Looking for the winners? Jump alllll the way down.
It kind of freaked me out.
I’ve had several opportunities to judge food competitions in recent years, and I’ve turned them down since going gluten-free. I didn’t want to risk bloating and bleh. But when the amazing Holly Heer of AHA offered, I was NOT going to say no. I’d figure it out.
The panel of 12 included excellent chefs such as Jason Godwin (now at Alltel) and Donnie Ferneau (formerly of Ferneau/Rocket 21, now consulting and preparing for his own new place), esteemed writers such as Kelley Bass (formerly of the Arkansas Gazette, Dem-Gaz and Arkansas Times), and industry giants such as Bob Coleman (retired from Coleman, now Hiland Dairy). What the heck was I doing here?
We chose what category we would judge. I figured, rightly, that entrees would be the least glutenous. Good call. But would I know enough to properly judge the hard work these chefs had put in? I knew they were sweating behind those black curtains, wondering if we would taste and appreciate everything they had done. This was a big deal for them, I knew.
As the entrees started to come out, I slowly started to realize that I may know a thing or two after all. My fellow judges and I discussed some of the hits and misses of each dish. Because of my excellent education at Pulaski Tech (and probably a good bit from Good Eats and my own experience), I was able to describe the tiny “just off” things the other judges and I noticed in these otherwise spectacular dishes: A dish that was smoked but maybe should have been braised. A piece of beef that would have benefited from a different cutting method. An overcooked fond that created a slightly bitter pan sauce.
I should clarify that these were minor errors of technique, mere landing hops in the culinary olympiad that separated the winners from the others. I want all the participants in the Culinary Classic to know that this was a very hard job, one that we all took seriously. Each dish was stellar and a joyous representation of the culinary talent in our state.
But I came away more confident, knowing that I knew good technique when I saw it. Some kind words from Chef Ferneau also bolstered my confidence, as he encouraged me to enter the contest myself one day. We’ll see.
I was so full. And then I attended the public event and tasted all the other categories’ offerings. (In a few days, I’ll review three of my favorite plates that were not among those I judged.)
JUDGING AND ENTREE PHOTOS
NOTE: I did not know who made each dish until after judging.
Congrats to all the winners!
1st — Chili encrusted hanger steak by Chef Matthew Cooper, Cache
2nd — Charred raw shrimp by Chef Arturo Solis, Capital Hotel
3rd — Pork slider by Chef Adam Hanry, Camp Mitchell
1st — Cream of roasted poblano pepper by Chef Jason Knapp, Aramark/UCA
2nd — Corn bread salad by Chef Adam Hanry, Camp Mitchell
3rd — Baked beef and brie soup with caramelized apple crisps by Chef Brandon Douglas, Ark. Children’s Hospital
1st — War Eagle farms cheese grits with braised beef short rib by Chef Gilbert Alaquinez, Governor’s Mansion
2nd — Lightly smoked porcini crusted halibut by Chef John Greenwald, Southland Park
3rd — Smoked pan seared tenderloin by Chef Jason Knapp, Aramark/UCA
1st — “Fall”en chocolate torte by Chef Jan Lewandowski, Pulaski Technical College
2nd — S’mores by Chef Adam Hanry, Camp Mitchell
3rd — Raspberry chocolate pistachio macaroon by Chef Heidi Eppling, Cache
Best of Beef Award:
Chili encrusted hanger steak by Chef Matthew Cooper, Cache
Best of Dairy Award:
Cream of roasted poblano pepper by Chef Jason Knapp, Aramark/UCA