The Best Part About Being Me is Judging Food Contests

I make no secret of the fact that I want all the food. Actually, truth be told, I don’t require ALL of it — necessarily — I just don’t wanna miss out on ANY of it! And that’s exactly why I love being a judge at the various food competitions in Asheville so much! From the annual Wing War, to The Food Truck Show Down, to the Great American Jerk Off at Ole Shakey’s, the chefs, cooks, competitors, and event organizers have to let the judges — ie: ME — eat everything. All. Of. It. “Every entry must be tasted by the judges.” It’s written right into the North Carolina state constitution #TrueStory #NotReally

Judging a major food competition can actually be quite a challenge. I mean, by it’s very nature, attsa lotta food! Honestly, I live as much in fear and dread of these culinary contests, as I do in gleeful anticipation of them, but I’ve learned how to prepare myself beforehand and pace myself during each contest, so I’m pretty fucking good at putting large amounts of food mass inside of me now. I ate 22 chicken wings at the Wing War last year. I sampled 19 dishes from 19 food trucks not long after that. I sure did eat a buncha jerky at the Jerk Off. Yessiree. Bob. I sure did.

Recently I was lucky enough to be invited to judge at Kelly Densen’s annual WNC Battle of The Burger, which was perhaps the biggest challenge I’ve faced so far. I’m a small person, about the same size, shape, and density of a fireplug. First thing in the morning, I generally weigh-in at about 130 punds. By the end of the 2017 Battle of The Burger, I easily weighed 250. #AlsoNotTrue But…

I Ate a Fuck Ton of Burgers… Plus Chips… and Fries…. and a Slice of Watermelon…

Was I full?  Yes I was. Was I too full to also eat some ice cream from The Hop as soon as the judging was over? Hell no! The Hop was there, so I ate some. As I said, I’m getting pretty good at this. My co-judge, City Council Member Gordon Smith, could not believe his eyes when he saw me post pictures to FaceBook about an hour or so after the Battle of the Burger from MG Road, where I was enjoying an amazing pop-up dinner by Chef Sara Cousler.

My point? Well, I’m here to tell you what: When it comes to these food contests…

I know what the fuck I’m doing. Do you?

Here’s my advice for cooks, chefs, restaurateurs, and all-comers to the Battle of the Burger, and basically every other food competition that there is.

There were 15 entries to the Battle of the Burger this year, and really, only 5 of them were ever in serious contention for the top three spots, and the #1 winner was out in front the entire time. In the end all 5 judges at the table that day were in complete agreement about the winner when we compared the scoring of our color-coded cards, which we used for notes during the blind taste test. Light Blue won hands-down. Tah-dahhhh….

God bless America, that’s a good burger! – Burger by The Salvage Station – photo by Stu Helm.

On a scale of one to ten, I gave this, the winning burger, a 10. That’s a perfect score, Yo.

At the entire other end of the spectrum, there was one burger that actually scored a zero with me. That’s the lowest score I’ve ever given anything at any food contest ever. That burger didn’t just fail, it fucking pissed me the fuck off, and I actually, literally gave it the finger. (Twice.) And that wasn’t the only turd-burger that day. There were others that only scored a “one” or “two” on my scale, and nary a scant few ever crept above the “six” mark. So, what made the winner stand out? And why were the bad ones so bad? Who fucked up, who triumphed, who shit the fucking bed from the very get-go, and more importantly: What can they do for the next competition, in order to have a better shot, and possibly even fucking win?

