National Distributing and Bruce Foods as supporting sponsors.

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