In my eight years or so of typing away on this laptop that has seen better days (not the same one I was originally using), I always stop to think how lucky I am to have this job. It’s a great gig. Almost daily someone says, “Oh, you’re so lucky to have that job as a food critic. I wish I could do that!”
For the most part they are right. Everyone loves to eat. The modern-day foodie loves to brag about which trendy restaurant they hate and which New Orleans hotspot you should have tried. The food, the wine, the beer — yeah, it’s all pretty fantastic. But there is a less glamorous side to being a food writer. It’s when you have to eat the bad stuff. You’ll often find something less than spectacular when judging food contests.
I love judging food contests. They make you feel important as you are shown your way to the secret table. It’s always a good time and the event staff usually treats you well. Everyone is all smiles and excitement, the crowd is pumped, live music is usually rocking and it all seems great. But you’re only one bad entrée away from a ruined afternoon.
I’ll never forget my first contest. It was a Zatarain’s event for the Shrimp Festival. I’d been working for Lagniappe for just a few months and suddenly found myself sitting at a table between two fantastic chefs at an event recorded for local television in Gulf Shores. I was more than nervous. Cameras don’t bother me. I just didn’t want to look foolish next to these two experienced men of the industry. I began to question what it was that I was bringing (quite literally) to the table.
Panini Pete was the emcee and the show was set up a little like the Kitchen Stadium for “Iron Chef.” The first plate comes to our table. The chef to my left, whose name escapes me but was from the Grand Hotel, zeroes in on the plate. He studies the presentation, rotates the dish for a different perspective and takes what seems like a lifetime before picking up his fork.
To my right is Chef Tony Nicholas from the Hungry Owl. He leans over his plate, closes his eyes and inhales. Panic stricken, I didn’t know what to do. To my left the guy is watching his food. To my right the other guy is sniffing his food. My only option to not look like a copycat was to cup my hand around my ear and lean in for a listen.
I often attempt to use humor to get out of an awkward situation. This time I was the only one who thought it was funny.
But the event turned out to be perfect. I had a portion of eight or 10 different meals and walked away with a gift bag and some cash. My first job as a judge was successful. I was hooked. Other gigs followed but none came close to that day. They’re all fun, though.
Chili cook-offs are a hoot. The problem is everyone thinks they can cook chili, and they probably can. But cooking four gallons of chili may not be your thing. Working your way through a couple dozen spoonfuls of bad batches on a windy winter morning is certainly going to make your afternoon less tolerable. There are some good ones but most of them are something you’d send back if you were in a restaurant.
Our chili cook-off is always on a beautiful day and we are drinking beer at 10 a.m., so don’t think I am complaining. This year’s American Cancer Society Chili Cook-Off is March 11, so start practicing cooking huge volumes.
Gumbo contests turn out similar to the chili events for the same reasons. When cooking that much at a time, your game is thrown off. The roux is the make-or-break point, and a lot of roux is hard to do. As a judge, a burnt chili or gumbo is tough to shake loose. It ruins you for the next sample … and the next.
If you ever have to judge anything that has the word “hot” in it, I warn you to proceed with caution. People will do a lot of dumb things in the name of making something hot. I luckily missed out on a chicken wing contest that our dear Rob Holbert couldn’t avoid. At the end the judges had to try the hot wing category. The Marine Corps had a team and decided habañero oil and cayenne would do the trick. The result, according to Rob: “Everyone was blowing snot everywhere. Brain-damagingly hot.” That can be dangerous.
I recently attended two contests, the first of which was last Thursday. The folks at Old Dauphin Way Association invited me to be the sole judge of the King Cake Contest and Party. I was deeply honored, but after sampling nine slices, narrowing down and taking more bites, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed. I couldn’t wait for the carrots and celery snacks after all that sugar. I even forced myself to jog a mile when I got home.
The second was the inaugural St. Mary Steak Out. This was an event where the crowd chose the winner by voting. Several restaurants and teams gathered in the parking lot of St. Mary School cooking bite-sized samples of steak at this sold-out, adults-only event. After the contest we were treated to a full sit-down steak dinner with all of the trimmings. Did I mention there was wine? Oh yeah, there was wine. It was a blast.
The Downtown Cajun Cook-Off is one of the better judging events. There are a lot of pros at this one and the chefs take it seriously, so the food is great. This year’s event will be on Saturday, March 18, at Cathedral Square. That may interfere with some St. Paddy’s partying. We’ll see.
So there you have it. The perils of food judging. It’s tougher than you think. All the calories, the booze, the loud music and people can make for an unpleasant assignment. I kid. It’s the best job I’ve ever had.
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