I was a judge at the Dan’s Papers GrillHampton cookoff last Friday. The judging, which pitted chefs of the Hamptons versus chefs of New York City, took place between 9 and 10 p.m. under the huge white tent set up in Sayre Park in Bridgehampton. There was, at one end, next to the band platform, another platform upon which was a long banquet table set up for seven—we were seven judges—at which we would be fed, one after another, plates full of 16 different offerings from sixteen different chefs—eight nearby and eight from the city—and we would have five minutes to taste each one and, using a pencil and a chart, write down a grade in four different categories. At the end, we would hand the chart to a Master of Ceremonies who would announce the winner. As you might imagine, the charts were pretty gravy-stained by the end of the hour it took to eat all this. But we did it.
Around 8:50 p.m., officials were sent out through the crowds to find us and corral us back to the table for the tasting. The band, New Life Crisis, was thumping away playing popular music at high volume. Many in the crowd were all dressed up. Some were dancing. They had paid $125 each to get in and eat their fill. Of course, we judges were holding off eating our fill. We had a herculean task ahead of us. We drank, however—beer, wine, water, soft drinks.
Our names were on folding cards in front of where we would be sitting. We were Bruce Bronster and Pat LaFrieda of presenting sponsor Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors, co-hosts Robert Irvine and Marc Murphy, Michael Gelman, executive producer of Live! With Kelly and Michael, baseball great Cecil Fielder and Dan Rattiner.
We judges greeted one another and sat down. Some words were spoken. A parade of pretty waitresses and handsome waiters bearing plates of food came pushing through the crowd to set our individual portions in front of us. I looked at the chart.
1. Hand-rubbed Pecan smoked Lamb sliced and served with Tomato Confit, Brown Rice and Chana Dal Pilaf with First Press Unfiltered Olive Oil, Cracked Black Pepper, and Himalayan 2wPink Salt
I ate. Of course we were tasting blind. We had no idea what restaurant from what community had made this. I drank club soda to wash it down. Fielder was drinking beer from a bottle.
“What did you think?” Fielder asked.
“I liked it,” I said. “Maybe a bit raw.”
I wrote down 6 for taste. We were to judge from 1–10 for taste, but then there were three more categories for each, but the judging only went from 1–5, as in, 5 is the best whereby with the taste, 10 would be the best. You’d add them up at the end. The other categories were creativity, side dish and presentation. I rated everything and did the addition.
“I didn’t care for it,” Cecil said. “Not really barbecue.”
“No, not really. And are you still in Detroit?” He’d been a Detroit Tiger in his heyday.
“Live in Atlanta.”
“Big town for barbecue.”
Fielder rated his food. The servers came out again through the crowd. They removed the first and set down the second.
2. Grilled St. Louis Short Ribs with a Fig and Vidalia Onion Barbecue Sauce served with a Celery Slaw with Gorgonzola Dressing.
“This is more like it,” Fielder said.
“Yup,” I said.
3. Short Rib served with Peach Corn Salad: Corn, Local Halsey Peaches, Summer Kale Slaw and Wild Rice.
Two girls in evening dresses came over to get Fielder’s autograph. He obliged. He ate. He graded Number Three.
4. Sliced Prime Rib Sandwiches with Horseradish Sauce, Pickled Onions and Jalapenos on House-Made Bread, served with Grilled Corn Salad made with Grilled Corn, Seasonal Vegetables and Vinaigrette.
“Wow,” I said.
“Best so far,” Fielder said.
This sandwich was so good, particularly with the pickled onions and the horseradish, I didn’t want to give it back half eaten. I fought with the server. I prevailed. I gobbled it down. Then I gave it back.
“Is that your son who plays today?” I asked Fielder. “It’s the same name. I don’t follow baseball that closely anymore.”
“Yeah. Prince. He did pretty good in the All-Star game.”
“How did he do?”
“He hit 50 home runs [in 2007]. We are the only father and son who ever both hit 50 home runs in a season.”
“When was yours?”
“1990,” he said.
5. Charcoal Smoked Short Rib Sandwich served with Charred Baby Leeks, Fresh Pickled Cucumber and Shallots, Charred Jalapeno Vinegar BBQ sauce.
“I don’t like the leeks,” I said. “Looks like breaded chopsticks. But that’s my personal taste.”
6. Kobe Beef Burger with Aged Blue Cheese, Baby Arugula and Organic Buttermilk-Dill Dressing served with Mexican Grilled Corn made with Mexican Chipotle, Fresh Cilantro and Queso Fresco.
“How ya doin’?” I asked.
“Pretty good. These last two were really, really good. I rated them highly.”
“Me too,” I said. “BBQ plus.”
7. Dominican Ribs served with Roasted Corn Grits.
That’s all it said. The corn grits were really, really good and were placed on the plate by an ice cream scoop. Ribs were ho-hum. Came all the way from the Dominican Republic?
“Who’s the toughest pitcher you ever faced?” I asked.
Fielder grinned. “Roger Clemens.”
“Couldn’t hit him?”
“He never gave in. Never gave in.”
“What do you mean?”
“Never could get the fastball out of him. He just threw everything else.”
“Not a screwball pitcher. Did split-finger though.” He showed me the split-finger grip. “I took it out on a whole lot of other pitchers, though.”
8. Confit Bacon with a Sauce Gribiche (an aioli with hard boiled eggs, capers and pickles) served with a Pickle Salad made with Frisee, Pickled Vegetables, Olive Oil and Vinegar.
“You’re really diggin’ in there,” Fielder said.
