Food writing may not be the most lucrative career, but it definitely has its perks, such as judging for the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience's culinary awards.
- by Kim Ranjbar
- photos by Katherine Kimball and Kim Ranjbar
Ever since I was a young girl sitting in my mother's kitchen watching her bake an apple pie, I've had an overwhelming passion for food. Long before I began writing about it, I spent endless hours learning to cook, exploring different cuisines, and daydreaming about my next meal. While I always wanted to write, I never in my wildest imaginings thought I would be writing about food. But apparently, I have a distinct knack for making other people hungry.
Almost a decade ago, about a year after I started blogging and writing food articles for local publications, Kendall Gensler invited me to judge the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience's culinary awards. Food stylist and former publisher/owner of Culinary Concierge Magazine, Gensler literally has her fingers in many different “pies” of the industry.
I was both honored and immensely flattered she chose me to take part. At first I thought it would be a one-off, a lucky break, but it's now a regular gig and I look forward to it every single year.
I could press the back of my hand to my forehead, flutter my eyelids and exclaim that spending a whole day sampling dishes created by some of the best chefs in Louisiana was harder than you might think, but I'd be lying. In all honesty, though, the process could be grueling for someone who doesn't love to eat and talk about food as much as I do.
Each year on my selected day (or days), a few other food writers and I are loaded onto a small chauffeured bus and whisked off to our first stop. Over the next 7-8 hours, we are kept on a tight schedule, visiting different restaurants who have opted to participate in the awards. In a day, we will drive all over the city – sometimes going as far as Baton Rouge or Covington – and sampling as many as 12 different dishes.
Creativity abounds and plates run the gamut, with a more diverse selection of offerings each year. Naturally, many items are locally inspired, such as a Green Tomato Courtbouillon with Gulf oysters, crab and shrimp; Smoked Gulf Seafood Boudin Boulette with caramelized okra and sweet corn chow chow; and an elevated “Ya-Ka-Mein” with pork belly and house-made pasta topped with a fried yard egg.
Many dishes step outside Louisiana's borders, like a Mayan Quinoa Salad or “Gringas” Taco - a flour tortilla quesadilla topped with braised pork, guacamole and charred pineapple.
Others push the envelope using more unusual ingredients such as Rabbit Ballotine stuffed with pork and rabbit forcemeat with apple cider demi-glace, pickled carrots and mustard seeds or Flambéed Duck Hearts served cold on toasted brioche.
Oh and the desserts! Having an insatiable sweet tooth only serves as a blessing on these outings. I am always awestruck by the artistry involved in crafting and plating these amazing desserts.
I'm talking about Yuzu Mousse with honey cashew crémeux, cashew brittle, and caramelized brown butter cake with a splash of gold; Cantaloupe Panna Cotta with Meyer lemon meringue, matcha curd and coconut powder; “Café Crema” – a coffee caramel mousse atop a hazelnut sablé cookie with a vanilla creme center and hazelnut feuilletine croquant; and Champagne Sorbet with roasted lemon syrup and candied violet.
As if the swoon-inducing cuisine was not enough, we also get to rub elbows with extremely talented chefs. As we're served each dish, the chefs come out to describe their creations and often stick around to answer questions, trade secrets and pass a good time.
Just last week while judging for the 2021 event, I met Valeriano Chiella, executive chef of Domenica Restaurant; Nicole Eiden and Marielle Dupré, pastry chefs and owners of Windowsill Pies; Martha Wiggins, executive chef of Cafe Reconcile; Brett Monteleone, executive chef of Junior's on Harrison; Casey Levy fromMahony's Po-Boys & Seafood; Jason Caronn, the executive chef at Rizzuto's Ristorate; and Ross Dover, executive chef of Restaurant August.
Finally, one of the most educational aspects of judging for NOWFE's annual culinary awards is the opportunity to talk food with my fellow writers, most of whom are in a class by themselves.
I've enjoyed the honor and privilege of talking shop with such distinguished ink-slingers as Dale Curry, former food editor of the Times Picayune and writer for New Orleans Magazine; Robert Peyton, a columnist for New Orleans Magazine, co-founder of Chef's Brigade (and bad-ass civil defense attorney); Caitlin Watzke, editor of Louisiana Cookin'; Gwendolyn Knapp, former editor of EaterNOLA and current managing editor of Houstonia Magazine; Nora McGunnigle, brew expert and freelance writer for innumerable publications (Gambit, Thrillist, Eater, Offbeat Magazine, Beer Advocate and more); and Doug Brantley, avid food lover and editor of Where New Orleans magazine.
Admittedly, the end of a long day judging finds me with sore knees, strained from marching in and out of the bus, a hazy brain looking forward to sleep and an extremely full belly, but they're hardships I'm more than willing to suffer year after year ... after year.
The New Orleans Wine and Food Experience takes place June 8-13. For a full list of events and tickets, see their website.
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Though she was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, Kim Ranjbar felt New Orleans calling her home as soon as she hit puberty. A graduate of granola U (a.k.a. Sonoma State University), Kim took her passion for the written word and dragged it over 2000 miles to flourish in the city she loves. After more than seventeen years as a transplant — surviving hurricanes, levee failures, oil spills, boil water advisories and hipster invasions — Kim hopes to eventually earn the status of local and be welcomed into the fold. Check out her blog at http://sucktheheads.com/ or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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