My personal saga began last month when I got a call inviting me to be one of the judges for the cook-off. Maker’s Mark is a presenter, as it was in 2010, and participating restaurants -- at last count there were 21 -- are asked to create a dish using the bourbon as an ingredient.
I judged last year, and let me tell you, it’s not an easy job. I had to battle the impulse to overeat, limiting myself to just a bite or two of some very good things, or run the risk of being unable to fulfill my tasting responsibilities, and I had to resist the temptation to overindulge in the spirits generously provided to us judges, or suffer the embarrassing comments and photos posted online the next day. And, of course, choosing just a single prize winner (while disappointing and perhaps even pissing off others) is no picnic.
Nonetheless, I agreed to do it. And I was excited to learn that I’d be joined by nationally recognized figures from the food world. Of course, I have to be honest, there’s a certain (embarrassing) thrill to being part of a group that includes famous and accomplished folk. But I was more tickled by the idea that it would be a great opportunity to showcase Cleveland's dining scene and help all our talented chefs build their reps outside the city. I felt honored to be included.
Then I got uninvited. It seemed that much to the organizers' surprise, all the celebrities that had been asked said yes. Suddenly Chef Jam had a glut of judges. Lacking star power, I did not make the cut. It didn’t feel exactly pleasant to get kicked to the curb, but I was genuinely happy that all these luminaries were not only willing to participate but willing to come on out here to do it.
Besides, I could still buy a $65 ticket and cruise the food stations, where chefs and staff offer creations inspired by their favorite band or musician (not to mention dress up like the rock stars they’re featuring -- the memory of Scott Kim, chef/owner of SaSa at Shaker Square, in a long ZZ Top beard is something I treasure from last year). I could also head-bounce, shoulder sway, and hip wiggle to English Beat, Naked Cowboy, the Cream of the Crop All Stars and Cleveland’s own Abbey Rodeo with special guest Jim Bonfanti of the Raspberries. You can too. I hear tickets are still available. Buy them here.
I was really OK with having no official role. It meant I could just enjoy myself like everybody else. Then last week, I got re-invited. Apparently a couple of the big names backed out, so I’m back in. The line-up now includes Food & Wine editor Daniel Gritzer; chef Koren Grieveson of Chicago’s avec restaurant; and the Food Network’s Iron Chef judge and food writer Akiko Katayama; plus Doug Trattner and me. Note, however, that my name doesn’t appear in the list of celebrity judges in the Rock Hall announcement (neither does Trattner’s). I’m known around town for sure, and I do have some fans in Pittsburgh, Chicago and San Francisco (though I should note that three of the eight are relatives). But clearly that doesn’t make me famous enough. Oh well. I still get to sit right beside all the heavy-hitters and give my opinions.
Come see us at the judges table. I’ll be the one with food in my mouth and the big Cleveland-proud grin on my face.
Photo: the 2010 winning dish -- Dante Bocuzzi's Maker's Mark poached lobster with gnocchi and asparagus