I HAVE A hard time judging a culinary-arts competition. When you judge this type of contest, you are encouraged to admire the food. You are told to note its beauty, color and uniformity. But you can't eat it. It is a feast only for the eyes. For a guy like me, a serious eater, a culinary-arts competition is a big tease.
I have to remember that those tempting-looking morsels are preserved in aspic. They look good in photographs, but they don't play well on the palate. That is what I had to tell myself last week as I licked my lips while judging the first culinary-arts salon at Baltimore International College.
Those cranberry-walnut muffins may have been giving me a come-hither look, but my lips couldn't venture near them. And even though those pieces of fruit made of spun sugar looked good enough to eat, no munching was allowed.
Instead of shoveling these dishes down our gullets, my fellow judges and I were supposed to keep a professional distance from the delectables. I tried, but at one point in the proceedings I couldn't resist sniffing the tomatillos. They had been carved into flowers. I figured if you can't stop and smell the tomatillos, life is not worth living.
My fellow judges were able to remain calm in the presence of such good-looking dishes. I figured out why. Most of them are in the restaurant business. Nancy Longo, for instance, is chef at Pierpoint in Fells Point. Frank Velleggia owns Velleggia's Restaurant in Little Italy. Shirley Phillips, along with her family, presides over the Phillips restaurant empire. Charlie Gjerde, along with his brother, Spike, operates Spike and Charlie's, jr, Joy America Cafe and Atlantic restaurants in Baltimore. These people were used to temptation. The other remaining judge, was Ernie Kovacs, past president of the International Wine and Food Society. He was born in Canada, and Canadians, as we all know, are an exceptionally well-behaved bunch.
Following the example set by these well-mannered judges, I rated, but did not plunder, the dishes entered by students and faculty members at the college. I studied displays of food and awarded points for presentation, preparation, composition and ease of serving. The scoring sheets were collected, tallied, and, at the end of the proceedings, gold, silver and bronze medals were awarded to the top finishers in various categories.
Dustin Mohlhenrich's display that included stuffed squid and shrimp mousse won the gold medal in the competition among students for "hot food presented cold." Rebecca Owens picked up a silver medal, and Michael Briggs garnered a bronze.
The gold medal in the student bread-making competition went to Kibwa Stevenson for a collection of breads and muffins, including the fine-looking cranberry-walnut muffins that had me salivating.
Samantha Kolbe picked up a gold medal in the student showpiece competition for her display that looked like a stained-glass church window. The glass was actually sugar. That is my kind of church.
Silver medalist Terry Hutchinson fashioned a coconut shell into a vase and filled it with "flowers" carved out of vegetables. That is where I stopped to sniff the tomatillos.
Christopher E. Smith picked up a bronze medal for his display of breads with braided crusts.
The two kinds of fish in the display prepared by students Lance Yeatman, John Glatz and Aaron McGill captured the judges' fancy and the gold medal for "hot food presented cold with showpiece." There were fake fish, fashioned out of food, in the piece. There was also a real fish in the display, swimming in a pool of water. A silver medal in this category went to the team of Pierre Cummings, Charles Smith and Richard Cauble for the display that featured pieces of fruit made from spun sugar.
Yvonne Chavis won the "petits fours glace" competition, and the team of Sarah Markowitz and Josh Schiessl won the "petit fours glace with showpiece" category. Lara Cramer won the hospitality management and menu design competition.
Members of the faculty got to show off some of their skills by entering pieces in the competition for professionals. These pieces struck me as exceptionally good-looking. Anthony Andrews, for instance, won a bronze medal for a terrific-looking Buddha. Shelley Owens got a silver medal for a treasure chest made of chocolate. And Faith Kling also won a silver medal for a striking-looking, three-tiered wedding cake.
The cake and Buddha looked inviting, but when I found out what they were made of, I was glad I had not broken the rules and tried to eat them. The Buddha was made out of tallow, which is a polite way of saying solidified fat. The cake also had some tallow in it, along with some butterfly crackers and fresh vegetable crudites.
These pieces, like much of what I saw during the competition, were lovely to look at. But I wouldn't want to take them home for dinner.