What I Ate: The 16-Course Meal I Had to Eat to Judge GrillHampton

Last Friday night I was one of the five judges of the Dan’s GrillHampton competition held at Sayre Park in Bridgehampton. We sat against a wall on a raised platform, alongside one another, facing out on a sea of about a thousand people there under that tent, and one at a time, platters of food were brought to us that we were supposed to taste and then judge. To do that, we had a clipboard with a sheet of paper on it that had columns and rows, a pen, a glass of water and, in a bucket with ice, a grouping of different kinds of beer provided by one of the sponsors, Blue Moon.

We would be allowed about five minutes with each platter of food, one from each of 16 competing chefs. We were to eat each of them, and on our clipboards rate what we were eating from 0 to 10 for creativity, 0 to 10 for taste, 1 to 5 for “side dish” (whatever that was) and 1 to 5 for presentation. The column down the left side was headed up “menu item” and the column on the right was headed up “total.” At the end of the judging, which would be more than an hour away, all the totals would be added up and a winner announced. I should mention that nowhere on this sheet was the name of the restaurant or caterer mentioned. We were judging blind.

And there was another aspect to the judging. Half of the 16 entries were from restaurants in the Hamptons. The other half were from New York City. In addition to this being a competition of the restaurants, this was also a contest between New York City and the Hamptons. The totals of the eight entries from each community would be added. A separate trophy would be awarded. It was the Hamptons vs. New York City.

The first dish presented to us was Toasted Long Island Duck Breast with Local Peaches. When we finished with that, we would get Dominican Ribs with Stone Ground Grits. And when we finished with that, we would get Short Rib Tacos with Sweet Onion and Tomatillo Salsa. After that would come Sliced New York Strip with a Maker’s Mark Steak Sauce and Homemade Hellenic Fries. All of what we would be eating was in the column marked “menu items.”

Having seen this formidable beginning, I decided that the only way to get through all 16 dishes would be to just do a little taste of each. That would be it. The first would arrive and I’d mark up my score, and then I would sit there and drink a few sips of the water until the second dish would arrive.

Dan at the GrillHampton judges' table

Dan at the GrillHampton judges’ table, Photo: Daniel Gonzalez

This might be a hard thing to do. For one thing, these dishes were all prepared by talented chefs. But then there was THIS. I was raised at a time when mothers felt it was important to clean your plate. World War II had ended. Mothers told their children “there are people starving in Europe. Clean your plate.” I’d clean my plate. Later, when it was clear that Europe was recovering, she changed the continent. She’d say, “Clean your plate, there are people starving in Asia.” So I continued to clean my plate. This created a great impression on me.

In real life, as an adult, I continue to believe in cleaning my plate and proceed accordingly. It’s been only recently that someone has said to me, “What has cleaning your plate got to do with people starving in Europe or Asia? Why not eat less and get more food over there?” It has not helped. I still clean my plate.

Well, with a 16-course meal in front of me, I would have to make an exception. And I started out with high hopes. I’d take a bite and move on.

I did this with the Spiced Long Island Duck Breast with Local Peaches. I gave it an 8 for creativity and an 8 for taste. Next came the Dominican Ribs with Stone Ground Grits. And I liked how this tasted even better. But I satisfied myself with giving it a 9 for taste and an 8 for creativity.

The Short Rib Tacos with Sweet Onion and Tomatillo Salsa got the one bite treatment. And so did the Sliced New York Strip with a Maker’s Mark Steak Sauce and Homemade Hellenic fries.

Then, a strange thing happened. Entry number 5 was L’Aristocrat Burger—LaFrieda denim blue blend with MontAmoré cheese, ventreche bacon, and Sir Kensington’s mustard on a Thomas’ English muffin. This was amazingly good, so good that I wanted to finish it. I resisted at first, but then it occurred to me that I might never get an opportunity to eat this again. I also thought I’ve been real good with the first four. I’ll make an exception with number 5. And so I ate the whole thing, bite after bite, even making the server wait a few extra minutes so I could get the last of it down.

The next plate was Endless Summer Rubbed La Plancha Grilled Duck Breast served over corn and Parmesan spiked grilled polenta with chili pomegranate citrus drizzle. I was still enjoying the memory of the L’Aristocrat Burger at this point, and at first told myself to go back to just having a taste, so I took a bite of the ear of corn that was rubbed with this grilled polenta with chili pomegranate citrus drizzle. And I knew I would not eat just one bite. Well, I thought, I could eat half of this. And so that is what I did. I felt triumphant, having done that. I had resisted temptation, had left half of this wonderful dish on my plate. Now I could go back to just having one bite of something and then push it away. Or, if I wanted to, I could have all of what came next. I’d earned the right to do that. I’d done tastes, ate all of one, half of another.

With this faulty reasoning, I proceeded now to eat, with reckless abandon, everything served to me all down to the shiny plate underneath. I would follow my mother’s instructions.

I ate Smoked & Grilled Trip Tip Tacos with Summer Fixins’ (number 7), I ate the Ribeye Duo—a filet of ribeye and a ribeye pinwheel stuffed with goat cheese and local spinach served with grilled leaks and roasted marrow bone (number 8)—and I ate Lamb Patties with Yogurt Sauce and Grilled Eggplant Capponata (number 9) and I ate BBQ Short Ribs with Spicy Shrimp Slaw (number 10) and I ate Smoked Lobster Chimichurri (number 11) and I ate Steam a la Stone Prime New York Strip Steak Sliced Over Sautéed Onions and Pimentos (number 12) and I ate Pepper Crusted Tuna Grilled Fennel Sauce au Poivre (number 13) and I ate Grilled St. Louis Ribs with Char Grilled Corn on the Cob Dusted with Cotja Cheese and Chili Powder (number 14) and I ate Tacos de Costilla Short Ribs, Roasted Bone Marrow, Carmelized Onion-Jalepeno Salsa with Charred Mexican Corn Salad with Cotija Sauce (number 15) and I ate Grilled Rib Eye “In the Style of Florence” (number 16).

I have been to Florence. I visited a friend of mine who lives there some time ago, Antonio Ciccione, who long ago married a Palm Beach student of his with her blond hair and they together set up housekeeping in Florence where he kept a studio and they eventually adopted 11 children, one at a time, each from a different culture, such as a child from Biafra, Japan, Vietnam, a Swedish girl, really cute, a German boy, a Canadian…. Why did they adopt a Canadian? I don’t remember.

Yeah, just a minute, I’m finishing making my entries and you’ll have everything totaled in just a minute—how does it go, across? Yes, I can do that. Somebody spilled beer on the clipboard. You want me to get up and walk where? Sure, I can do that. Just, uh, can I hang onto that tent pole?

And that’s it? That’s all we had to do?

GrillHampton host Robert Irvine with the Judges’ Award winner, L’Apicio’s Gabe Thompson, for his Lamb Patties with Yogurt Sauce and Grilled Eggplant Capponata

GrillHampton host Robert Irvine with the Judges’ Award winner, L’Apicio’s Gabe Thompson, for his Lamb Patties with Yogurt Sauce and Grilled Eggplant Capponata, Photo: Daniel Gonzalez

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