Stalking and killing your food is much tougher than donning sweatpants and hunting the grocery store aisles for meat. The process can be time-consuming and messy, but it comes down looking a being in the eye and making a life or death choice.
Last week, as a judge at the Santa Fe Harvest Festival Chef Showdown, I came to empathize with hunters. Each and every one of the contestants could cook better than I with his or her hands taped inside turduckens, yet I had to look each talented chef in the eye and say “not good enough.”
For the first round of judging, Rob DeWalt, of the Santa Fe New Mexican, and I sat sequestered in a room far from the action. Numbered plates were delivered to us, and we did our tasting and judging in solitary confinement. Because approximately half of the contestants moved forward, there was enough joy to go around that I could mostly ignore that some of Santa Fe’s most talented chefs had not made the cut, partly based on my judgment of their dishes.
For the second round of judging, however, everything was out in the open. I saw the chefs set up their stations, saw them prep, cook and plate their dishes. And they saw me: the nervous way I tried to overtly cleanse my palate between tasting dishes; the way a little bit of fatty skin rolls under my chin when I stare downward at a plate, doing my best to pretend that 12 outstanding chefs and dozens of onlookers weren’t staring at my bald skull, judging the judge.
The second round featured four judges, which meant I wasn’t the only one being judged, especially since Bradley Ogden sat among us. The dude has earned some small credibility in the culinary world by opening 15 or so highly successful restaurants and picking up wee honors like the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef of California.
Naming only four contestants to participate in the final round (which took place Nov. 13) was difficult, especially after watching the creative and capable way the chefs handled the challenge: Use only a single burner, a single pan and prepare a world-class dish in 30 minutes with a bag of ingredients revealed only at the moment the countdown began. Whether watching Fuego at La Posada chef Eric Hall make fresh pasta in about five minutes or Palace Restaurant and Saloon Chef Joseph Wrede beautifully prepare an ear of corn on the open flame, the whole event inspired singularly.
But whittling down the finalists proved to be a real bitch. For starters, you can only really take a couple of bites of each dish, which is usually about the time it takes for the chef’s intent to express itself, the flavors starting to gel and the scents beginning to open. Then, of course, you rush through the tastings so that the last dishes aren’t cold and wilted by the time you make it to them. In other words, judging a bunch of equally talented professionals in tight circumstances is a little bit better than throwing darts blindfolded, but not by much.
Let’s just say eventual winner Rocky Durham is really, really good at cooking—and dodging darts.
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