Friday, August 18, 2017

Here Come The Judge!

I gotta tell ya: It all started with this funky lil blog.

When I decided to go rogue and start the Tucson Homeskillet my goal was to have at least one post a week, minimum. This wasn't that big of an effort seeing as Tucson has so many fun places to go to and feature. Days off I would hunt down hidden gems and questionable eateries then take a bunch of pictures and upload it. Sometimes I'd get a fairly decent amount of hits, while other times I would barely get some in the low double digits. But I always got a nice comment from my mom.

Thanks mom.

Without a budget and being just an off the cuff endeavor, the Tucson Homeskillet has been my culinary diary friend for almost three years now.

Let's just say it's how I got my start in the food writing game.

And because of this blog it landed me the honor of being the Chow writer for the Tucson Weekly. Which is amazing. But because of that, and having a wife, cat and full time job, the Homeskillet has kind of taken a backseat. Which sort of sucks.

Thing is, being the food writer for the Weekly has opened up a whole new culinary world for me. Instead of never getting responses from restaurants and chefs, now that's all I do. I am literally so swamped with assignments that my days off are not days off anymore. I don't like that the Homeskillet has suffered as it has since I have been with the Weekly but the exposure and experience I am now getting is irreplaceable.

Plus I get to do cool things like judge culinary challenges.

My first one was back in July and here is what happened...

Big turnout for the free event

Like I said, this blog has taken an unfortunate backseat to my obligations to the Weekly, so that's why its taken so long to get this blog post up and running. On the other hand, I am so loving being the food writer for the Weekly that I hope this ride never ends. Unless I get picked up by Food & Wine or get my own Eat TV show. That'd be awesome.

But when the opportunity arose to be one of the judges at the Main Gate Square Culinary Challenge all I could do was prepare my already bulbous belly and say a resounding "Yes!"

It was to be a free event, open to the public, and featuring all of the restaurants in the Main Gate Square / University Avenue area, like close to 20 or so, with samples for everyone that steps foot in the main hall at the University Hotel.

But out of all of the vendors slated to be there only seven stepped up to the challenge of winning the title of  'Best Of' that night. That's where I came in. Along with Adam Lehrman from Tucson Foodie and Matt Russell of On The Menu Live!, we were the three to seal the fate of who would take home the culinary crown that evening.

I totally forgot who this was from, was good

The main hall was packed. What did you expect for a free event that is dishing out free food and drinks? I found Matt Russell and he escorted me through the throng of folk downing tiny plates of mac n cheese, cookies, pizza and mini cups of coffee to a long table up front. Luckily that day, taking cues from competitive eaters, I ate like a bird all day. Just micro snacks here and there to get my belly ready and teased for the amount of food that I was about to take in.

I sat next to Adam Lehrman, who has done culinary judging many many more times than I have. I told him that this was my first so he leaned in and had these wise words to say:

"Just be sure to pace yourself."

Thing is I was starving so when the first dish was placed in front of me I dove in.

We had these score cards with each plate and we had to rate each dish according to taste, presentation and originality. It was such a blur of introductions, people, rules and so forth that I totally forgot who was up to bat first. Maybe Red's Smokehouse? Gentle Ben's? It was tasty; a kind of deconstructed shrimp gumbo of sorts and I gave them an 11 (out of a possible 15) and I downed about half. That would prove to be a big mistake. In hindsight I should have had maybe a bite or two then moved on. I was so hungry and excited that I got carried away.

Plus the free cocktail I had before the judging didn't help either.

I helped, but when I have booze in my system all bets are off.

I am an eating machine.

Steak and potatoes from Fuku Sushi

Next was a surprising entry from Fuku Sushi: A steak and potatoes dish.

The potatoes were hearty and buttery which were topped with thick cut asparagus that were grilled to a near perfection. Thing is, the steak was, for me anyway, cooked a bit too much. It was grey in the middle, not pink, but I blame that on the rest time it took to get it from the grill to my plate. I told the chef about it but did not lay blame on him. The young kid looked a little deflated but, hey man....this is the slam bang, laugh in the face of death realm of cutthroat culinary competition on a random Saturday in Tucson.

