All photography provided by Kassie Borreson.
For the past 7 years, DPEM has partnered with our sister company The Good Food Foundation, to produce the annual Good Food Awards – an event recognizing American food purveyors crafting tasty, authentic, and responsibly prepared items from around the country.
But before the awards are handed out, a massive blind food tasting takes place in September. This year, over 2,000 entries were submitted for the blind tasting. So what does it take to put on this kind of event? We’re asking Sarah Weiner, the Director of Good Food Awards, to get a behind-the-scenes look.
1. When do you start preparing for the tasting?
We begin laying the groundwork in April for a successful September tasting, working with the Committee Chairs for each of the 14 categories to discuss how things went last year and what we can do better in terms of tasting methodology as well as revisions on the sustainability criteria to keep up with progress in each industry. The latter can sometimes take even more time and expertise! The logistics of the tasting itself shift into high gear the first week in August and take about 6-7 weeks.
2. There were over 2,000 product entries for 2017. How are all the selections sourced?
We have a multi-tiered approach to ensure we are reaching as many great food crafters as possible, with a particular focus on geographic diversity. We are believers in directly connecting with people, and while we can’t be in every state talking to producers, we do make about 3,000 phone calls to let people know what the Good Food Awards are and answer any of their questions.
In addition to direct outreach, we depend on organizations and businesses that have a pulse on what is happening in their industries and areas of the country to get the word out– from Edible Communities to the California Olive Oil Council, to Sprudge to the Vermont Agricultural Department –the success of our entry period has a lot to do with some incredible organizations that believe in the Good Food Awards and are willing to reach out and share this belief.
3. How do you select judges?
We had about 250 judges this year. The first year, we had 70! While it has become more of a logistical feat to have everyone tasting on the same day at the same time, it’s also wonderful to see how it has become a community gathering and building day.
Since the Good Food Awards seeks to find food the general public will love rather than the most technically perfect cheese or pilsner, we aim for a mix of culinary generalists (respected chefs and cook book authors), technical experts (olive oil graders for example) and others in the food world who have familiarity with great food but don’t work in a kitchen (journalists, the Director of the Edible Schoolyard or La Cocina, President of the James Beard Foundation, etc).
The majority of the nominees come from the Committee Chairs, volunteers who serve for 3 years and are respected experts in the category they are chairing. Others are great people we come across through our work, like the Sustainability Director of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, or from a “wish list” that we reach out to such as the wonderful Harold McGee who leant his palate this year.
4. When it’s time to do the tasting, how do you keep all the entries organized?
The big Blind Tasting is actually 14 separate tastings – each category is tasted by its own panel of judges and overseen by its own team led by the Committee Chairs. And all the Committee Chairs are led by one of the most organized people I have ever met, Christine Schantz, the Good Food Awards Managing Director who is in charge of the tasting.
The first step of organizing entries is ensuring the right mailing label gets to the right entrant – we have different mailing labels for each category, and for cold/dry storage within categories that use both (ie, pickles where some are shelf stable and some entries are fermented and need refrigeration). Thanks to our amazing supporters at Veritable Vegetable, an organic produce distributor, and other warehouse partners and supporters – Tomales Bay Foods for example receives and handles all the cheese for us – we are able to get into the warehouses and sort the packages onto different piles for each category.
At that point we have piles of 80-230 entries each Committee is working with, much more manageable than 2000! Christine works with Committee Chairs well in advance to develop the best system for coding and labeling appropriate to their type of food or drink, which is executed the day before the tasting. As an example of how these systems can differ, honey is pre-portioned the day before into black 2 oz cups, with transparent lids where the code is written. Pickles on the other hand, come in unlabeled jars (we instruct the entrants to send their entry that way). The Pickles Committee uses mailing labels to code each jar with the code developed that corresponds to the entry in the spreadsheet, and the jars are put directly onto the tables for the judges.
Across the board there are several spreadsheets and a tremendous amount of preparation by the Committee Chairs, their volunteers, and the team led by Christine.
5. Out of all 14 categories, which is your favorite to taste?
The Good Food Awards is seven years old, and this was the first year that I realized I could be tasting rather than organizing thanks to the strength and experience of the rest of our team! So next year I may be a judge, but to date the only tasting I have had a chance to participate in is the beer tasting which we had to hold separately from the others one year due to a conflict with the Great American Beer Festival. It was fascinating and less overwhelming than I had anticipated, and I’m not really a beer drinker.
That said, I am most interested in tasting confections. I don’t have a huge sweet tooth anymore, but as a child it was colossal and there is still some part of me that thinks tasting a hundred different kinds of candy is basically like entering heaven.
6. What flavor trends do you see becoming more popular over the next few years?
I’ve noticed a lot of spicy elements in confections – chili caramels and truffles. I also believe Americans are becoming more open to briny, sea flavors more favored in Japan and the East. Oil-rich fish like mackerel and things like cod liver – which don’t sound as appealing but are actually fabulous and very much like foie gras. Candy cap mushrooms and passion fruit are also popping up in curds, torrones, and caramels.
7. Any unexpected artisanal products you think are on the rise?
Bottarga! Who knew it was being made domestically, and is delicious? We have two finalists (from Florida and Georgia) this year. I learned that while its’ not a traditional product in the US, a huge number of the Italian makers have been importing the mullet roe from Florida. So it’s a natural shift to begin developing this skill in America, which allows the fishing communities to benefit from the greater profit by creating a value added product.
Another product on the rise is laphet, fermented tea leaves that are unique to Burma. It’s fantastically delicious in a traditional tea leaf salad, and I also toss it with chunks of avocado on a good thin slice of seedy toast and sprinkle a mix of roasted peanuts and sesame seeds on top. We have a laphet finalist this year in the pantry category.
Smoked, barrel aged, and otherwise flavored maple syrups and honey are also on the rise. They are delicious.
Tickets are still available for the Good Food Awards Ceremony & Reception on Friday, January 2oth where Alice Waters, Neil Newman, Winona LaDuke and Sam Mogannam will introduce the 2017 Winners. Afterwards, guests will be the first to taste winning products in both their unadulterated state, and in small plates prepared by some of the Bay Area’s best chefs.
Tickets: Click Here
Use our Producer Promo Code GFAPARTNER for a $25 discount.
For those unable to attend Friday’s festivities, you can still taste and buy products at the Good Food Awards Marketplace on Sunday, January 22nd at the Fort Mason Festival Pavilion.
Tickets ($5): Click Here