A taste of the judging of the Taste

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Chef Serving the Curry
Cabbage Roll
Cheese Soup
Chef Jeff Duval
Crab Cakes
Filet Kabob
Italian Beef Slider
Nachos Deluxe
Olive Bread Stick
Shredded Beef Nacho Mango Salsa
Smoked Wings
Vietnamese Chicken Curry
Chicken taco

With the Taste of Peoria still fresh on the palate, I thought now would be the perfect time to provide a behind-the-scenes look at the food judging that occurs just before the event. I myself am a judge and have been for the past three years. It’s a burden I will continue to shoulder as long as they continue to invite me back to eat free food.

The judging itself takes place in the Gateway Building. Around 50 judges of all sizes, shapes and ages are ushered into a conference room and sat at tables of five or six. Each table has a captain, whose job it is to present each dish to the table with its code number (since it is a blind tasting). Then each table is given its food categories – appetizers, entrées, desserts or beverages. Each item gets judged (on a one to 10 scale) on appearance, taste, creativity and difficult. My table and the table directly behind me were given appetizers and entrées to judge.

Early on, I had a feeling the judging, at least where I sat, would be a little more lively than usual. That’s because I found myself surrounded by several professional chefs, including our table captain Jeff Duval. Jeff is an Executive Chef for Eurest, an international food service company which serves Caterpillar. He spends his days serving up world-class cuisine to Caterpillar executives and visitors.

After we were given our directions, the food began coming out. The amount of food you receive is up to each restaurant – sometimes you get a full-size portion while other times you get the equivalent of an amuse-bouche (which is really all you want when judging so many items). What follows are my impressions of (along with some of Jeff’s insights into) the foods we tasted, along with my best attempt at matching them to their restaurant. You can see photos of the dishes (along with Chef Jeff) in the rotator to the right. Enjoy!

Appetizers

Shredded Beef Nacho with Mango Salsa
Qdoba Mexican Grill
The biggest challenge these restaurants face is ensuring that their proteins are at a reasonable temperature when they reach the judges. Not always an easy feat. But the shredded beef was perfectly cooked and the mango salsa very fresh and light, with the cilantro coming on strong at the end. The photo above does not do it justice as I forgot to take a picture before I inhaled the beef and half of the salsa. But even the loan chip and the rest of the salsa were nice on their own. Good start to the evening.

BBQ Wings
Uncle Buck’s Fish Bowl & Grill
Now, several restaurants featured different types of wings and, since this was a blind tasting, I’m guessing as to where mine were from. Since they were covered in BBQ sauce, I’m guessing these were from Uncle Buck’s (the only other that seemed close was “Smoked Wings” from Hickory River Smokehouse). Having said that, the wings were good and the BBQ sauce tangy. That might sound like a very simplistic analysis but we’re talking about wings here. Not exactly the type of food item of which you have thoughtful, in-depth analysis. They get crammed down your gob during sporting events, sometimes covered in ranch sauce and followed by cold beer. Enjoyable, indeed. But not something to wax rhapsodic about.

Cheese Soup
Unidentified Entrant
For the life of me, I couldn’t match this soup up with any of the original, published dishes. Perhaps that’s a good thing. I eyed my sample suspiciously – the texture seemed off. Then I noticed Executive Chef Jeff taking a food thermometer from out of his chef’s jacket (like a doctor with a stethoscope, I suppose) and dipping it into the viscous liquid. The reading was around 80 degrees so we took the advice of Walter White in “Breaking Bad” and tread lightly. Not a winner, but potential.

Artisan Olive Bread Stick
Schnucks
Well, props to Schnucks for a very good Olive Bread Stick. Olive bread is one of those simple things that can go horribly wrong. Schucks got it right and this one got a positive reaction from the chefs around me.

Nachos Deluxe
The Other Dawg
To both Chef Jeff and I, on first inspection this one through up an immediate red flag: raw white onions as a topping. But then it got worse. Canned cheese sauce. But wait, there’s more. We got to the meat. I took one nose-curling bite and inquired, “Curry?” Chef Jeff responded, derisively, “That’s no curry.” We decided that at one point, what we were eating had been ground beef heavily doused in cumin. What they did to the meat after that could be anyone’s guess. Let’s just say, stay away from the Nachos Deluxe.

