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I was delighted and honored to be a judge for this year’s Taste of Huntsville event. The hubby and I have been attending for years and it’s something I always look forward to. The chance to sample food from tons of local restaurants and support a good cause? Sold. As an attendee though, I was always curious about the judging. We would often arrive a bit late, coming after we got off work, and our first year I was surprised to hear winners being announced as we arrived, nearly an hour before the event ended. In subsequent years, we made it a point to arrive earlier, but the judging remained a mystery. Who was judging? Where? How? If you are also curious, consider this your peek behind the curtain.

Prior to the event I was given only two instructions–be on time and don’t breathe a word. The judging is taken very seriously so judges are kept secret in order to prevent any real or perceived bias. I arrived before most of my fellow judges which gave me a chance to get the lay of the land. We were set up in a meeting room near the larger hall where the event was taking place. The tables formed a large “u” with places for 8 judges. Each of us had most of a 6′ table to avoid collusion. At each place setting was a stack of ballots, pens, extra napkins, and forks.

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Once all of the judges were arrived, our coordinator described how the judging would work. Each entry was placed in a small stryofoam box which was labeled with a letter and a number. The letter designed the category (I especially liked the ‘D’ boxes, those held desserts ; ) and the number referenced the restaurant. This ensured that the judges had no way of knowing where each entry was from as they were judging it. There were 5 samples of each entry, which meant that each judge received a slightly different assortment to review. So while every entry received 5 scores, they were not necessarily scored by the same judges.

We scored each item on presentation (up to 30 possible points) and taste (up to 60 possible points). The final 10 points came from judging of each restaurant’s booth decorations and was done by a separate judging crew. We were given strict instructions not to discuss the entries with other judges. No making faces while sampling, no “mmmm”s or”blegh”s. No gestures. In fact, best to just keep your eyes on your own work. Bottles of water were provided (important when you are jumping from dish to unrelated dish).

Clear on the rules, we settled ourselves into our seats and event volunteers began bringing in dishes. I was told there were over 50 different entries; I know that I judged at least 20 entries during the 45 minute judging period. (In order to leave time for tallying the scores, there is a strict judging window, we had several restaurants squeaking in at the end and a couple of entries that came in too late to be judged.)

The parade of dishes was so much fun. Opening each box was a surprise, each bite a discovery, and, by and large, they were positive ones. Some restaurants had gone all out for the “presentation” piece–taping photos inside the boxes or creating edible beaches to tie in with the event’s “Margaritaville” theme.  Many more had created elegant displays ranging from plating which would be at home in a fine restaurant to a simple lettuce leaf as a back drop. Others simply placed their entry in the box as they would be serving it out on the show floor. Those may not have been as fancy, but I appreciated the honesty. This was the presentation as the general public would experience it.

My favorite dish was essentially a hushpuppy wrapped shrimp. Which is astonishing since I don’t even like shrimp (texture issues)! And yet something about the way it was cooked, it just worked. I wish I knew who made those so I could go try them again. Other stand outs–a prime rib sandwich, a smoothie served in half a mango complete with paper drink umbrella, a fish taco cone served on a “beach” of brown sugar sand, and a Parmesan garnished white macaroni and cheese .

After sampling, we could mark boxes for trash or set them aside to take home. Since even a bite or two of 20+ dishes is a lot of food, and since most of it was quite tasty, I ended up with a LOT of boxes to take home. Thankfully, I was able to keep them in the judging room while I walked the floor of the event to drink in the decorations and check out the silent auction.

Taste of Huntsville Decorations
While I walked the floor, the volunteers were busy tallying up our scores and determining the winners. (I finally learned why the winners are announced so early–it’s so that people at the event can have a chance to try the winning dishes! Makes a whole lotta sense when you think about it that way.) The final results for each category were:

Upscale Entrée:

  1. Grille 29 – stuffed scallops
  2. Landry’s – shrimp embrochette
  3. Ruth’s Chris – scallop taco & beef taco

 Fast Casual Entrée:

  1. Drake’s – mini-cheeseburger
  2. 1st Sargeant Salsa – chips + salsa
  3. Brickhouse – shrimp & grits

 Appetizer:

  1. Grille 29 – fish taco cone
  2. Connor’s – gumbo
  3. Drake’s – crab rangoon

 Side:

  1. Connor’s – baked mac & cheese
  2. Grille 29 – white corn cheese grits
  3. UNA – smoked gouda red pepper mac & cheese

 Dessert:

  1. Ruth’s Chris – rum balls
  2. Brickhouse – mango colada
  3. Sub-Zero – ice cream

It was a wonderful evening. I was impressed by how well coordinated everything was and how smoothly the judging went. I would be delighted to judge again in the future, but even if I’m not in the judge’s seat, you can be sure I’ll be back next year.