Behind the Scenes

Senior Editor Julia Rutland shares with us her experience judging The Great American Seafood Cook-off and clues us into what the Food Network cameras didn't show.

Coastal Living Senior Editor Julia Rutland was selected to judge the ultimate seafood culinary contest, The Great American Seafood Cook-off in New Orleans. Julia and her fellow judges tasted and rated dishes prepared by top chefs representing 20 states. Each chef had up to two hours to prepare a dish, plate it, and impress the panel.

Check out the competition on the Food Network's Web site, then read on to see what Julia learned.

Q: Prior to the Great American Seafood Cook-off, had you ever judged a cooking competition?
I've judged many competitions over the years, but this competition was different―television cameras were in front of me while I tasted the food. I couldn't help but worry if there would be a piece of spinach between my teeth for the world to see, but surely the Food Network will have edited that out. I hope!

Q: Aside from the rating criteria mentioned on the Food Network broadcast, what were you looking for in the dishes and their presentation?
One judgment we were asked to make was to determine how easy it would be for a viewer at home to try the recipes. That's a tough challenge for chefs, because they want to impress the judges but not make their creations impossible for home cooks to attempt. While most of the recipes were advanced, they certainly were doable for inspired viewers at home. A good gauge is the number of ingredients. One contestant used 40-plus―that dish would end up costing a lot at the grocery store.

Q: What made a dish stand out more that the others?
The Florida chef's winning dish featured citrus flavors, which served as a palate cleanser after eating several fried dishes with heavy, cream-based sauces. The colors in the dish were more vibrant than in many of the other contenders', so it distinguished itself visually, as well.

Q: In your opinion, what did some chefs do that sabotaged their efforts?
The chefs are experienced, so it's not for lack of skill that anyone lost. Timing probably threw some people off course. I remember that a few dishes cooled down that might have tasted better piping hot.

Q: Now, as you watch the edited show, is there anything that differs from the way you remember it?
Viewers saw about eight dishes, but we actually tasted 20. The judges were sequestered away from the prep area, so we didn't get to see or hear what the chefs were up to. The Food Network had different film crews, too. One camera focused on host John Besh and the competing chefs, while the others stayed on the judges. The crews captured hours of tape and had to edit it all down to a one-hour program. I can't imagine how much time was spent deciding what would be shown on television.

Q: What advice do you have for someone entering a cooking competition, whether a professional or a beginner?
Practice! If you are entering with your own recipe (as opposed to a "mystery basket" competition where you don't know what ingredients you'll be cooking with ahead of time), prepare it many times before the competition. Bad timing can eliminate a wonderful dish. If you are comfortable with the procedure, you'll be able to handle the things you have no control over, such as an oven that's too cool or hot, or, more likely, lack of space. Although taste is most important, winning plates were presented well. Colorful ingredients make the dish enticing.

For more information on the cook-off and the competing chefs, visit greatamericanseafoodcookoff.com.

To see the state of Florida's winning recipe from Chef Justin Timineri and Chef Joshua Butler, visit greatamericanseafoodcookoff.com/chefs-florida.html.

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