Chili (no beans allowed) cook-off? Count me in. A barbecue contest to see who cooks up the best ribs, Texas brisket, pull pork or links? I'll be there.

Mark your calendar for Sept. 21. It could mark the beginning for a of a brand new food competition era that the California rice industry hopes will do for rice what 12-alarm chili cook-offs did for chili.

This fall the California Rice Commission will sponsor a first, sushi competition in Sacramento. Laura Murphy, the commission's director of domestic and international promotion, is spearheading the event, officially entitled “Sushi Masters.”

OK now, no redneck jokes about a fish bait eating contest. This is serious business for the rice industry. Sushi and oriental cuisine is the hottest thing going in the foodservice and restaurant business, and the California Rice Commission wants to capitalize on that. The more sushi prepared and eaten, the more California rice is consumed. If it is sushi made in the U.S., it is made with premium California rice.

Sushi and rice have deep roots in California, according to Murphy, and this event is designed to build on that and create a greater awareness of dishes made with California rice and the importance of rice to the state's economy. Along with a statewide sushi contest, the commission will honor some of America's greatest chefs for introducing Asian flavors into mainstream American foodservice. Chefs like Rocky Aoki, founder of the first Japanese restaurant chain, Benihana and Wolfgang Puck.

When my bride tells me I am taking her out to dinner. I'll have to admit I probably never had said, “How about sushi?” Don't get me wrong I love rice.

A tri-tip dinner is not complete without McClintock beans and rice pilaf. Fried rice is part of any Chinese meal we order. I realize rice purist frown on that form of rice preparation, but hey it is rice. I admit I have never developed a taste for sushi. However, I am learning, thanks to my daughter and her husband. My son-in-law, Jerry Aujero, is a sushi guru. He even has his own private sushi chef. Several years ago my kids invited me to sushi at a local restaurant, Yoshino's. It is one of my favorite Fresno restaurants, but I had never been in its sushi bar.

I recognized the ingredients on the little plates passing by. The ones I did not know I inquired about. I selected several, and they were delicious. I did not see Jerry selecting any of the passing sushi selections. He sat quietly, occasionally talking with one of the sushi chefs.

Then the chef would reach over the counter and place a sushi creation in front of my son-in-law. Colorful, exotic looking creations. I then realized my daughter's husband has his sushi master. He is “Hiro,” a long-time friend of Jerry's and fellow sushi connoisseur.

When I told Jerry about the CRC sushi contest, he quickly volunteered to judge the event. I'll watch.

If you are in the Sacramento area on Sept. 21, check out Sushi Masters. Jerry and I might be there. Log on to the rice commission's Web site for details of the groundbreaking sushi contest.

I am an unabashed supporter of industry funded self-help marketing orders and commissions like the California Rice Commission. It is the newest ag commodity commission in the state, but it has quickly developed into one of the better ones. The small CRC staff is first rate, and they are serving the rice industry well by promoting rice and protecting the interest of the state's rice growers. The Sushi Masters contest in just a small part of an aggressive commission program.

The CRC hopes the September event will become an annual one that will put rice and Sacramento on the map like wine and Napa Valley. From what I have seen of CRC, I would not bet against the California rice industry.

Who knows, maybe some day I will acquire a special appreciation for sushi and have my own personal sushi chef like my son-in-law.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com