What's It's Like to Judge the Hot Dog World Cup
Bovine genitalia, chicken hearts, and raw langoustines are all fair game.
Fortunately, there were no cow vaginas in sight. That was the first thing I checked for as I perused the list of entries; one of the previous year's contestants had included them, smashed unerotically together with bull testicles, and I was relieved to discover they had not become a regular feature. The ingredients list for the seven sausages I would ingest as a judge in the Top Dog Hotdog contest might run from batter-fried lamb to raw langoustines, but bovine genitalia would not be among them.
Still, I can't say I was exactly confident about my place at the judges' table. Billed as the unofficial World's Best Hot Dog competition, Top Dog was founded by restaurant critic Øle Troelsø as an annual part of the Copenhagen Cooking Festival. The event, which attracts hundreds of people each year, pits a handful of chefs from all over the world against each other, and raises money for the international aid organization CARE. The good cause helps explain why I agreed to render judgement on a bunch of sausages, despite the fact that I—a journalist whose food writing tends to focus on famous chefs and obscure Andalusian fishermen—felt supremely unqualified for the role.
With the exception of Troelsø, who is a professional critic, all the other judges were chefs—and not just any chefs, but some of the best chefs in the world. Anne-Sophie Pic, Rasmus Kofoed, Dominique Crenn—these were people who had built their Michelin-starred reputations on their distinguished palates. And the Danes, I had learned, take their hotdogs very, very seriously. Who was I, an American raised on Oscar Mayer and Hebrew National, to tell them what was good? Would I even be able to judge? Also: would I really be able to eat seven hotdogs?
My anxieties were not assuaged when Troelso ushered us to the judges' table. Beside each setting was a chart we were to fill out, with space for notes on presentation, taste, and innovation. A stack of plates ensured that each dog came to us clean, uncontaminated by its predecessors. Water rested nearby for clearing the palate, beer for reviving the appetite, and schnapps, one presumes, for courage. "Wow," said Crenn in her thick French accent. "This is serieuse."
The hotdogs started coming, one every ten minutes, from South Africa, and Greenland, and Spain, a parade of allspice-scented boar, pheasant boudin blanc, and raw langoustines. There were chicken hearts, and chicken skin, and chicken fat. There was Inuit singing and Japanese saké, both presumably intended to favorably influence the judges. In order to keep myself from becoming too full to discharge my duties, I limited myself to a strict three bites of each dog. But it didn't take me long before I realized that amid my anxieties, I had neglected to worry about the most obvious and humiliating aspect of judging a hotdog contest, which is the hundreds of people watching as you attempt to daintily shove one phallic-shaped object after the next into your mouth. I realized this about the time that a load of remoulade squirted into my hair.
At first, lacking much in the way of a frame of reference, I wasn't sure how to evaluate each entry. Was that tarragon emulsion a good thing? Did powdered ham in the bun count as innovation? I may have surreptitiously peeked at Crenn's scores—but just to make sure, I told myself, that I wasn't too far off the mark. (Kofoed, that Boy Scout, kept his scorecard primly hidden from view). But as for my main concern, the one about not knowing enough to distinguish the best, I shouldn't have worried. In the end, it was easy.
The dog prepared by chef Hideto Takeda of Osaka's Ichimatsu restaurant was insanely juicy and intensely flavorful. Made from chicken hearts and liver, served in a brioche bun baked with miso and soy, and topped with a dollop of kewpie mayonnaise and a heap of spring onions, it hit all the notes: umami, spice, sweetness, and funk. I would have known it was the winner even if I hadn't seen Pic who, up until that point had been restricting herself to a couple of bites of each dog, consume the whole thing.
When we announced the victor, Takeda and his team—which included locals Mads Battlefeld and Henrik Levinson from Hjemme—reacted with the kind of screaming, chest-bumping, butt-slapping glee that I associate with Super Bowl championships. In that moment, and against all expectation, I found myself glad to have stuffed myself with sausages. They were so happy, and the event seemed so sweetly Danish, that it was clearly worth the humiliation of culinary exhibitionism, worth the anxiety of hotdog-induced imposter syndrome. Hell, it probably would have been worth a cow vagina or two.