Nibbles: Spare a little sympathy for food competition judges like me



nthony Bourdain, Padma Lakshmi, an Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin were jusges on one episode of “Top Chef.” (Photo courtesy Bravo)

When I see those fancy-pants judges on my favorite TV cooking competition shows, I ask: “They get paid to do that? What makes their taste buds so special? Why are they so cruel?”

I should know better. It’s a lot harder job than it looks.

For one thing, it’s a darn weird feeling having an audience watch you while you’re eating, especially people whose food you are judging.

When I’ve judged salsa or baked goods at county fairs, or chocolate desserts at a benefit event, or pies at the National Pie Championships, I’ve tried to de-stress by visualizing myself in an empty room.

It did not work. I knew people were scrutinizing my reactions and comments as I tasted. One reason I loved being a dining critic for the Rocky Mountain News was that I was anonymous.

The unease increases exponentially when TV or video is involved. A few folks look good while eating on camera but they also seem impossibly thin to be actual food enthusiasts.

I am not one of them. I’m the big guy who dribbles pie down his shirt while his hair is plastered to a sweaty, nerve-wracked brow.

I sympathize with those TV judges. I know the food is often lukewarm or cool by the time it’s carried across an air-conditioned TV studio. They feel compelled to make snarky comments because being mean plays better on TV.

The worst part is looking into the eyes of the losers who sometimes approach and ask why they didn’t win. We always sympathize with the contestant who’s cooked his heart out, but just this once spare a smidgen of pity for the food judge.

I should know better, but I still said “yes” when asked recently to be a fried chicken judge. For some reason it sounded like fun. You’ll find me sitting at the judging table at 11:30 a.m. Sept. 1 at the Taste of Colorado helping to name the eatery that dishes the best fried chicken in Denver.

When judging wine and beer, it’s okay to spit it out into a bucket. If I did that with fried chicken it would certainly gross-out everybody. I’ll be tasting ten plates of fried chicken without condiments, gravy or mashed potatoes even. Diet-wise I’ll just call it an “off” day and swim an extra hour or three.

I’ve been getting my taste buds in regular season shape by visiting Aurora restaurants to research the Grade A Awards. Among the eateries that I chose to honor are Darya Persian Restaurant, Helga’s German Restaurant, the Donut House, Cafe Paprika, Carmine Lonardo’s and Las Princesas Bakery. It was intense because I was was searching for great dishes that I could wholeheartedly recommend. It was fun because the bakeries and restaurants never knew what I was doing.

You can find the reader nominees (from our recent survey and the staff-chosen winners in the Grade A Awards special section in this week’s editions of the Aurora Sentinel, Buckley Guardian and Life Science and online at Discover where to find the best pizza, burgers, Korean food, cakes, barbecue ribs, pho, Italian sausage sandwiches, guacamole, African fare, outdoor dining spots in Aurora and much more.

Be sure to stop by and stare at me during the fried chicken competition at the Taste of Colorado in Denver on September 2. Come early for the hot dog eating contest and stay afterwards to observe brain freeze agony at the ice cream eating competition.

If you’re wondering how to become a food judge, start by having some experience in the food world. Take cooking classes, work for a caterer, teach cooking classes, blog about local food or volunteer with the county and state fairs in your area.

John Lehndorff is the editor of Colorado Table. Contact him at [email protected].


Tips: How to survive being a food contest judge


With the prime fair season upon us and fall food festivals approaching, you may find yourself being asked to be a food competition judge. Here are a few tips I’ve gleaned from 30 years of contest judging:

Never judge on an empty stomach. The first four samples will taste incredibly good at first but that’s just hunger overruling taste.

Wear loose pants, a loose belt and a loose shirt.

No matter how bad a dish tastes, try not to moan, grimace and grab your throat in a choking motion. This will upset the person whose food you’re tasting.

Cleanse that palate between dishes so the previous one doesn’t influence the following entry. After tasting 35 pumpkin pies this may be difficult.

Stay hydrated. It’s just a good idea.

Bring an open mind and mouth. You can’t refuse to taste any particular item. However, close your mouth when you are chewing. It isn’t an eating contest.

Keep your health insurance updated. This is generally not a healthful, sustainable activity.

To maintain capacity, don’t eat the whole sample you’re given. You can’t stop because you feel full. Hang onto the plate so you can go back and taste it again when you’re tabulating winners.

Expect repercussions: After blind tasting 18 types of root beer I couldn’t even look at a bottle for more than three years. I never really recovered from tasting eight types of Rocky Mountain oysters for a public TV special more than 20 years ago.