Welcome back to Restaurant Confessionals, where we talk to the unheard voices of the restaurant industry from both the front-of-house (FOH) and back-of-house (BOH) about what really goes on behind the scenes at your favourite establishments. In this installment, we hear from a preliminary judge from a popular US cooking show.
If you're an avid watcher of competitive cooking shows like MasterChef or Anthony Bourdain's recently cancelled show The Taste, then you've likely drooled over the culinary creations that the show's various hosts get to sample in order to determine which "cheftestant's" cooking will impress the judges. However, before that spoonful of blanquette de veau gets anywhere near Gordon's gob, a very critical gatekeeper must be appeased: me.
I'm a food tasting judge for television cooking competition shows during the audition phase. I taste the good, the bad, and the ugly, so by the time the finalists are selected to be on the show, only the ones that didn't give me food poisoning get to cook for the TV judges. We travel all over the country and taste all kinds of food from home cooks and chefs with wildly diverse sets of skills and specialties. I've ingested shrimp and grits made by a grandma in Nashville to a "surf and turf" plate presented by a Michelin star-rated chef whose dish comprised of chorizo stuffed squid. They were both incredibly delicious.
But before you turn green with envy at my dream job, I need to warn you that the potential of turning green with food poisoning from my "dream job" is a real occupational hazard.
Sometimes we'll play rock-paper-scissors to see who gets to taste the raw oysters that just came through the door or the egg salad that's been traveling in its steamy container for the last six hours from upstate New York.
Fortunately, I have no food allergies. I sometimes joke that this is the only reason why I was hired for the position. Of course, this isn't true. I also possess a wide breadth of culinary knowledge, and my palate is fairly sophisticated and well-trained. This is partially due to my day job at a respected food publication in Los Angeles, but also credited to dear old mom who fed me challenging foods from a young age. With that established, I'm still not immune to improperly prepared or stored foods.
We TV food audition judges have a morbid sense of humour. Sometimes we'll play rock-paper-scissors to see who gets to taste the raw oysters that just came through the door or the egg salad that's been traveling in its steamy container for the last six hours from upstate New York. Usually that person ends up being me, which is how I earned my nickname "Iron Stomach." Thankfully, I've yet to suffer any foodborne illnesses.
Although so far I've been spared food poisoning, I have vomitously ejected food from my system during auditions.
Since some of these auditions are open call—meaning anyone can show up—we never can tell exactly how many hopefuls will be plating at our tables, therefore it's very important to pace yourself. Like an Iron Man athlete, this race is about endurance. I had to learn that the hard way when I first started this gig.
Barfing—that's how you pay your dues in this line of work.
Back then there was no game plan when I approached a hopeful's plate of food. If it looked good, I tasted a generous helping. If it tasted good, I went back for seconds or thirds. I was eating like I'd normally eat, which is unwise considering the American Idol-long audition line snaking outside the midtown Manhattan hotel. I felt full only after an hour of tasting—the audition was scheduled for another seven. I had no choice. If I wanted to keep doing my job, I had to slink past the line of hundreds of hopefuls, walk into the bathroom, enter a stall, and puke my brains out … as quietly as possible, which is exactly what I did. I ended up self-inducing vomit twice that day. Barfing—that's how you pay your dues in this line of work.
The food, however, wasn't the only possible menace; sometimes the audition hopefuls themselves were. I learned quickly not to tell pro chefs exactly what I thought of their food if it didn't taste good or wasn't well-executed.
One particular "pro chef" showed up and proceeded to construct his ham and cheese sandwich within the three minutes allotted time for plating. I watched closely as he removed store-bought bread from a package, peeled off slices of deli ham and cheese, spread on mass-produced mayo and mustard, and then halved the sandwich diagonally and angled one atop the other.
The guy didn't cook, grow, or make any of the components; he just built a sandwich. When I pointed this out to him, he argued that he wanted to demonstrate that good food can be achieved by using good ingredients. "Yeah, but this is a cooking competition. You didn't cook anything," I replied. He went apeshit. I sarcastically thanked him for his time while he continued going apeshit even when being interviewed by casting, not answering any of their questions, only attacking me. "That guy's an asshole. Who's he to question my cooking?!" Sometimes we employ off-duty cops for security. This is exactly the reason.
While conducting an open call audition once, I was challenged by someone who asked how I was qualified to judge his cooking. This guy was beyond cocky—a home cook wearing a chef's coat and too much cologne, probably from Long Island. An absolute kitchen douchebag. He clearly didn't like someone from Hollywood telling him whether his food was any good or not. I responded that my qualification is that I'm willing to put anything in my mouth, including his pathetic plate that he's passing off as something fit for human consumption. He shut up as I jotted down comments and scores while his fellow hopefuls chuckled.
I heard from more than several hopefuls that they worshiped Paula Deen and hoped to be just like her someday. All of these wannabe Paulas effectively blew out my palate, leaving only a layer of Southern fried grease on my tongue.
On rare occasion, someone auditions and all I can think is, What the fuck? A proud gay gentleman gleefully served to me a traditional Welsh meatball made of offal known as a "faggot." I'd actually heard of this old English recipe prior to the audition. He didn't say what it was and waited bright-eyed for me to swallow. When I did, he announced, "You just ate a faggot." I could only smile to keep from choking.
I'm very privileged to experience the country literally with my mouth. For the most part, much of the major metro areas are becoming more diversified when it comes to cuisine. (You can get passable Vietnamese and Mexican just about anywhere now.)
Then there are those towns where 90 percent of the denizens are cooking the same way. That place was Nashville. I'm not dissing the place, or its friendly people. As for the food at the open call, almost everything was fried in some way, shape, or form—and typically with oil, butter, or Crisco, or sometimes all of the above. I heard from more than several hopefuls that they worshiped Paula Deen and to hoped to be just like her someday. All of these wannabe Paulas effectively blew out my palate, leaving only a layer of Southern fried grease on my tongue. I practically kissed the audition hopeful who brought me the limp salad.
Even with all the potential pitfalls, my job as a food tasting judge for television cooking competition shows is a dream come true. I love food TV and this is how I get to be a small part of the magic. I get to meet people from all walks of life sharing with me favourite foods, family recipes, and secret indulgences. I am offered Nigerian jollof rice passed down from a grandmother. I learn more about food with every audition. Someone shares "healthy soul food" with me, made with less cholesterol for a sick yet stubborn father. I discover how people fell in love with food, how they had to cook out of survival when, at a young age, nobody was there for them, how they had to change their diet because of health issues from cancer to diabetes, or how they experienced that Ratatouille moment and quit their day job to pursue the culinary arts.
Mostly, though, when I ask hopefuls why they are passionate about cooking, the answer is simply for the joy of seeing smiles on people's faces when they take a bite of something they created. It's the act of giving something good made with love.
When I think about it deeply, what really qualifies me for this job isn't my ability to taste but to listen. Eating with your ears. Try it sometime.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in September 2015.