Vietnamese Chicken Curry
Thanh Linh
Talk about perfect timing! After gagging over the previous curry-laden meat-like appetizer, we were treated to a REAL curry – which I should have known was from Thanh Linh. I am a big curry fan, as is Chef Jeff, so this dish was right up our alley. Great curries start and finish differently. In this case, you were confronted first by cardamom and cinnamon which was followed by turmeric culminating in a warm feel on the palate. You could spend your lifetime studying all the different styles of curries around the world, from India (and, hence Britain) and the Middle East, to Southeast Asia and through China, curries vary from region to region, even family to family. And, as Chef Jeff noted while fully sampling this appetizer, you could tell this curry was from a family recipe. Excellent! Well done, Thanh Linh!

ENTREES

Grilled Chicken Soft Taco
Unidentified Entrant – Maybe Granite City?
Again, another one that I can’t identify the restaurant based on their list of dishes. Too bad as this was very good. They did a great job of keeping the chicken moist and warm, and giving it a little punch with some marinated/pickled vegetables. This had the chefs’ approval as well.

Cabbage Roll
Haddad’s Restaurant
Although mine was a bit short on the cabbage*, this was a perfectly cooked Cabbage Roll. A crispy, flakey crust gave way to a rich meaty, cheesy interior. This definitely would need to be paired with something light to counterbalance all the rich flavors. Good stuff, though, and well done by Haddad’s (as usual).
*Something you don’t hear every day.

Filet Kabob with Balsamic Glaze and Blue Cheese Mashed Potatoes
Boyd’s Steakhouse
This will be shock to many who have partaken in Boyd’s fare. So buckle yourself in. While this looks lovely in the photo, the steak was raw. Yes, raw. It was (in your best Gordon Ramsey-type screech) RAW!! I could tell as soon as I touched it with my fork*. Chef Jeff quickly dissected his piece to reveal what we all knew in our hearts. It was (again, with Ramsey-like flair) RAW! Some comments were made about blue meat and onward we went. Let me just say, the marinade and potatoes were nice. Also, let this not be a mark against Boyd’s at all. It was just a bad service. That doesn’t reflect on the quality of their cuisine as they are one of the best steakhouses around. It was just an unfortunate occurrence (and they ruined some perfectly good steak!). I even commented that, well, it’s got to be difficult to create perfect dishes in this environment, which was met with grunts of disagreement from all around me, punctuated by Chef Jeff saying, under his breath, “It’s not that hard.”
* Here’s a cheater’s guide to testing the doneness of meat by touch. Press your finger to your cheek – that’s what raw meat feels like (spongy). Press your finger to your chin – that’s what medium-cooked meat feels like (springy). Press your finger to your forehead – that’s what well-done meat feels like (no give)

Crab Cakes with Maryland Sauce
The Fresh Market
Anyone who knows me and my foodie nature knows I haunt the aisles of Fresh Market. But this crab cake caused me to react in a way I often react when having a crab cake in this area, which is to say aloud, “Why can I never find a decent crab cake?” To which Chef Jeff responded, “Well, look where we are.” Fair point, Chef Jeff, fair point. I just need to stop ordering them in land-locked locales. No black mark against the Fresh Market in my book though. After all, they’re the ones that sell “Wake Me Up Before You Cocoa” cookies.

Italian Beef Slider
Raber Packing
What a great way to end after a couple of grand disappointments. Chef Jeff and I agreed that this was perfectly cooked beef. You could tell by the texture. Sometimes pulled beef looks like it’s been attacked by a jackal. Not Raber’s. This was perfectly shredded, in that it didn’t need to be shredded at all. You can tell it just fell off the bone. And all the delicious juices and Italian flavors were soaked up in a fluffy little hoagie roll. Well done, Raber!

About the Author
A Juilliard-trained writer, Kevin Kizer has fought against numerous world-champion writers during his career, besting the reigning middle weight writing champion in an exhibition bout in Helsinki in 1976. He also played a crucial role on the U.S. gold-medal winning writing team during the 1984 Pan-Am games, where he came off the bench in dramatic fashion to write the winning prepositional phrase just as time expired.