A few times every year I am asked to serve as a judge for one food-related competition or another. I think it's largely because of my great physical beauty, but it's also possible that it's because we have a lot of food-related competitions in New Orleans and not enough food-related people. It's probably the latter.
The reason I bring this up is because recently I took part in judging for the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience, which takes place from May 22 to 26. It's the 20th anniversary of NOWFE and the fourth time I've been a judge. They keep asking me back for some reason.
For the past couple of years the judging has been done on location at participating restaurants. This is nice for the chefs but hell on the judges, because it means traveling from restaurant to restaurant. And of course no chef wants to try to guess when the judges are coming, which means that they tend to cook their dishes only after we arrive. Which is how it should be, of course, and I'm not complaining, except to the extent that my participation is limited, given the other demands on my time.
But what I wanted to discuss today is not a specific event. I want to discuss (and hopefully get your input into) what judging something as subjective as food should be.
Around six months ago I was one of the judges at an oyster festival in Gulf Shores, Ala. I ate, and I am not kidding, more than five dozen oyster dishes over the course of three hours. Around half of them were cooked, and of the other half, only one or two were topped with the standard tomato-based cocktail sauce. The diversity made it easier to bear, but it was still a whole lot of bivalves. With so many dishes, it became difficult to distinguish one from the other after a while.
In the event it is not apparent from my writing, I will admit that I am by nature irreverent. This is usually a positive characteristic, but occasionally it gets me into trouble. From time to time I forget that not everyone knows I am joking when I suggest I am considering selling my liver to pay off credit card debt or that I am deeply, deeply into the lesser known works of Kenny Loggins. But even I take judging seriously. I don't know why, really, but every other judge I've met at one of these competitions takes it seriously, as well.
There are three standard criteria for judging food: taste, presentation and originality. Different competitions have judges award points to dishes that range from 1-3 to 1-10; I believe the oyster competition was 1-5, and I know that NOWFE is 1-7. “Taste” is pretty easy. You can complicate things, but really the decision boils down to “does it taste good?” Presentation is fairly basic, as well. How does it look? Originality is a bit more complicated, because a dish can be original without being ground-breaking, and too much originality leads to things like vanilla used in savory dishes. I may be on the minority side of that particular issue, but vanilla beans and salt are not compatible in my mind.
Here's the real dilemma: If you love a dish at the very start of a competition, how highly do you rate it? In any particular competition, you're rating on a comparative scale; the ratings end up being based on where a dish ranks in the context of the other dishes entered. But for the first few dishes, there's really no context.
For some competitions, judges are asked to assign scores immediately, with no way to go back and revise things based on the rest of the entries. There's something to be said for that, of course, because it forces you to evaluate each plate on its own merits. It also solves the problem of memory overload. At the Gulf Shores event, I'd have had a hell of a time trying to remember what the first few oysters tasted like after I'd eaten the 37th. But it can also skew things toward the dishes that come to the judges' table at the end of the day. I know I tend to be conservative when awarding points at the start, and I try to be consistent throughout. But these things end up being judged by, typically, around five people at a minimum. So if I give an early selection that I really enjoyed a 5 out of 7 because I'm trying to make sure something later doesn't blow me away, how does that fit in with what the other judges do?
Yes, I know that this is not a problem on which the fate of the world rests. I am a food nerd, and I admit it. These are things that give me angst.
Try this the next time you sit down to a meal. Rate your food on the three standard criteria I mentioned above, and use a scale of 1-10. Compared to what? Whatever you like. If you're eating a hamburger, compare it to every other hamburger you've ever eaten, or compare it to your conception of the ideal burger. Either way, let me know what you think about the process, because I'd like as much input on this as possible.