Cooking competitions are all the rage these days. From baking to grilling, and from age 10 to 70, the passion is seen as the culinary contestants move rapidly through the chaos. As a professional chef, I too, have been on that side of the game more times than I can count. For the last 15 years, I have critiqued the food/dishes that my Master Chef and Master Baking students have made, and it is just a natural that I take my experience and education to the other side – the judges table! It is a thrilling and rewarding experience.
One of the elements that makes cooking shows like Master Chef and Chopped so exciting to watch is the reactions of the seasoned chefs judging the food. And to hear how they are going to describe what they like and dislike about the dishes is fascinating. It may appear that they have easy jobs, but nothing could be further from the truth. There are so many factors that go into the grading process and the judges must reach an agreement before anyone can proceed. The task before them is a tedious one. However, their comments and conclusions help all the contestants in their quests to become Master Chefs!
Recently, my goal of entering the judge’s circle became a reality when I received a call from The Culinary Fight Club asking me to be a judge in a chili cook off here in Los Angeles. I was happy to accept, and the experience was amazing. After consideration I concluded that the best way to put the experience on paper is in a question and answer format. Interview Style! So, I had an associate interview me about judging the chili cook-off. I hope you enjoy.
Q: Chef Eric, who or what exactly is the Culinary Fight Club?
A: Culinary Fight Club is a business that organizes one-hour food themed competitions all over the country and then gives a percentage of the profits to Fight2Feed, a charitable organization that partners with top restaurants and food trucks to provide service and support to hungry men, women and children in our communities. No two events are ever the same and they come up with new themes and teams every month. It is for a great cause and raises awareness where it is needed.
Q: That’s great! How did you get involved with them?
A: Anthony Martorina, aka the Cheferee, saw my extensive Social Media and years of teaching experience and wanted me to join them to do some cooking demonstrations originally. When I wasn’t available for that, he told me about this Chili Cook off and asked if I would be interested in being a guest judge. Since I judge my professional students, he knew this would be a natural fit for me – and it was.
Q: How did the judging process work?
A: There were three main factors to judge each contestant’s chili on. These were texture, Seasoning and Flavor. Technical judging was based on appearance, execution and taste.
There is a very strict set of rules you must adhere to. Each judge was given a tally sheet to rate the chili and make notes, and just like the contestants, we were on a time schedule. So, we had to make up our minds pretty quickly.
Q: Did you come across any chili that was particularly cringeworthy?
A: Yes! There were a couple. One was very fatty and made only of salt pork. That ratio of ingredients was completely off. As crazy as it sounds, there actually should have been more meat in the chili. The second one that made me cringe was made with a huge green onion garnish in it. That’s a big NO NO! If you can’t fit it into your mouth – it shouldn’t be in the bowl. The last had no beans and so it was a little greasy because it was just meat, but it did have a really great orange flavor – that was a nice touch. They all did a great job for the 50 minutes they had and the lack of ingredients – yes – they ran for the table and only had 60 seconds to get their ingredients. And the working conditions – it was freezing outside and they only had butane burners and it was pretty dark out! Again, they all did a great job!
Q: How did you manage to keep your professional composure?
A: I took very small bites! And, the judging sheets keep you on track. You are on the dais per se, so you have to keep it together – everyone is staring at you – you are the center of attention. I am used to this since I teach classes to thousands of students.
Q: Were the rules as strict there as they are on the tv series Chopped?
A: YES! It was exactly like Chopped! You have to keep secret what you are thinking of all of the dishes until the end. You have distinct rules of what the dish is being ‘graded’ on. The banter between the host and the judges was fun and between the judges. But the most fun was the banter with the actual contestants – which was different than Chopped. They were all really nice and has distinct personalities and were very witty – especially after the grueling hour they just had.
Q: How many judges were involved?
A: There were three of us. One owned a food truck in LA and admitted he might have had a wee bit much to drink but was still very articulate (we got free beer!) and he wasn’t alone – we were all right there with him. Did I mention it was cold out there? The other judge had been a contestant on Master Chef and worked in a restaurant in Portland and me.
Q: As it was your first time being a guest judge, how much fun did you have?
A: I had a blast! The experience was hectic and fantastic. So great to be a judge for a change. Plus, the weather was perfect for chili because it was cold that night and it was an outdoor competition where the contestants were using outdoor burners to cook their chili. I even got to help fix a burner when one went out. It was a wonderful night, and everyone did an amazing job. The judges and the audience did choose different winners, but we were just a couple of points apart so that was good – we were on the same page.
Q: Did you learn from this experience?
A: Yes. I got to learn more about the judging process by actually doing it instead of just watching other chefs do it on tv. It is a strictly regimented, fast, and very hectic process. Even the audience was able to watch and ask questions while the contestants cooked. I really enjoyed watching one of the contestants cook cornbread on a stove because there were no ovens. It was a great learning experience. And as on the tv shows – you do what it takes to stand out!
Q: Do you have a favorite chef turned food judge?
A: Of course, Wolfgang Puck! And I really like Alton Brown. He is the thinking man’s chef and judge. And I’ve been told he looks a little like me!
Q: Have you ever competed in a chili cook off?
A: Yes, several! I’ve won two local chili cook offs. I actually beat out the local fire department twice. Once with my turkey chili and once with my beef chili. Though the beef chili was adapted from my dad’s recipe that he stole from my mom – she was a fantastic home chef – so it was really a family win!
Q: You have many spring and summer classes coming up at Chef Eric’s Culinary Classroom. Can we expect a chili course any time soon?
A: The vegetarian cooking class I teach includes a really tasty vegetarian chili recipe. Other than that –I have about 25 recreational cooking classes on weekends, then my kids camps coming up this summer that are super fun for the kids AND the parents – since they get to eat what the kids cook! I have something for everyone to get their chef on in my kitchen.