There are some great jobs in the world: tropical island caretaker, water slide tester, Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue photographer. Among these I will place "dessert judge," which was my role at the Wine & Food Festival's Wine Rendezvous Grand Tasting & Chef Showcase at The Woodlands' Waterway Marriott.
In a room with dozens of savory chefs serving everything from salad to salmon and wine vendors pouring hundreds of bottles, co-judges Tanji Patton, Eddy Van Damme and I were centered mostly in the dessert corner to judge from about a dozen contenders. Mass-producing bite-sized dishes for hundreds of grazing gala attendees is hardly the ideal format for pastry chefs, and our experience was all over the map.
There were cute desserts (a mini chocolate cupcake with a marshmallow center styled like a Hostess cupcake, courtesy Gigi's Cupcakes), strange desserts (coconut mousse popsicles frozen in liquid nitrogen by Chef Tyler Stone), creative desserts (popcorn panna cotta from La Torretta Lake Resort) and even one truly terrible dessert — Alouette Cheese created a brie s'more with a graham cookie and chocolate ganache, yet managed to make the entire morsel taste like charcoal.
But the desserts winner was the chef who kept closest to basics. Elizabeth Stone and Stone Kitchen Catering earned a repeat victory with cup of candied peaches, cherries, ice cream and a crispy almond cookie.
Another perk of being a dessert judge was that once the judging portion was completed, we had time to walk around an explore, sampling food and wines that we liked. I enjoyed Haven's shrimp and grits (as usual), Tavola's tomato ravioli and Latin Bites' array of South American tapas, which were eventually awarded second place by the savory judges. In third place was San Antonio's Jason Dady of Jason Dady Restaurants for his maple-smoked duck breast, and in first place the judges crowned another repeat champion, with Le Mistral once again nabbing top honors.
The Grand Tasting at the Wine & Food Festival is probably the closest marriage you can find between quantity (so many more restaurants then I could hope to sample from) and quality — from Haven to Max's Wine Dive to Quattro, some of Houston's best restaurants participate every year.
So while it may be an incredible chore, I hereby sign up for next year. Being a dessert judge is hard, but somebody's got to do it.