What a week!!!! I’m back in Lexington, after an action-packed weekend in San Antonio and a great visit with my sister in Austin. I can’t even begin to describe the whole experience at NCCC in one post, but I will say that I had such a wonderful time meeting the other 8 contestants and getting to know all the people involved with the competition.
I was utterly impressed with all the dishes presented and thought to myself, “well gosh, I’d better bring my A-game if I ever make it back to National Chicken…these ladies really know what they’re doing!” And that they did–the presentation of each dish, from the ingredients to the serving platters to the garnishes, was top notch.
I felt like the novice with my plain jane platters and my simple sprinkling of scallions, which is why it was such a surprise to win! I really did enjoy the whole experience with this cook-off and was really relaxed, compared to the pressure I put on myself for the Ultimate Recipe Showdown. In the end, I guess my lack of strategy was my strategy!
Now that I’m home, I’ve had some time to peruse the various articles that have been written and I had to post this one from the Miami-Herald, written by the head judge of the NCCC. It’s the nicest article that’s ever been written about me and my favorite part is that Michael is referred to as a “hunky guy.”
I’ll post more pictures and details soon!
Tales from the judges’ chambers
By KATHY MARTIN
I spent the weekend in the land of food contests, a sweetly American place where you can aim high, try hard and win big whether you cook on a hot plate or a high-end range.
My passport was an invitation to chair the judging panel for the 48th National Chicken Cooking Contest in San Antonio, Texas; my traveling companion, a paperback copy of a memoir by the million-dollar winner of a Pillsbury Bake-Off I had helped decide. It was quite a trip.
With its $50,000 grand prize, the biannual chicken competition is among the most lucrative. Sponsored by the National Chicken Council, an industry group, it is intended to promote chicken and spotlight poultry-cooking
trends. (Organizers proudly note that chicken pizza and chicken nuggets were NCCC winners well before they became menu staples.)
We judges (I was joined by food folks from The Dallas Morning News and Family Circle, Parents and Woman’s World magazines) had nine dishes to consider. Three were nice but not special, two succumbed to overkill (too many ingredients, too much fuss) and one was off the table once we discovered the chicken wasn’t fully cooked.
That left a Mediterranean chicken and bread salad we liked quite a lot but found a bit too familiar; a butterflied, roasted whole chicken topped with honey-glazed lemon slices to which we gave the $10,000 Judges’ Choice Award, and our grand prize winner, Chinese Chicken Burgers With Rainbow Sesame Slaw.
It was a clear choice for the simple reason that those burgers were absolutely delicious — one of those dishes you want to keep eating even though you aren’t a bit hungry. We liked the fact that they used economical ground chicken, just as we had liked the budget-friendly whole chicken in our Judges’ Choice winner, but what really mattered was the taste.
The burgers sang with the harmonious flavors of garlic, scallions, lemon grass, soy sauce, sesame oil and a touch of sugar. A hoisin glaze amplified the Asian effect, while a smear of chili- and lime-spiked mayo and a layer of crunchy slaw provided counterpoint. It was a tour de force in a bun.
I was reminded of Salsa Couscous Chicken, a dish with a mouthwatering Moroccan flavor profile that had won the 1998 Pillsbury Bake-Off for Ellie Mathews, author of my airplane paperback, The Ungarnished Truth (Berkley, $15). Eleven years later, I still recall how much better her dish tasted than the others in the quick-meal category I helped judge that year in Orlando.
The winners themselves, however, could hardly have been more different. As we learned after deciding the contest, those terrific burgers were the creation of an ebullient 28-year-old named Brigitte Nguyen, a first-generation Vietnamese American who had given up a career with a big CPA firm in Los Angeles to pursue her passion for food and a hunky guy named Michael Prather in Lexington, Ky. (Now her fiancé, he was her teary-eyed cheering section at the awards ceremony.) Well-spoken, well put together and absolutely adorable, Nguyen out-bubbled the champagne poured to toast her victory.
Mathews, on the other hand, portrays herself as an intensely private person who was fundamentally mortified by the hoopla surrounding her million-dollar win. As they flew to L.A. for an appearance on the daytime talk show Rosie, the Pillsbury publicist was the picture of worry, she writes, when she realized her newly minted Bake-Off champ had no clue who host Rosie O’Donnell was.
The pensive, practical Mathews comes across as the kind of person you’d pick as a book-club colleague or hiking companion (she did her first competitive cooking on a camp stove), but not a pitch woman.
The part of the book that surprised me most (and gave Mathews her title) was her obsessive worry about the garnish she forgot to include in her contest recipe. From the day she learned she was a finalist until the moment she sent her unadorned dish into the judging room, she beat herself up for failing to list parsley or cilantro among the ingredients.
The perceived flaw that loomed so large in her mind was, in fact, a nonissue for those of us who awarded the prize. Sure, presentation counts, but I’ve never judged a contest in which it counted nearly as much as taste. Fabulous flavor will carry the day, garnished or not.
Kathy Martin is The Miami Herald’s food editor.