You'll do fine kid. No worries.

I think this got a 10 or 9 from me. Not sure.

Some poke inspiration from Jimmy's Pita and Poke

So poke is great and all but at this stage of my food writing I need a break from it. That and sushi-ritos. So when a poke dish arrived from Jimmy's Pita and Poke I kind of rolled my eyes.

Mind you, it was pretty tasty, if not a bit warm for my taste in poke, but the flavor was there.

Luckily I made my judging quick here and within a few bites I was able to move on.

Octopus from Pasco and a warm sippin' seafood jus

Pasco Kitchen & Lounge offered up a bit of grilled octopus over a large croquette and covered in fresh greens.

The croquette was nice, as were the greens, but the octopus was really tough; kind of like biting down on an old eraser. There was flavor, and the help of a tangy seafood au jus helped wash it down but, yeah...I wasn't a big fan of this dish. You need to soak and render the tentacles down like over night, if not longer, to make it nice and tender. This seemed like a last minute decision.

Sorry Pasco. I still love you though.

Delicious squid ink tagliatelle pasta from The Dutch

Now here is where things got interesting.

Chef Marcus from The Dutch made a lovely vegetable medley in a lemongrass broth paired with this incredible handmade squid ink tagliatelle pasta. Oh my gosh...this was easily my favorite dish.

Pretty sure I gave this one an almost perfect score. Thing is, everything was so good that I kept eating. And eating. Having almost nearly killed everything in the bowl I knew that I was in trouble.

I was now officially full.

But the event was far from over.

People kept packing into the already at capacity hall and another dish arrived that was so big all I could do was laugh.

A monster meat plate via Sinbad's

Sinbad's had this sword-like meat and potato skewer dangling over two lamb shanks, samosas, rice, hummus and a mint chutney. This thing was so gargantuan that the three of us let out a painful groan.

We ate some. It was good, but my stomach couldn't handle anymore incoming food. I was starting to hallucinate a bit. People were clamoring around the table asking me what I thought. I was growing hazy. The food began to not have much flavor anymore. It was sort of a curse at this point.

Kids started to crowd the table and all I could do was let them all have bites. They were thrilled. I was thrilled. As vendors began to shut down folks moved towards the judges table where there was still plenty of food on display. Not too sure what Adam and Matt did but I let them eat cake.

Was there cake?


The evenings winner and the worst photo ever uploaded on the Homeskillet

At the end of the night, a scrummy sausage slider courtesy of Mutts Hot Dogs won. To my surprise The Dutch didn't even place. I guess Matt and Adam really liked the slider and house cut chips, and I liked it too, but I was a little shocked to see that it took the prize.

The photo is really blurry because at the point when it was taken, towards the middle of the tasting and judging, things were moving really fast. All photos were taken with my phone (I was not going to risk my real camera to get squashed or stolen in this kind of fray) so I apologize for the lackluster images.

When the judging was mercifully over, I went on stage to congratulate Mutts and to thank everyone for attending. It was nice to stand up and move. My already prominent belly was distended and poked out from under my Ben Davis pullover.

I went home that night, took a mighty dump, had a digestive drink and apologized to my wife for all of the weird noises my body was making. I slept soundly, if not a bit uncomfortably, with Adam's suggestion "Pace yourself" echoing through my dreamspace, slightly mocking.

The next day I did not eat till noon and when I did it was a piece of fruit.

Thing is, it was totally worth it and I look forward to being a judge again for a cookoff in the near future.

Thank you Main Gate Square for letting me be a part of the recent culinary challenge. Now that I popped my so-called food judge cherry, I now know how to approach the next one.

By pacing myself.


Adam and Matt post judging. Me? I was too full to move...

Camera, Typing and Eating
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
Monsoon Season, 2017

Metal Influence: