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The Art of the Science or the Science of the Art of Food Judging

Posted by CMH Gourmand on September 19, 2012

I have been a judge all my life….but haven’t all of us? There is a phase De gustibus non est disputandum or to the non Latin among us = In matters of taste, there can be no disputes. Thousands of years show that this is most often true and I would say in some areas such as wine, beer, cheese and strongly crafted items that individual tastes are so….individual – that is a challenge to say what it best – although it is very often easy to agree on what is worst.

However, I have been asked to judge many foods formally over the years starting with my entry into the world of The Kansas City BBQ Society as a certified judge in 2006. I judged a contest in Wisconsin that year. I then started judging at too many events to count at the North Market. (This is the best gig on the judging circuit, which is good because NO ONE says no to Mary Martineau). Since then I have judged at Baconcamp, BeerCamp, The Ohio State Fair, The Smoke Experiment, Pizza Grand Prix, Cupcake Camp, wine judging for the Columbus Food and Wine Affair and most recently at the International Chili Society Championship at Cajohns.

Most people say, “wow” how do you get a job like that? It is fun. It is a great way to meet new people and experience new flavors. It is an honor and a privilege to be asked. It is also a significant investment of time and rarely reimbursed with more than a Thank You. (And let me say, when I do receive more than a thank you, it is greatly appreciated and sometimes I feel unworthy of the consideration).

All of the above considered, the question does arise – How does one judge who wins and who does not? What makes me, or anyone qualified to decide the tastes of the masses when we all have different taste buds. This question was posed to me at the Smoke Experiment by a very passionate attendee. I provided a 10 to 15 minute explanation and thought I had covered the question well. The person then followed up with an e-mail wanting more information. I did not feel that I had more to add, but the persistence of this enthusiast probably indicates that there are deeper questions to be asked and more people interested in the answers.

Judging is only easy when you are deciding between two items. Much like at the eye doctor “Is this better or worse”……an easy question right? But what do you do when they are “about the same”. That is when, like when looking at the eye chart you might try again and say “better now….or now?” Eventually you get an answer because there is a difference, right?

But therein, lies the rub (sometimes) how do you sort out the differences? How do you get more than one person to taste something at the exact same place on the flavor spectrum as someone else? The answer is you often cannot. Because of this, a good contest will do a few things: establish criteria based on the characteristics of the food and the contest goals, obtain or train judges that can understand and follow those criteria and make sure that judges reflect the diversity of your contestants. A good contest planner can also hope that no one cries when they lose. That sucks and it does happen.

Criteria vary but most often include taste, appearance/presentation and aroma. A common criterion for “amateur” contests is creativity. The other criteria usually target on the dish itself – spicy, heat, ________ flavor. I prefer contests that weight the scale in favor of what I care about the most – the flavor of the item being say up to 10 points and creativity being up to 5. If you are a judge – before you sample – you need to determine what your baseline flavor is – what is average and do you best to keep to that baseline for each entry you try. This is a challenge.

If you are a contestant – take a look at the criteria for judging and make sure you are hitting the mark on all of them. I have sample many things that tasted great – but looked horrible. I have seen beautiful presentation of a dish only to taste something that was not worth a bite.

For the science of judging I have taken two classes. The first was with the Kansas City BBQ Society. It was a 4-hour class to become a certified BBQ judge. The second class – which requires two sessions, was wine judging for the Columbus Food and Wine Affair.

Both classes spend some time walking through the criteria and describing the characteristics of each in great detail. Both classes provided a lot of tongue on experience – tasting, sampling and discussing what was sampled. It both classes, the instructors would have students talk about their rankings at the end of a sample session. After a few dry runs – a natural bell curve could be seen for each item tried – whether is was a wine or a loin. The better entries clustered high in scores and the weaker entries clustered low. There were clear bad, good and great entries that every one could agree on. But when it comes down to the BEST – there is often not complete agreement. Often one judge’s number two candidate is another’s first or third place. The same applies to the bottom of the scale. So for winners and losers – it comes down to score average. My best may be your third best. My worst may be your low average. But I have never encountered a competition where one judges best ranked as another worst.

It comes down to technical execution. If you execute everything technically well you will place in the upper half of the bell curve. What is a winning entry in one group could be a third place with another group of judges on the same day.

Some of these challenges presented themselves to me judging at the state fair this year. The scoring systems for the many contests are not the clear-cut point systems that the esteemed Mary Martineau uses. There were criteria and some percentages but in each category we found ourselves debating the pros and cons of the top three contestants in most categories. It was really democracy in action – but the debates were long. In one contest – we gave first place to our second place finisher for taste. Why? Because the winner had to then go on to national competition and our “winner” for taste was not even close for presentation and also missed some critical elements of the quintessential type of pie it was supposed to be. If you want to be a judge, it is helpful – but not always observed as being a selection criteria – to have these skills: tact, diplomacy, the ability to articulate flavors and sensations as well as the ability to be pragmatic enough not to obsess over every little detail and nuance and just go with your first impression.

I have judged wine four times now and I can say – my skills are not improved in this area. I can tell you what I like and what I don’t like – but I would be hard pressed to defend a score of 14 out for twenty vs. 15 out of twenty with anyone. However, in the world of BBQ – I have the confidence and ability to articulate why one brisket is better than another based on taste, appearance, etc.,

We have different palates and they are not all created equal. Not all dishes presented to the judges are created equally either.

Judging is an art and a science. It is more than a roll of the dice but less than a bull’s-eye by a sharpshooter. That is as much of an answer and explanation as I can muster. How would you rate that on a scale of 1 to 10?

One Response to “The Art of the Science or the Science of the Art of Food Judging”

  1. Tara said

    I had no idea that food judging was so complicated or scientific! I hope to attend a competition some time, though not judging lol!

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