“You get to do what?” people would say to me. The statement that prompted it: “I’m going to New York City to judge the International Chocolate Awards.”
In fact, I was going as part of the grand jury of the International Chocolate Awards, to judge entries for the Americas semi-final, which includes bean-to-bar chocolate, flavoured chocolate, bonbons, caramels and spreads from the United States, South America and Asia. It also includes bean-to-bar chocolate from Canada, because with only a handful of producers, it wouldn’t be a fair competition to evaluate the Canadians on their own. (That said, all other Canadian chocolatey things compete in the Canadian semi-final in September. More on this later.)
Before I get too far, let me say that this is an astonishing opportunity. You’re telling me I have an excuse to go to New York City (as if I needed one), eat chocolate for five days and meet other chocolate aficionados? Sign me up.
However, it’s not all fun and games. To start with, there were 400 entries in this year’s Americas semi-final. That’s a lot of chocolate, and as much fun as it sounds to eat chocolate for five days, it’s also a palate-bending marathon. It’s also a serious endeavour, as the benefit to winners is tremendous. Each entry requires the same attention and courtesy, whether the 45th sample of the day or the first. From a mental and physiological standpoint, it’s intense.
Day 1: Vancouver to New York
I arrive in New York to a sticky, sultry night. It turns out that schlepping from Newark International Airport to Brooklyn takes an hour and a half at the best of times, and closer to three hours on a Sunday night. By the time I arrive at my friend’s place, where I will be sofabed-surfing for the week, it’s well after midnight. Good thing I’m still on Pacific time.
Day 2: Selection Round
Damn you, Pacific time. I wake up at the crack of 9 am Eastern, which is 6 am Pacific. I make my way to Hoboken, New Jersey, to Ultramarinos, Maricel Presilla’s shop for all things Latin American and delicious. Here, the grand jury begins its second day (my first day) of the selection round. During selection round, we do a quick yes/no filter of all the entrants. In short, is this product good enough or appropriate for the competition? It’s not just a gut reaction; if you reject something, you have to provide a good reason for it. Each judge makes his or her ratings, and there must be group majority in order to reject something entirely. Samples are typically rejected for serious technical faults: chocolate that tastes of moldy beans, confections that taste of chemical flavours, that sort of thing.
We begin judging at 11 am, and by the time I leave at 6 pm we’ve only made it through 120 entries. The previous day, they made it through about 180 entries. If you do the math, that still leaves about 100 entries to cull through. I leave the group for another meeting, while they stick it through and scan through the remaining entries.
For dinner that night, I meet up with some writing friends at Zampa. My dinner consists exclusively of green things: grilled broccoli rabe with lemon, and a Brussels sprouts salad that is surprisingly sweet. I decline dessert.
Days 3 and 4: Main Judging
These days are the main judging rounds at the Institute of Culinary Education. There are three sessions per day. Each session is about 90 minutes long and includes approximately 30 judges: journalists, chefs, sommeliers and tastemakers. We begin each round with a calibration of three chocolates, priming our palates for the different flavours we might encounter in chocolate. The first is acidic and fruity, the second floral and woody, the third flat-tasting and vanilla-y.
Each round consists of 15 samples. Each sample is presented in a labelled paper cup with a short description that was provided by the entrant. We are not allowed to discuss the entries until they’ve been removed from the table. After every five samples, we go back to the first calibration chocolate to check on our palates. By the fifteenth sample, I notice that the acidic notes are giving way to earthier notes. Good thing each round is capped at 15, with generous breaks in between rounds.
Not every judge stays for all sessions, but by the end of each day, those who stick it out will have tasted 45 samples per day. If you’re keeping track, that means that between selection and main round judging, I’ve tasted 210 samples of chocolate. I’m strangely tired and buzzy, a consequence of coming down from the sugar high but riding the increasing wave of theobromine coursing through my veins.
I’m craving food of substance, the sort that doesn’t melt on my tongue. On Tuesday I venture into Alphabet City, to Zum Schneider for bratwurst and potatoes. Wednesday, I head to Little India for palak paneer from Chote Nawab (spiced mild-medium, rather than the fiery hot I’d normally request) and lots of rice. Again, no dessert.
Day 5: Grand Jury Deliberations
The grand jury reconvenes to review the top-ranked competitors from the main round of judging, which have been determined by statistical analysis of all the main round judging results. I overhear the words algorithm and standard deviation and experience flashbacks to the summer of 2000, during which I took multivariable calculus, had all my wisdom teeth removed and had a vivid, pharmaceutical-induced dream in which I was swimming through Greek letters and being attacked by the chain rule.
We go through each category, tasting each sample again and discussing each one. Our goal is to assign gold, silver and finalist rankings. For the most part, we agree with the main round judging results, though with some debate, some products are demoted or promoted. A few are rejected based on technical grounds: for example, one truffle had an enormous air bubble that was an open invitation for mold to take up shop. It sounds nitpicky, but in order to place at the Awards, the basics need to be there. And technique and food safety are about as basic as it gets.
We turn in our ballots and still have no clue who the finalists will be. It’ll all come out in the wash after another round of statistical analysis. Grand jury deliberations take about nine hours, and by the time we’re done we’ve tasted about 50 products. Chocolate total for the week: 260 samples.
Dinner that night is Mexican grilled corn, slathered with mayonnaise and cheese, and tacos laced with spicy cilantro sauce at the teeny and charming Cafe Habana, followed by insanely fresh gelato from AB Biagi, which had only been open for 24 hours but had already garnered a mention in the New York Times.
Day 6 and 7-ish: Free Time!
What does one do in New York with 36 hours to kill? I’m not sure there’s a definitive answer, but this is what I do: get up early, grab breakfast at a greasy spoon diner, visit a reflexologist, watch the dogwalkers in Central Park, take a nap in Central Park, visit the Frick and the Whitney, and then collapse into a bowl of noodles adorned with roasted duck in an unassuming hole-in-the-wall in Hell’s Kitchen. The next day, I experience a quiet moment of near-religious silence waiting for the S-train in Brooklyn (the stained glass public art certainly helped), while en route to the Brooklyn Museum. Next, I head to the Brooklyn Farmer’s Market with its bounty of sweet and sour cherries, Mexican ices with fresh tamarind, and workshops on composting.
Day 7: Announcing the Finalists
That evening at the Fine Chocolate Industry Association meeting, we announce the finalists in the Americas semi-final. It serves as celebration for some and a teaser for all. A teaser, because the actual winners will be announced in September at an awards ceremony in New York. How’s that for suspense?
In the meantime, here’s the list of finalists in the Americas semi-final. Congratulations to all the finalists!
Coming soon: Canadian semi-finals
I’m pleased to be working with the International Chocolate Awards to bring the Canadian semi-finals to Vancouver, this September. If you’d like to sponsor the Canadian semi-final, please get in touch. (Unfortunately, we are unable to accept sponsorship from chocolate companies, as that would be a conflict of interest. However, we’d love to hear from other luxury brands, distributors or equipment manufacturers.)