Clean Your Plate: The Diary of a Food Tasting Judge at GrillHampton

As any newspaper editor will tell you, an important part of being an editor in a community is accepting the job of being a judge at a chili contest. Over the years, I have done that half a dozen times. It’s easy and it’s fun. You go to a firehouse or a bar or a school auditorium, there’s lots of people there, and there is placed in front of you ten pots of chili prepared by ten different restaurant chefs. You are given a spoon and a plate, and it is your job, before the chili is served to all the people who have paid $30 to be there, to have a taste of one and then another and then another, give them each a rating from one to ten on a card, give the card to a master of ceremonies and wait around to see who you and the other judges have selected as the winner. After that, everybody partakes of the remainder of the chili, buffet style.

Frankly, I thought that is how the judging would take place when I was asked if I would be a judge at the Dan’s Papers GrillHampton event last Friday night. That’s not the way it was at all.

The venue was an enormous white party tent in Sayre Park in Bridgehampton decorated inside to rival a hotel ballroom. Hundreds of people were there. I was ushered through this grand space in which the band New Life Crisis was rocking and rolling away to happy throngs while along both sides chefs and servers stood preparing an array of grilled foods on tables. There were banners from each of 16 restaurants behind them. Eight were from the Hamptons and the North Fork. Eight were from New York. The crowd was standing around, or sitting around on picnic tables there, chatting and eating.

But that’s not where us judges were taken. At the far end of the tent, we were asked to step up onto a platform on which there was a long dining table upon which were the names of the five judges of this contest on placards facing the audience. I was asked to sit behind my placard. There was a bottle of water.

There was a clipboard with a form on it and a ballpoint pen. And I was told to wait.

As everybody would watch, I and the other judges were to be served a 16-course meal. Each course would be from a different restaurant, the first arriving with food at 8:40 p.m., which was a few minutes off, and the next five minutes afterward. All the names of all 16 restaurants were on this form, all in rows with times they would arrive with the food. There were columns. We were to rate the food from 1 to 10. The categories were ORIGINALITY, TASTE, PRESENTATION and SIDEDISH. You’d add up all the ratings and get a total. Then you would, sometime around 9:30 p.m., turn the forms in.

Now, when I was growing up, my mother, who prepared healthy meals for our family, insisted that whatever we put on our plates to eat, we ate. She said there were people starving in Africa and Asia. They needed food. We shouldn’t waste ours. We should clean our plates, and that would make us members of the clean plate club.

Now that was some time ago, but nevertheless, when the first plate of food was placed in front of me, there was my mother, hovering way up high under the top of the tent, smiling down, urging me to continue with my membership in the club.

There were, among the other judges, people who are well known in the food-preparation business. The person to my left, for example, was Karine Bakhoum, who’s been a judge on the Iron Chef America TV show. She is known as the Iron Palate, she said. Some people came over to the dais to talk to me during the evening. Many more people came over to talk to her.

The food was served to us, exactly at the required time, which gave us three full minutes to clean our plates, and then it was removed, and immediately the next plate of food was brought in. Now, admittedly, these were not large portions. They were half portions. I present a photo of one of these plates accompanying this article so you can get a rough idea of it. We also had, on our forms, a description of what was on each plate. For example, here is what Delmonico’s had on their plate: “Deconstructed Delmonico’s steak, Shinnecock Bay Oyster with Charred Corn, Wild Mushrooms and Garden Basil.” But they added a sprinkle of something else on the top. Caviar.

I looked up at my mother. The band was thumping away. The lead singer was pumping his fist in the air. My mother said “clean your plate.” I thought: I am in big trouble. And then I dug in.

During the course of the next hour, in addition to the form I needed to fill in, I had brought along an envelope which, on the back, I took down some notes as this occasion proceeded.

Here are these notes.

“Glutton.” “This is not a hot dog eating contest.” “Plate of watermelon served to clear your palate.” “Another thing to clear your palate—a Mojito thing with beer, Vodka and mint. Gotta not drink too much of that.” “Others are not cleaning their plates.” “The later ones don’t taste as good. How do I adjust for that.”

I asked Karine Bakhoum about that.

“You just adjust for that,” she said. This is after the seventh thing we were served. She’d taken just one bite.

I also discovered that my ballpoint pen would, after a while, not write. It seemed to be the butter in the food that had gotten on it. I held it up.

“Blow on it,” Ms. Bakhoum said. She took it from me. She blew on it. She handed it back. Now it worked again.

“Do you know how many ballpoint pens I have thrown away in my lifetime because I did not know this trick?” I asked her. I think 40% of global warming has been caused by my pen wastage.

When each course was served to us, not only the earlier course was taken away—I might not have completely cleaned my plate—but the chef, accompanying the new dish, would come by and tell us about what he had made.

“This is Wasabi Pea Crusted Grilled Tuna served atop local grilled corn salad with papaya eel glaze and Sea Salt and Herb Crusted Grilled NY Strip atop Blue Duck crostini with Catapano Farm goat cheese, Satur Farm chimichurri, red chili rosemary oil grilled smashed potato,” Peter Ambrose from Hampton Seafood said.
I thought, a person could die being a judge. I asked Ms. Bakhoum how she did it. “This is how I earn my living,” she said.

And so, after nearly one hour of eating some of the finest concoctions ever made by some of the finest chefs in the world, we finished.

I looked at my scores. Four of the 16 stood out with the highest scores. I wondered if all us judges agreed. With chili, it was often the case. But I thought, in this case, I bet it isn’t.

“What are your four best?” I asked Ms. Bakhoum. She wrote hers down. I compared them to my four. Only one restaurant we wrote down appeared on both forms. Other than that we completely disagreed. I also noticed that two of her four were from the Hamptons and two of her four were from New York City. And it was the same for me. I am not going to tell you the name of the one we both put on our lists. But I will tell you it was a Hamptons restaurant. Invite me to dinner and I will take you there.

At the end of the night, all us judges crowded on stage with the 16 chefs to hear the winners. The judges’ choice winner was Hill Country Barbecue Market, from Manhattan. The people’s choice winner was Rumba, in Hampton Bays. Then came the grand prize, in which it was revealed whether the judges had selected the Hamptons restaurants as a team winner or the New York restaurants. The Hamptons had won. Everybody cheered. I did, too.

When I woke up on the morning of this competition, I weighed myself. I weighed 171 pounds. I am writing this at midnight, back home, after the event. I am not even going to guess what I will weigh tomorrow morning. But mom will be proud.

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