Eat: Diary of a Reluctant BBQ Contest Judge

GrillHampton cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

On July 21, I was one of five judges in a food-cooking contest. Restaurants compete. A winner is announced.

This is a job traditionally given to editors-in-chief of weekly newspapers in small towns around the country. It’s usually a chili contest, or a clam chowder contest. It takes place in a firehouse or a school auditorium.

The judges in these small-town contests are introduced and given spoons. They walk down a row of pots on a table and each time, with a fresh spoon, take a taste of what is before them. Before moving on, they secretly write down their score in a notebook. Often it is as many as 10 entrants. The judging takes about five minutes. After everybody has a taste, the judges meet in a smoke-filled room to decide on the winner. The smoke-filled room is the giveaway here. My judging of those events went on during the early years of this newspaper, from about 1960 to 1990. I grew up judging. After 1990, I gave the job to others. Let others from Dan’s Papers have a turn.

Anyway, more than 20 years later, here I am, back. But the Hamptons are no longer small towns. It is THE HAMPTONS. And you know what that means.

The event was Dan’s GrillHampton. It took place from 7–10:30 p.m. under an enormous football-field-sized white tent on the shores of Mecox Bay. There was a statue of me riding a lobster at the entrance. Valets were parking Audis, BMWs, Teslas and Maseratis. Kids were driving attendees to the venue in golf carts. Everybody attending—there were about 1,200—was given a wristband. They were there to eat and drink from about 30 booths, each manned by hosts of servers from different restaurants, liquor purveyors and wineries giving out tastings of rosé or Aperol Spritzes for the hordes attending. There was a VIP area.

On an elevated stage under the center of the tent, a big table with five chairs had been placed. Place-name cards indicated where each of the judges would sit, side by side, facing out to the crowd. A big trophy was the centerpiece at this table. The paparazzi were everywhere. At 8 p.m., a hostess found me down by the band, eating something from one of the greatest four-star restaurants in New York just after eating something from one of the greatest four-star restaurants on the East End. I was drinking the wine. Snapping my fingers to the music. They got me.

She wore a skin-fitting black outfit, a leotard, I think, that featured a communications pack with an antenna sticking up on her back. She spoke into a tiny microphone. Make way. Dan is coming to be one of the judges. Cameras clicked. People got out of the way. I climbed the three stairs to the platform and sat in a chair, second to the end, and looked out at the crowd. On the table in front of me was the sheet I would be scoring on. My name was on the top. The food would come one course at a time, delivered by hostesses from the booths of 19 of the greatest restaurants on earth. I was to judge them from 1 to 10 for taste, 1 to 5 for presentation, 1 to 5 for originality, 1 to 5 for the side dish accompanying the main dish. Add up the total. Hand in the score sheet at the end.

Who would win the trophy?

Nineteen restaurants?

The names of the various dishes were on each of the entries on the left. There were things with pickles, octopodes, pulled pork, Wagyu steak and spiced slices of fish. There were soups of avocado, side dishes of fried squash slices, potatoes with sprinklings of curry, boiled Yugoslavian onions, even something unintelligible in a clear plastic cup that you were supposed to eat with chopsticks.

I introduced myself to the people to the right and left of me. To the right was a man with a moustache who when asked, told me he was a host from a radio station. Old school. To the left of me was a very muscular young man with a shaved head wearing a black T-shirt. I asked what he did, and he told me he has five television shows, one on CBS, the others on cable, had an exercise video, and had just flown in from Vegas.

“Oh,” I said. I considered telling him there was a statue of me by the entrance, but decided against it.

He continued, saying he was returning to Vegas later that weekend for a show. He also had, as we began eating our first plate of food, a group of people down front who attended him. They went over his schedule, gave him scripts to read and approve and, between the second and third course, he was videoed where we sat by one of his people for a TV show. I couldn’t hear any of it over the band.

“Isn’t that right, Dan,” he said into the camera as he concluded a segment, deferring to me. The camera turned to me.

“I believe you are correct in everything you said,” I said.

I ate the first plate, and as I scored my sheet, I looked sideways at how this fellow scored his sheet. We hadn’t agreed on anything.

He was answering his email. He was tweeting something.

Another of his people came over to talk into his ear.

I’ve always wanted to be able to say, “have your people talk to my people.” Oh, well.

The first of the plates was removed by one of the leotard people while another leaned over with a plate of steaming sausages from, I think, Outer Mongolia.

As the judging went on—19 plates of food, one at a time, would take an hour to eat, judge, write down and push to front edge of the table—people wandered over to watch. Some asked us to lean sideways to make nice to the judges on either side of us for photos. I did that.

After plate #11, a “side dish” that consisted of blueberry ice cream in a small cup was served. I treasured this. Under the harsh spotlights which shone down on us, my ice cream began to melt, and I imagined, eating with swirls around its edges where the melted part was, that this was a blueberry smoothie that I might choose to eat between any two or three courses of this 19-course meal.

A hand, outstretched from a leotard, reached over to take it away, but I beat it to the smoothie by slapping my cupped hand over it.

“Mine,” I said. This blueberry smoothie would be the glue that carried me through to the end of this competition.

As the time went on, I began to notice that my ratings had gotten lower and lower with each course. I was trying to be fair. But my taste buds were saying no, no, and their reports to my brain were going downhill. Something with Italian virgin vinegar and sweet potato sticks. Was #14 a cheeseburger from Shake Shack? My God, it was. A friend.

Finishing #19 was a sort of anti-climactic. It was over. The food-stained sheets were gathered up by the leotards. We were led away.

I was told later in the evening, after I woke up, that the awards were announced and the winning entry was the restaurant at Baron’s Cove in Sag Harbor.

I think I remember that one. Mostly, it was a blur.

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