The event was held at the indoor quad of Market! Market! It was a noisy, fun event with sponsors’ booths set up and a live band to keep the audience entertained. The first day of the two-day meet was divided into categories: the Amateur 1 Division, which is open to 2-member family teams; and the Amateur 2 Division, open to high school students aged 13-16 years old. The latter category is the event I judged, along with my food-industry colleagues, Vicky Veloso-Barrera, a food writer and culinary instructor; and Pixie Sevilla-Santos, a pastry chef and food stylist.
One participant failed to show up — it must’ve been a bad case of the jitters. The remaining five were given an hour to cook and plate their dishes, while we three judges went around. Pencils in hand, we inspected the students’ mise en place (their prepared ingredients), and their cooking techniques. They would be judged according to originality, technique, plating, and flavor.
As I went around, I admired how these students kept their composure under the stress and noise, not to mention having cameras in their faces and warm bodies pressed up close to their tables, eager to watch and learn. I had to remind myself that these were just teenagers, and already they were joining a cooking contest. Heck, when I was their age, I couldn’t be found anywhere near the kitchen. I had other more “pressing” issues on my mind, like passing Math for one. (!)
I must say that as a judge, I try to be fair and to not look or act intimidating. It takes a lot of guts to join one of these contests ”“ these kids were essentially opening themselves up to criticism. As with any risk however, the rewards are great and part of a lifetime of learning. Frankly, I’ve also learned a lot from judging these contests, chief of which is that culinary imagination knows no bounds.
The five final plates placed before Vicky, Pixie, and me were tuna casserole, a cross between a tuna a la king and a shepherd’s pie; tuna meets corn carbonara; tuna pasta; hot and spicy tuna patties, think tuna burger; and tuna maki, tuna filling rolled into flattened bread and then fried.
My lesson for the day was that appearances can be deceiving. Our top winner was the tuna maki: Pixie and I took one look at it and said, “She burned it,” and “There’s no lemon in her recipe, why is she using it as a garnish?” But when we bit into the crunchy outer coating and tasted the creamy filling, we loved it so much we couldn’t get enough of it. Even the accompanying lemon garnish worked very well, helping to stave off feelings of satiety.
The second place winner was the hot and spicy tuna patties, again another dish I didn’t think would even qualify in the top three. The patties were very large and irregularly formed. On top of that, the participant fried them in oil that hadn’t yet reached its optimal temperature ”“ which caused some of the patties to cook unevenly and fall apart. Oh no, I thought, this guy will never make it.
Still when those patties hit the judges’ table, it was like they’d been transformed: the patties were now dry and resting contentedly on a bed of gorgeously green curly lettuce. The patties were topped with a pineapple ring, put inside a bun, and served with a chunk of cheese and a large onion ring. Great stuff, and we particularly liked the subtle yet very-there hot pepper kick. Like I said, looks can be deceiving.
The awarding was a lot of fun. Three of the female contestants came from the same school, so put together, they had a veritable fan club cheering them on. When the first prize winner was declared, the fan club rushed on stage with a bouquet of flowers, hugging and kissing their victor. Then we were all showered with confetti and bombarded with popping flash bulbs.
Needless to say, I felt like a winner too, and I went home with enough canned tuna to last me ”˜til Christmas.