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Judging Juggernaut

June 14, 2011

Thank god for absinthe and watermelon. Not together, mind you. But after spending the evening judging A Taste of the Capital Region with the queen of Albany food bloggers, Albany Jane, and a host of real, live professional chefs, I was in dire need of a digestif.

Once the stomach settled a bit, some nice refreshing watermelon brought me back to life.

When Chef Christoper Allen Tanner contacted me about this judging, I was a little apprehensive about judging over thirty dishes in an evening, even if they were broken up into several smaller categories. Amateur chefs were not being pitted against professionals like Jamie Ortiz. That wouldn’t be fair.

Overall, there were thirty-two dishes present. Albany Jane had confidence we could do it. And I fed off her confidence. What she didn’t know at the time was that we would only have seventy-five minutes to taste, evaluate and comment upon all the dishes.

That’s not much more than two minutes per dish.

I suppose in theory that’s not so bad. You take a bite or two; contemplate for a moment; record the four scores for creativity/skill, taste/texture, ingredient combinations, and appearance; and then write a few words of supportive and constructive criticism.

At the beginning, with plenty of time on the clock, we were also each going to the contestants’ tables, getting a sample, and bringing it back to taste. We were being quick, efficient, and purposeful, but there was still a calmness to it. Before too long we realized that we were running out of time, and that’s when the frenzy set in.

A few of the judges camped out at a table, and we each took turns collecting several plates of food at a time, which were brought back and shared. There was eggplant, and pasta, and soup, and cupcakes, and squid, and cheesecake, and scallops, and pulled pork, and ahi tuna. Dishes kept flying in front of us, with little consideration of what came before and what would be coming after.

The pace was frenetic. We were quite literally sweating as the event organizers were looking over our shoulders awaiting the final results so the winners could be announced and prizes could be awarded. By the time all the scores were tabulated, we had been judging for about ninety minutes. When we were done, it felt like I had just run a marathon.

Not that I know how that feels. But I was exhausted.

We judges didn’t actually get a chance to confer, but miraculously the winners of each category worked out quite well. Sometimes it’s good to have a chance to look at the scores first to double check that the numbers given in the heat of the moment actually represent the overall quality rankings of the dishes. It’s possible to have a dish that is clearly superior to another come out slightly behind on the numbers. When this happens it’s great for the judges to have a chance to reconsider their scores or decide to hold firm with their original instincts.

What follows is my best recollection of the winners and their respective categories:

Amateur pasta – Paul Sciocchetti
Wild Mushroom Risotto with Gorgonzola Cream
(Although I was pulling for George Slingerland’s Real Italian Mac and Cheese)

Amateur entrée – Glenn Easton
Pulled Pork
(But I confess a soft spot for Adam Rogowski’s Pepperoni Garbage Bread)

Amateur dessert – Jennifer Bargy
Diane’s Famous Blueberry Cheesecake

Pro soup – Michael Stabler – Cock ‘N Bull Restaurant
Cold Dilled Cucumber Soup

Pro pasta – Jamie Ortiz – Mazzone Hospitality
Spring Cavatelli

Pro appetizer – Jim Kavenaugh – Bellini’s Italian Eater
Ahi Tuna Wontons
(Although his Veal Meatball Sliders from Jacob & Anthony’s were a close second)

Pro entrée – William Roy – Union College
Seared Scallops with Beurre Blanc & Basil Puree

Pro dessert – Steve Fratianni – The Desmond
Bread Pudding

But my favorite dish of the whole night was William Roy’s seared scallop, and it was the only thing I went back for after the judging was completed.

There was also one really interesting item that didn’t make the list of winners and it was Steve Fratianni’s watermelon marinated pork loin. The meat itself was remarkable, and the sauce was piquant and balancing, but regrettably it was served on a piece of bread that sucked all the life out of the dish. Since we judges didn’t have time to confer, I can only speculate that it was the bread which cost him the victory in that category.

Other things were also very tasty with just one critical flaw, like amateur Andrew Safranko’s Asparagus Rolls. Their flavor was great, but the asparagus had all the life cooked out of it. As a parting gift, all attendees got a book with the recipes from the event. It turns out these asparagus rolls call for the asparagus to be blanched first, and then once the rolls are assembled, they are frozen for 24 hours.

I’m guessing that this dish could be prize worthy if the asparagus was left unblanched, and instead of freezing the rolls rested in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Given the lack of freezing, a truly sharp knife may be required for cutting the roll into segments, but I think it could be done, and result in a roll that contains a more toothsome piece of asparagus.

Anyhow, despite the gastrointestinal distress and the required feeding frenzy to finish judging on time, I had a great time participating in this event. It was a real pleasure to meet several local chefs (plus one local farmer) and talk about food for two hours. Had there been additional time I would have loved to chat with the participants more and learn about their dishes and their inspirations.

But maybe they will stumble upon this post and leave a comment. And if I’m lucky enough to be invited back next year, I will at the very least get to see them again.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 14, 2011 9:00 pm

    Sounds like great fun! Were these “blind” tastings? By the sounds of it, you knew who cooked what. I have to believe that would influence voting.

  2. June 14, 2011 11:38 pm

    FACT: We are food equivalent of marathon runners. Sprinters, even. (Do they sprint marathons?)

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