Being a culinary show judge has its ups and downs

Updated: 2012-09-24 21:25

By Ye Jun (

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Being a judge for a reality cooking show broadcast on CCTV-2 has its pros and cons.

That's what I discovered when I was seated along with more than 30 fellow judges at four tables at the taping of a show called Chinese-French King of Cooking Competition.

One good thing about it all was that we got to try all the dishes.

In three hours, we were served 12 dishes, which came in three rounds, four dishes in each round. The judges were asked to pick out two dishes from the four in each round, and award each dish a point. The points were then added up to decide the winner.

Judges were given only the dish names, but not told who made them, to avoid bias. Although at first it looked a bit difficult to tell, it soon became rather obvious. Western chefs just don't make a dish of very fatty red-braised pork chops, or fried chicken giblets. Chinese chefs don't often make pumpkin into puree either.

The confusion actually added interest to the process.

A bowl of fried rice with vegetables, preserved ham and smoked bamboo shoots appeared in the first round, and actually caused some controversy.

If a Chinese chef made it, then it was too messy, and a bit too salty. But if a French chef made it, then since it's not a French traditional dish the appearance is understandable, and the dish was not bad after all.

My fellow judges were food critics, restaurant owners, or just plain food lovers.

I was lucky enough to sit next to Shi Wanrong, a national cuisine master based in Beijing, who operates his own restaurants. He knows so much about Chinese food that with one poke into the fish, he could tell it was not freshly prepared, and with a look beneath the chicken giblets, he could tell it was undercooked.

The competition rules state that a third party chef should buy the ingredients, and then the Chinese and French teams of chefs will each choose 35 different ingredients and make them into 6 dishes.

The whole process, arriving at the kitchen, choosing the ingredients, making the dishes and serving them, happens in a matter of four hours. Therefore, the cooking competition is fair, according to Zhao Bin, executive chef at the Samadhi vegetarian restaurant, who attended one of the competitions.

"It's a test of the chefs' understanding of the ingredients, and the breadth of their repertoire," Zhao said.

Zhao said the show is supposed to be fun, and not a harsh competition. But it also provides a good opportunity to boost communication between chefs from China and France, two countries with the oldest gourmet traditions in the world.

A surprise factor was added to the show — the two teams can take an ingredient away from their opponents.

Fu Yang, an executive chef at Le Quai, who also attended one of the competitions, said that he thought that his French opponent was a bit "mean" to take away his main ingredient — soybean oil. In return, he took away the French team's olive oil.

"Without soybean oil, I could not deep-fry, or make shallot oil, two very common cooking methods in Chinese cooking," he said. "So I had to marinate food a lot."

Fu improvised to make a set of healthy dishes, including mashed yams with coconut juice, topped with red jujube, a duck chop marinated with Chinese herbs, served with walnuts, and a slow-braised beef steak with honey. His team won by 3-0.

Fu and Zhao consider the competition an interesting experience. Many of the French chefs participating in the show come from Michelin-star restaurants.

On the day I attended, the dishes in the third and last round were flawless. The French team produced two fantastic beef and duck dishes, while the Chinese team prepared de-boned pork claw with snails, and very tasty smelly bean curd with preserved pork. Any of those dishes would have helped them win a point in the first two rounds.

The judges had their own tasting preferences, which influenced the result a lot. In fact, I felt that the French chefs behaved better that day. But the result was a draw.

I thought that if the show was held in France or if more foreign judges participated than the French team would have won.

And even if the judges didn't see a lot of the interesting events in the kitchen, the TV audience will be able to see it all in the program.

The second phase of the competition will be shown on CCTV 2 from Oct 1 to 10.