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From Critic To Ally: Judging A Cooking Competition

By Anthony Todd in Food on Jan 16, 2013 7:20PM

Kamisha Jones, a student at Sullivan University, won this round of the San Pellegrino Almost Famous competition.
Chef Jean Joho (of Everest), imposing in his chefs whites and with his shock of grey hair, leaned over to me and beckoned for my attention. "This food?" he said. "It tastes like hay."

Cooking competitions have become a staple of reality TV shows and gala events, and we've gotten used to the idea that "experts" get to "judge" the culinary offerings presented. But what is it actually like behind the scenes? I was a judge at the San Pellegrino "Almost Famous" competition at Kendall College on Monday, and I found out firsthand.

I've just about come to terms with the moral, ethical and culinary issues involved in restaurant reviewing. A review is only one person's opinion, they aren't usually a chef, they may not have come on a good night and their mood and feelings often interfere with their critical faculties. On and on, and all of that is fine and dandy. But a restaurant reviewer isn't dealing with competing restaurants and, more importantly, doesn't have to face each individual chef as they pass judgement. In this competition, you had to look the chefs in the eye as you decided that their food wasn't very good — and that definitely made a difference.

The judges sat at a long table in a makeshift dining room. There was a large audience, mostly friends and teachers of the various competitors, and an emcee to run the proceedings. There were three kinds of judges: Chef judges, who focused on taste, presentation and technique; kitchen judges, who kept track of the students as they labored away behind the scenes; and media judges, like me. We were also tasked with evaluating the taste and presentation of the food, but our primary job was to judge how well the chefs answered questions, their deportment and eloquence. As these were mostly young students who weren't used to being peppered with questions by reporters, you can imagine that their scores in this category varied pretty wildly.

Coming into the building, I was ushered into the kitchen where the students labored over their dish. They only presented one plate, but they were required to produce it within a certain window of time, so everyone was pretty focused. The chef judges, who included Sarah Grueneberg (of Spiaggia), Chef Joho, Chef David Posey (blackbird) and Chef Jared Van Camp (Nellcote) were hands-on, mixing and mingling and giving advice, clearly in their element. I felt about like I would if I were dropped onto an oil rig and told to judge their drilling technique. Now, I've been in plenty of professional kitchens before - but the kitchen is not my workplace, it's theirs. At that moment, I began to have second thoughts. How could I possibly "judge" what these students were doing?

When presented with the first dish, I snapped back into professional mode. This I understood - was it plated attractively, was the meat cooked correctly, was the dish warm enough? But it was immediately obvious that the Chefs were working on a different level. "How did you reduce this sauce?" "What thickener is in this?" "Why did you chose this vegetable instead of that vegetable?" Personalities quickly emerged. Grueneberg was the cheerleader and den mother of the group, likely because she'd worked with the students earlier that day, while Joho was the (sometimes wise, sometime incomprehensible) grandfather.

What you don't see on television is that a lot of the food is pretty darn bad. And as a judge, you have to eat it even if it's bad in order to score it. One poor woman messed up her sauce (which ended up smelling like maple syrup in a diner) and it was so thick, it stretched like taffy before rebounding off the meat and back onto the plate, looking completely undisturbed. It would've taken a putty knife to get it off. Another student tried a novel tactic - roasting separated brussels sprouts leaves and deyhdrated mushrooms as a sort of salad. The overall dish was excellent and scored well, but the salad provoked Chef Joho's "hay" comment. One student cut themselves so badly that they had to change slots in the competition. Drama!

Especially when judging students, the dishes have a sort of monotonous sameness. There isn't anything radically ethnic; all the flavors were basically French or American, with one Polish-inspired dish tossed in. A lot of the plates looked like food you would see at a wedding: meat, starch, veg, sauce. The students had clearly all gotten the "use interesting meats" memo, but the definition of "interesting meat" was still fairly limited. I may never eat another duck breast again. But you have to walk before you can run, and, based on the "kitchen cam" footage, it was all the students could do to get these plates out of the kitchen on time.

As I looked into the eyes of these students and watched them tremble, stutter and (occasionally) cry their way through answers to our questions, I softened a lot. My standards changed over the course of the competition as I slowly stopped being a bitchy critic. I started to identify with them as we learned more about their lives. One student is a full-time fireman who wants to change careers, another works 18-hour days working externships at two different restaurants. They all clearly idolized the chefs in the room, and were somewhat less sure about how to treat the reporters.

At the end of the day, we still had to pick a winner - and seven losers. Kamisha Jones, from Louisville, Kentucky, won the day with her seared breast of (you guessed it) duck. The dish was genuinely good, and she was poised and ready to answer anything we threw at her. She will be moving on to the national Almost Famous competition in Napa Valley.

In the world of competitions, the winners get all the attention and trophies, but each of the other seven students managed to do something that 95% of us could never pull off. If I learned anything from this experience, it's to be more sympathetic. We critics are still outsiders, and while that doesn't change the fact that we have a job to do, it may behove us to remember that the next time we come up with a particularly cutting line to demolish a restaurant. Criticism, like judging, must be done without malice, and I am grateful to all seven students who didn't win on Monday night for reminding me of that.