Here Comes the Judge

It's a tough job sampling everything from barbecue to ramen, but somebody's got to do it. On the horizon: Burger Battle.


As a food writer of some 20 years, I’ve been asked to participate in my fair share of cooking competitions, everything from barbecue roundups to kid cookouts. I’ve walked around Lake Lily in Maitland to choose the finest chili, strolled along Lake Eola to evaluate some of downtown’s premium food, and watched loving couples shoot each other dagger glances while trying to do their best using unusual ingredients in unfamiliar kitchens.

I’ve eaten every food offering at several generations of Epcot festivals, from Flower & Garden to Food & Wine; judged fests from Amelia Island and Jacksonville in the north to Key West in the south; and winnowed out the best dishes in the Bay area for the Epic Chef Showdown at the spectacular Epicurean Hotel in Tampa. Food truck fracas, ramen rumbles, cake clashes and sweets skirmishes—I’ve been there and eaten that, once spending three hours testing nothing but desserts.  Contestants in competitions hosted by the James Beard Foundation and local elementary schools have watched my professionally immobile face while I taste their culinary efforts… sometimes not an easy task.

One of my favorites was last year’s Orlando magazine Burger Battle (coming again in September, this year at Seminole Harley-Davidson!). My fellow judges were Rusty Spoon chef/owner Kathleen Blake; Miss America 2004, Ericka Dunlap; Emily Ellyn, chef, culinary educator and Food Network star; and Ricky Ly, creator of the food and restaurant blog After a full day of sampling hamburgers, fries and a fine selection of cocktails, we were, shall we say, rather loud, bursting with burgers and eager to proclaim a winner.  

This week I’m participating in what’s called the Hyatt Good Taste regional competition at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress, where chefs from Florida, the Bahamas, Aruba and Atlanta will compete in “mystery box” trials for flavor, food presentation and, unusually, points for guest interaction. While not open to the public, the results of this cultural exchange via food will be released next week, voted on by a trio of fellow local food writers (including me). I’ll let you know the highlights afterward.


Just when you thought eateries could not get more exclusive, comes word of the new  Frenchpressery, a membership-only coffee shop in a secret, need-to-know location. Serving hand-crafted coffee drinks (think craft cocktails, but hot and caffeine-filled), FP requires appointments and single event ($7) or annual ($100) membership fees. And no, I don’t know where it is. Yet.

* Greg and Jill Lynn opened the Tampa location of schmooshed sandwich shop AJ's Press in 2015 to remarkably high online ratings, so it was only a matter of time before their breakfast and lunch sandwich and bowl offerings made it Orlando-way. Andy Hesman, former Chili's exec and Greg Lynn business colleague, took the AJ's concept to Longwood a year ago to great excitement, and members of the Hesman family will celebrate the anniversary on July 28. Beer-braised brisket, locally sourced Mexican rolls, mojo pork black bean bowls and jalapeno bacon hush puppies will join T-shirt giveaways, food raffles and a ribbon cutting with Longwood's mayor. for more info.

Categories: Savor Orlando