MenuDirections 2013: A Seat at the Judge’s Table

Restaurant Business' Pat Cobe reflects on her time as a judge of MenuDirections first cooking competition.

It was my great luck to be in Tampa, Florida, from March 3-5 to attend MenuDirections 2013. This much anticipated conference for non-commercial operators includes a stellar lineup of speakers, workshops, chef demos and more. But I was luckier still to be asked to be one of five judges for the first-ever Culinary Competition.

I was really pumped as I took my seat at the judge’s table, feeling a bit like "Top Chef’s" Padma Lakshmi—only considerably less chic and much more humble. You see, two of the other judges were bona fide chefs: Andrew Hunter, corporate chef of Kikkoman, and Newman Miller, corporate chef at Bunge Oils. And the other two were industry pros: Erik Henry, director of foodservice for Bush Brothers, and Annemarie Vaupel, product manager at Hormel. My credentials: I love to cook and eat, plus I’ve been covering the restaurant beat for over ten years. Was that enough to pick a winner?

I figured the best strategy was to put on my reporter’s hat and subtly eavesdrop on what the “experts” were saying about ingredient choices, flavor combinations, knife skills and other professional observations of the four competing teams. Each team boasted two brave volunteers from four market segments—healthcare, senior living, colleges & universities and business & industry. The chef pairs had never met each other, but did correspond by email and/or phone 10 days before the event. Emcee Stephen Gerike, director of food service marketing for the National Pork Board, reviewed the rules and the race was on: 75 minutes to complete a plate that would wow the judges.

Each team perused the market basket of sponsored ingredients and the table of “free” staples, which included fresh produce, condiments and seasonings, and brainstormed what they would cook. Starting times were staggered so the judges wouldn’t be overwhelmed with all the tastings at once. Team 1, the senior living segment, was first out of the starting gate. As James Roth of Elmhurst Memorial Healthcare and Jose Zuluaga of ACTS Retirement Life Communities sliced and diced, we bugged them with questions and photos. But they remained surprisingly calm, focusing on getting their pork tenderloin seared, onions and oranges pickled and their black bean and garbanzo cake prepped.

Team 2, Mickey Sellard of Golden Living and Salvatore Cantalupo of Corporate Image Dining Services, the B&I duo, began 10 minutes later, followed by Team 3 representing the healthcare segment (Brent Lewis of St. Joseph’s Hospital and Darrick Henry of Baylor Orthopedic & Spine Hospital). Bringing up the rear were Team 4’s Peter Fishbach of Gourmet Dining LLC, the provider at several New York and New Jersey colleges, and UCLA’s Kevin Aiello, the C&U pair. All focused on putting their unique signature on the same sponsored basics: pork, beans, Asian sauces and cooking oils. And all remained unruffled as their cooking skills were put in the spotlight, in front of judges, enthusiastic attendees and assorted cheerleaders.

Fork in hand, I eagerly awaited the first dish. Team 1 delivered an impressive-looking pork tenderloin with a nicely caramelized crust sliced over a black bean and garbanzo pancake with sautéed tomatoes and pickled red onions and oranges. The plate had a nice build and contrast of textures, colors and acidic notes—a sophisticated addition to a senior living or B&I menu, I thought.

We were instructed to judge on taste, originality, overall appearance and applicability to non-commercial foodservice. We all wrote comments on our judges’ sheets but the pros suggested we hold off on scoring the dishes until we tasted them all. I was ready to gobble up everything on the plate but finally relinquished my fork, knowing I had three more dishes to go.

Next up: a stuffed pork tenderloin from the B&I team. It was plated in slices to show off the colorful carrot-apple-onion stuffing and accompanied by crispy black bean and pinto cakes and wasabi-sauced greens. An elegant-looking entrée that could fit into any of the foodservice dining programs.

Chef Lewis of Team 3 had been intensely julienning vegetables for the better part of an hour, while his partner, Chef Henry, pounded and marinated slices of pork tenderloin. Looking at their prep work, it was hard to tell what their finished dish would be, so when we were offered a modern, inspired take on pork and beans, I was a little surprised. The saucy beans had a complexity, thanks to those carefully prepped vegetables, diced apples and a blend of several Asian sauces. And the meltingly tender pork was infused with similar flavors. Their “comfort food with a twist” would also be appropriate in any of the segments.

OK, I was getting really full, but left enough room to do Team 4’s entry justice. Chefs Fishbach and Aiello deviated from the crowd and chose center-cut pork loin instead of tenderloin. Their plate had an upscale spin: The lightly crusted pork slices were arranged vertically over a rich bean ragout and topped with a tangy orange-apple slaw. Drizzles of wasabi and orange sauces completed the striking presentation.

Wow—this was going to be a really tough decision. All four teams did an amazing job layering flavors, plating their entrees and basically, cooking on the fly in front of their peers. What would Padma do?

Just like the TV cooking shows, the other judges and I pow-wowed “off camera” and eventually came to our decision. It was really close, but in the end, the reinvented “pork and beans” created by Team 3 was declared the winner. The prize—free conference registration for chefs Brent Lewis and Darrick Henry to MenuDirections 2014 in Charlotte, North Carolina—and bragging rights among their non-commercial foodservice peers. As for me, I’m ready for that call to join the judging table on "Top Chef." What are you waiting for, Padma?