The defendants make their appeals to our court of judgment in ways that are sometimes delicious, sometimes not. My fellow jurists — a lineup of top chefs and food writers — pepper them with probing questions and salt their wounds with incisive criticisms.
“What wine would you serve with this?”
“The presentation with all the components separate doesn’t work.”
“Did this dish come out as you intended?”
“This really needs salt.”
I quickly establish myself as the Clarence Thomas of this particular court — the one who sits there taking notes but never speaks. It seems strange to question and criticize these cooking students in front of a roomful of people.
I am at the culinary school at the Art Institute of Atlanta for the S.Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition — an annual event the bottled water company sponsors in cooking schools across the country. This is one of 10 regional competitions, with top students from schools throughout the South. The winner of this competition will head to the Napa Valley in March to compete in the nationals.
I had expected this to be like other events I’ve judged, where I could chew quietly in a corner, fill out a scorecard and skedaddle. But, no.
A slick public relations firm sent in a landing force with a dapper host, a camera crew, giant-screen TV’s, fresh flowers and a whole lot of those black stretchy things you put over folding tables to make them look all fancy and stuff. I’m sitting at a table facing a roomful of invited guests. As we eat the dishes hand prepared by the anxious culinary students, they munch on facsimiles of the same dishes.
My fellow judges seem right at home in this format. Ford Fry (JCT. Kitchen, the Optimist) asks every contestant if the dish came out as he or she had hoped. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s healthy dining columnist, Carolyn O’Neil, takes chefs to task for the wanton quarts of cream in their sauces. Kevin Gillespie, the “Top Chef” alumnus who soon will open Gunshow restaurant in Glenwood Park, knows precisely how to mix mentorship with criticism in each comment he makes. The anxious students twist their hands and say, “Yes, chef,” as he talks.
Even though I’m the one person on the panel who routinely dishes out opinions on food, it feels strange to speak up. When I write a restaurant review, I’m addressing readers rather than chefs, so I’m expressing opinion as I might to a friend who asks how I liked a certain book or the last episode of “Downton Abbey.” But if I’m going to talk to a culinary student about a dish he or she created, it seems like more of a private conversation.
My heart goes out to Marisa Griffith of L’Ecole Culinaire in Memphis, who takes about 30 seconds too long plating her sea scallops. According to the rules of the competition, she has to wait until the others have presented their dishes before she can try again with the same food. We watch the giant-screen TV showing images from the kitchen as she plucks her scallops off the plates and puts them aside for a half hour, during which time they will surely turn to cephalopod rubber.
When her dish finally comes, it is the most beautiful of the evening, plated with an eye for color. The scallops sit on a bold red streak of cranberry gastrique sauce along with dots of emerald chive oil, edible purple orchid leaves and perfect cubes of butternut squash poached in wheat beer with aromatic spices.
I love her bright and unexpectedly good gastrique — a classic sweet/sour sauce made from a base of caramelized sugar, vinegar and usually some kind of juicy fruit. (She also uses the term correctly, as opposed to the contestant who chooses to call his veal reduction sauce a “sugo” to make it sound more Italian.) If only I could un-taste those scallops, the dish would be excellent.
At that point one of the judges tells her point blank that the scallops aren’t good, without the crisp sear that his guests always look for. “Yes, chef,” she assents, a hint of dejection creeping into her voice.
In the end we crown Rocky Jokbengboon, a student at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, as the winner. His plate of pan-seared striped bass with a crab croquette is beautiful and full of flavor. His appealing blend of Asian and Western ingredients runs the gamut from Japanese dried katsuobushi fish flakes to saffron butter, and it works.
I know we sent the best contestant to the Napa Valley, and I’m glad to have had a part in it. But I have to admit I’m looking forward to the time when this whole reality-TV approach to fine cooking goes away.
- by John Kessler, email@example.com