Well, here are some basic rules that I hope will be helpful…

Stu’s Rules

  1. Follow Instructions – If the contest is for the best grilled cheese sandwich ever, for fuck’s sake don’t think you’re going to wow the judges by bringing us your famous pulled pork sandwich with a blob of cheese melted on top, or a steaming plate of Hot Brown, or a pizza, or a toy poodle, or anything except a fucking grilled cheese sandwich. No matter how good your entry tastes — or how well you have trained it to jump through tiny flaming hoops — you will lose the contest every single time if you don’t follow the basic rules. Just make the best version of whatever the fuck it is that you’re supposed to be making.
  2. When one of the categories is “traditional,” learn what the fuck that means – If you don’t know what the “traditional” preparation of the food you’ll be serving the judges is, you will LOSE, like a chump, every single time. In a chicken wing contest, the word “traditional” is always going to mean Buffalo wings. Not smoked wings, not BBQ wings, not any other kind of wing but a Buffalo wing. That’s it. Buffalo. Wing. Learn it. Do it. Don’t go out like a sucker. In other contests with a “traditional” category, if you don’t know what that means, fucking Google it, Einstein, or ask your event organizers for clarity. For the love of fuck.
  3. Go With What You Know – Got a popular burger on your menu? Everybody loves it? The customers rave, the staff spends their hard-earned money on it, some dick on Yelp says it’s the best thing he ever ate in entire lonely, miserable life, and all the other lonely, miserable Yelpers agree? Well, bring it to the fucking Battle of the Burger, you dumb ape. You gonna step outside the box on the day of the event? You gonna lose.
  4. Give the People What They Want – Do people like bacon? Yes they do. Give it to them. Do Americans enjoy eating cows? Yep, we sure as fuck do enjoy eating cows, so please cook some for us. Hey, Kids, y’know what? Cheese is popular! Certain things are a “no-brainer,”  so for fuck’s sake stop using your brain, and just make a fucking all-beef cheeseburger and put some fucking bacon on it. You can fancy it up from there, and in fact to win, you’d better make it fancy (see next rule) but if you’re starting out of the gate with a weird turkey burger in a kelp wrap, you’ve fucking hobbled yourself before the race has even started, you fucking idiot. The judges are people, and the people are judges, so populism is not the worst approach you can take. In fact, it’s actually the best approach.
  5. Make It Fancy – Yes, there is room to be creative within these competitions, although they are not primarily creativity contests. If you serve the judges the above-mentioned all-beef patty, with melted cheese, and bacon on a bun, you’re doing great, but if that’s it, you’re a fucking loser. And I mean that literally, because you will fucking lose. If you wanna win, you have got to add something spectacular to the mix, or the judges may nod their heads solemnly at each other, and all agree that it’s “not bad, not bad,” then give you a solid 5 on the score sheets. Just in case your grandparents sucked at life lessons couched in metaphor: The middle of the road is never a good place to stop.
  6. But Not Too Fancy – I like high-concept food, I really do, but at a taco throw-down, I like tacos. So please, unless you are Pablo fucking Picasso don’t bring me a piece of deconstructed neo-Cubist Art on a tortilla, that looks more like the vision-board of an insane mouse than a fucking taco… or you will surely lose… and we will surely mock you. I mean, unless it tastes really really really fucking good, and then, in that case, maybe the crazy mouse wins. Gauge your own levels of fanciness, I guess, but turn it up to 11 at your own risk.
  7. Cuteness Counts – Did you see that tiny flag poking out the top of that winning burger from the Salvage Station? That was cute as fuck and the judges loved it. Plus, it made that burger easier to identify when talking about the scoring with each other, as in: “I still like that other one better.” “Which one?” “The one with the flag poking out the top.” “Oh yeah, me too.” That’s called branding. It works. In a blind taste test, you can’t use your usual branding, but it never hurts to do something visually compelling in the eye-candy department. Presentation of the food is important in restaurants, and it’s crucial in food contests.
  8. Have Mercy – Counter-intuitive to everything you ever thought you knew about human beings and food: Large portions anger the judges. One of the two middle fingers that I gave to the zero-rated hate-burger mentioned above was strictly because that fucker was too fucking BIG. Whatchu expect the judges to do with that? Eat the whole fuckin’ thing? No. No! NO!!! The judges can not eat that whole fucking burger. Are you insane? We’re going to take between 1 and 5 bites of it and then the rest goes straight into the trash. That’s real. Think about it. You just wasted all that food for no fucking reason, and it actually hurt your chances of winning. The judges are human beings, with a limited amount of space in our bodies and a sworn obligation to eat up to 15… 16… 19… twenty two of something, be it wings, jerky, or burgers. You think that’s easy? It’s not. You think we like throwing away a shit load of food? We don’t. You think we’re psyched when we see a full-sized, double, bacon cheeseburger and a side of fries come our way from across the room? Near the end of the contest? When we’re maxing out already? And Gordon is complaining of the “meat sweats?” Well, we’re not psyched about your giant burger. We hate it. And we hate you for being the ham-fisted goon who made it, and gave it to us, without even the slightest hint of forethought to imagine the pain and misery that the judges might be feeling at the table. As you can tell, the judges actually, truly, and without a doubt — at every contest I’ve ever judged — get li’l grumpy. It’s both the most fun we’ve ever had, and a form torture at the same time. So, sure, go ahead, Dick Cheney, water-board the fuck out of the judges with fat patties of meat if you really want to, but that’s just bad policy, quite possibly unconstitutional, and almost certainly a losing strategy.