“I like pickles,” I said.
On the other side of me, Marc Murphy was re-writing his scores from his earlier offerings.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“I change the ratings in the light of the new servings,” he said.
This man is serious, I thought.
9. Grilled Octopus over a Black Eyed Pea Salad.
I don’t eat octopus. I pushed it away. Then I re-thought it. Win one for the gipper, is what I said to myself, and I took a bite of the octopus and swallowed it. Yup. That’s why I don’t like it.
“How you doing?” Marc Murphy asked.
“I think it’s harder to judge as we get toward the end.”
“Feeling okay?” he asked.
I thought about my stomach for the first time. All that stuff now down there all mixed up. It was holding up. My grandmother on my father’s side was from Romania and was famous for cooking meatballs heavy as rocks. We can handle this. On my left, Fielder was scarfing it all down. No complaints there either. “So far, so good,” I said. “Just seven to go.”
10. Grilled Shortrib served with Charred Corn, Guanciale, Heirloom Tomato and Pickled Ramps.
11. Grilled Veal Braciole stuffed with Prosciutto, Local Kale, Spinach, Cheese, served with a Risotto Cake topped with Pomodoro Sauce.
“He your only son?”
“Nope. Got another one.”
“He’s got a lot to look forward to.”
12. Tacos Al Pastor served with Esquite Salad. Suckling Pig, Grilled Pineapple and Chipotle Salsa served with Sweet Corn, Pickled Red Onions, Cotija Cheese and Sherry Vinaigrette.
“You know, I’m really glad to meet you,” I said. “You’ve brought a lot of pleasure to a lot of people during your career. My name’s Dan.” I held out a hand.
“I know who you are,” he grinned. We shook hands.
13. Sea Scallop with Pork Belly Burger served with Grilled Bok Choy Slaw. La Plancha-grilled sea scallops, Apple Chocolate Habanero Glazed Pork Belly, Grilled Blood Orange, and Garlic Aioli. Marc looked over at me. “Just take little bites,” he said.
14. Green Chile Tri Tip served with Summer Corn Salad. Smoked Tri Tip with a Green Chile inspired Rub served with a Summer Corn Salad of Roasted Corn, Baby Fava Beans, Heirloom Tomatoes and Fresh Herbs.
15. Grilled Spanish Octopus with Riviera Potato Salad. Tender Spanish Octopus, marinated in Olive Oil, Lemon Juice, Garlic, Shallots, Parsley and Chili and seared on the grill. Served with a Riviera Potato Salad made from Fingerling Potatoes tossed with Salt and Olive Oil, wrapped in foil and cooked on the grill, tossed with Grilled Celery, Green and Black Olives, Sundried Tomato, Basil and Olive Oil, Lemon Juice and Shallots.
I used my fork to stab little pieces of potato. I ate them. Yum.
Three men and a woman came over to Fielder to shake his hand. They all wore t-shirts bearing the name of the restaurant they were from and one of the men took out a business card and handed it to Fielder and said something about “…it’s all on me” or something like that, I couldn’t make it out.
I thought isn’t this bribery or something? Then I thought, no not at all, because everything we have eaten is a blind taste, it’s just ‘come on over, Cecil, we’d love to have ya’.
16. Grilled Surf & Turf Tacos served with Grilled Smashed Potato Hash. Grilled Tuna Taco topped with Grilled Pineapple Salsa; Grilled Steak Taco topped with Pickled Red Onions and Avocado Relish.
I don’t recall seeing Fielder eat any of this dish, but maybe he did. Anyway, suddenly, he got up, jumped down off the stage and walked quickly into the crowd. Didn’t even say goodbye. I looked at the rating of this last dish. Everything was a 4. Just 4, 4, 4, 4. Taste, creativity, side dish, presentation. I picked up my pen to score my chart, but the pen tip was too greasy to print, nothing came out. I used Fielder’s pen, still lying there. That worked.
Don’t remember much after this. I remember walking briskly around the outskirts of the tent thinking, thinking about something. My stomach was fine. How could that be? People came over to thank me for Dan’s Papers doing this wonderful event. A man said, “Here he is, Martha, the legend.” I kept on the move. Finally, I got ushered back to the platform where the announcement was made.
The winner was The Hamptons. How about that? I drove home. When I got there, I used a small spoon to slowly eat a nice cold portion of Breyers vanilla ice cream I found in the freezer. Helped settle everything.
Saturday night under that tent, we did a companion food event, Taste of Two Forks, only bigger and there was no contest to judge. Just 1,600 people enjoying three straight hours of eating at about 50 restaurant tables, drinking at 16 wine tables, meeting a lot of celebrities and having a lot of fun under that same tent.
To paraphrase what waiters say: We Enjoyed.
Blue Moon People’s Choice Award: Joe Isidori from Black Tap Kobe Beef Burger served with Mexican Grilled Corn
Dan’s GrillHampton Judges Award: Jason Kallert from the Beach Club at Gurney’s Charcoal Smoked Short Rib Sandwich served with Charred Baby Leeks
Pat LaFrieda Team Award: Team Hamptons
Chris Cariello, 1 North Steakhouse
Michael Mosolino, Deli Counter Fine Foods & Catering
Peter Ambrose, Endless Summer Event Catering
Julio Quisbert, Old Stove Pub
David Hersh, Rumba Inspired Island Cuisine and Rum Bar
Arthur Wolf, Smokin’ Wolf BBQ
Colette Connor, The Inn Spot on The Bay
Jason Kallert, The Beach Club at Gurney’s