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The doorway gave way to a room awash with white. Dozens of individuals clad in chef’s coats were shooting the breeze, talking shop or discussing the weather. Unlike in most cases, the climate-related chatter was more than a last-ditch effort at conversation. This group of gastronomes was gathered to judge this year’s San Diego Bay Wine and Food Festival, an event that one year prior was made miserable by steady rain that equated to a Category 3 storm by San Diego standards. To a chef, everyone was ecstatic about the sunny skies over Embarcadero Park, the site of the Festival’s Grand Tasting.

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I’m no stranger to chefs, but as an interloper in their world, I kept a low profile for as long as possible. I considered it an honor to get to judge the day’s Chef of the Fest competition with them, and felt it best to allow myself to be led until my opinions were solicited. This was my first SDBWFF judging session. I’d always wondered just what went into the process of anointing the annual contest’s winner. The answer, I discovered, is A LOT!

Chef judges are split into teams of four and assigned equal numbers of food booths to visit in order to taste restaurants’ entries. Whereas many comps, at that point, reduce the scrutiny to a series of grunts and abstract deliberation consisting of little more than, me like that, too salty or that’s yucky, SDBWFF has each judge fill out a comprehensive score sheet that covers every conceivable facet of a dish from appearance (color, vertical height, flow) to flavor (seasoning, balance, doneness), to innovation (new ingredients, techniques, etc.) plus a slew of other variables including freshness of product, the utility of the serving vessel and whether or not they had their food ready to go by competition’s start. To raise the ability of the judge’s to fairly weigh each dish, recipes for each entrant were included in extreme detail on each judging sheet. I’ve judged a number of similar events and this one had easily the best scoring system.

So who won? Leaving the Festival, even I didn’t know. Fittingly, I was only invited to judge the first round of the competition. My team advanced a Peruvian shrimp chowder with a stunning depth of exotically spicy flavor from Del Mar’s Café Secret (pictured) and a dish from The Oceanaire Seafood Room dressing Weathervane scallops and Parisian pâte à choux-based gnocchi with a rich brandy sauce. In the end, it was Chef Daniel Barron from Blue Point Coastal Cuisine who took top honors with his crispy laughing bird shrimp with curry-glazed sous vide pork belly, cauliflower polenta, roasted ginger-kaffir lime air and candied Thai basil. Given the intense level of scrutiny applied by judges who actually knew what they were talking about, you can bet he earned it.

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