Aaand those are my rules. I hope you enjoyed them, and got a laugh or two, but more importantly, I hope that any competitive cooks out there were able to read between the swears and insults to find a tid-bit of good advice somewhere in there. Below is a list of all the competitors in this year’s Battle of the Burger, followed by a whole bunch of photos of what they served us.

Please, look again at how perfect the winning burger is. It was a tiny version of the Salvage Station’s house burger, cooked exactly right, cute as a button, piping hot, basic, yet fancy. It followed instructions, stayed sane, and provided the judges with exactly what we were all looking for. As I said, the decision was unanimous. All five of us picked it as our number-one choice. Please scroll down and see if you can apply some of my rules to the other entrants, and try to imagine where they might have fallen on the 1 – 10 scale of awesomeness. Thanks for reading, good luck in the future!

2017 WNC BATTLE OF THE BURGER

Produced by: Kelly Densen and All American Food Fights.

Judges: Stu Helm, Gordon Smith, Evan Donovan, Chef Duane Fernandez, John Ammons

Color code and schedule. After White, comes Orange, Silver, Red, Brown, and Black.
Salvage Station (Winner! 1st Place, Judge’s Choice) – photo by Stu Helm
Salvage Station – photo by Stu Helm
Farm to Fender – photo by Stu Helm
Farm to Fender – photo by Stu Helm
Kitchen 743 @ Isis Music Hall – photo by Stu Helm
 Kitchen 743 @ Isis Music Hall – photo by Stu Helm
D.O.G.S. – photo by Stu Helm
D.O.G.S. – photo by Stu Helm
Out of the Blue Peruvian Fusion Food Truck – photo by Stu Helm
Nightbell – photo by Stu Helm
Foothills Local Meats – photo by Stu Helm
Foothills Local Meats – photo by Stu Helm
The Artist Kitchen – photo by Stu Helm
The Artist Kitchen – photo by Stu Helm
Rankin Vault – photo by Stu Helm
Rankin Vault – photo by Stu Helm
Ambrozia Bar & Bistro – photo by Stu Helm
Ambrozia Bar & Bistro – photo by Stu Helm
Farm Burger – photo by Stu Helm
Farm Burger – photo by Stu Helm
Bone & Broth – photo by Stu Helm
Bone & Broth – photo by Stu Helm
Corner Kitchen – photo by Stu Helm
Corner Kitchen – photo by Stu Helm
Montford Pull-up (Winner! 1st Place People’s Choice)- photo by Stu Helm
Montford Pull-up – photo by Stu Helm
Mountain View Deli – photo by Stu Helm
Mountain View Deli – photo by Stu Helm

~ END ~

WNC Battle of The Burger
“Nearly 1500 people gather for the annual WNC Battle of the Burger held in July. Up to fifteen of Western North Carolina’s greatest chefs fire up their grills in the heart of Downtown Asheville in hopes of winning the title of WNC’s Best Burger.”
Benefit for Open Hearts Art Center
“Open Hearts Art Center is a community based nonprofit, providing opportunities for differently abled adults to express themselves through the arts. The program is committed to improving the quality of life for artists with disabilities and to recognizing these individuals and what they have to offer as a contribution. Open Hearts Art Center is a safe, loving community that is focused on supporting the individual needs and goals of people living with disabilities.”

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From left: Chef Jacob Sessoms of Table; Chef William Dissen, The Market Place; Chef Steven Goff, Standard Foods; Chef Katie Button, Curate; Chef Joe Scully, Chestnut and Corner Kitchen; Stu Helm; Chef John Fleer, Rhubarb; Chef Karen Donatelli, Donatelli Bakery; Chef Peter Pollay, Posana Cafe; and Chef Matt Dawes, Bull & Beggar./ Photo by STEWART O'SHIELDS for ASHVEGAS.COM
From left: Chef Jacob Sessoms of Table; Chef William Dissen, The Market Place; Chef Steven Goff, Standard Foods; Chef Katie Button, Curate; Chef Joe Scully, Chestnut and Corner Kitchen; Stu Helm; Chef John Fleer, Rhubarb; Chef Karen Donatelli, Donatelli Bakery; Chef Peter Pollay, Posana Cafe; and Chef Matt Dawes, Bull & Beggar./ Photo by STEWART O’SHIELDS for ASHVEGAS.COM

Stu Helm is an artist, writer, and podcaster living in Asheville, NC, and a frequent diner at local restaurants, cafes, food trucks, and the like. His tastes run from hot dogs and mac ‘n’ cheese, to haute cuisine, and his opinions are based on a lifetime of eating out. He began writing about food strictly to amuse his friends on Facebook.

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