All of those nights spent on the couch watching the Food Network's "Iron Chef America" finally paid off -- yesterday afternoon I got my chance to trade in my "cruise critic" badge for a "booze critic" one at the VIP judging for the Third Annual BACARDI Cruise Competition, held at the Westin Diplomat Resort and Spa in Hollywood, Florida.
Each year, the BACARDI Cruise Competition is open to cruise and ferry line bartenders and chefs worldwide. In 2007, employees were able to submit recipes between June and September. Then, taste testers from beverage consulting service Show Tenders and renowned culinary school Johnson and Wales University shrunk the pool from 807 entries ... to 10 semifinalists.
And that's where the VIP judges come in: to assess the submissions of the 10 semifinalists -- one in each of 10 categories (click here for the rundown). Once the results from this judgment are tallied, the creators of the highest-rated cocktail recipe and highest-rated culinary recipe will be awarded the honor of Bacardi Bartender of the Year and Bacardi Chef of the Year at a special ceremony in April.
Who exactly are the VIP judges? Which entries do I want to win -- or think will win? Read on for a look behind the scenes!
Eleven judges, chosen and invited by Bacardi, assembled in a conference room at the Westin to taste and rate the 10 semifinalists' creations. Holding the title Vice President of Food & Beverage were Peter Tobler (Princess and Cunard), Jacques Van Staden (Celebrity and Azamara) and Cyrus Marfatia (Carnival). Other VP's on hand included Hans Hesselberg, Costa's VP of hotel operations and services, Franz Rom, Princess and Cunard's senior VP of hotel operations, and Jose Chao, VP of travel marketing for Bacardi.
And let's not forget the CEO's and presidents in attendance: Rob Norris, who heads up Starboard Cruise Services, a company that operates duty free shops onboard ships; and David Granek, the president of Carisam-Samuel Meisel, which distributes goods such as liquor and beer to cargo, commercial, and cruise ships, as well as airlines, resorts and hotels. Finally, members of the press rounded out the panel including Rick Lundstrom, editor-in-chief of trade publication PAX International; Elaine Walker, a food writer for the Miami Herald; and yours truly.
Editor's note: The Cruise Critic community has been invited to participate, too, and the floor is still open! Click here to view the recipes and vote for your overall favorite cocktail and overall favorite culinary recipe.
The bartender and chef whose recipes receive the most votes will each be given a special Cruise Critic Cruisers' Choice Award when the BACARDI Cruise Competition announces its category winners and the Bacardi Bartender of the Year and the Bacardi Chef of the Year in April 2008!
The Judging Process
What's really neat about this competition is that the identity of each of the semifinalists is kept secret until the winners are announced in April. So not only do competing food and beverage honchos get to play nice together for a few hours -- but they might also end up giving higher marks to a rival cruise line! This year, 17 cruise and ferry lines submitted recipes. The lines represented in the top 10 also remain under wraps for now.
Each judge received a folder containing recipes and photos of each of the 10 dishes and drinks, and 10 voting ballots (also kept anonymous; we were each assigned a random number). The scoring is done "Iron Chef" style. Several categories of criteria at varying values together add up to 100. They are:
Presentation (Is the plating or appearance colorful and enticing?): 15 points
Taste (Does it taste and smell good? Are the ingredients in balance?): 35 points
Creativity (Is it unique? Are Bacardi products used in an unusual way?): 20 points
Originality of Name (Is the name clever and attention-getting?): 10 points
Guest Appeal (Will cruisers order this?): 10 points
Operations (Is it easy to make and relatively cost effective?): 10 points
Our paper-strewn tables of three and four were attended by Westin waitstaff, who served the semifinalists' creations one at a time, alternating between cocktail and culinary offerings. As we tasted each entry and scribbled down numbers and comments, Jennifer Baehm, Johnson and Wales University's Culinary Relations and Events Manager, or Michael Werner, the chairman of ShowTenders, briefly explained what made the cocktail or entree stand out to their team. They also told anecdotes about what didn't make the cut (a cottage cheese steak, for example, or frozen drinks that required two blenders and an exorbitant amount of time to concoct).
Community Frontrunners: Since we opened the polls last month and began soliciting your votes for the Cruise Critic Cruisers' Choice Awards, two drinks have been vying for first place fairly neck and neck: Raspberry Chocolate Martini and Cozumel. As of this writing, they have 37 percent and 34 percent of the public vote respectively.
How I Voted: Interestingly, after the tasting my scores for Cozumel and Raspberry Chocolate Martini were actually among the lowest -- 85 and 86 respectively -- in the Cocktails division (my least favorite was the Angel's Touch). It wasn't that they didn't taste good. In fact, both were delicious and netted a 32 out of 35 from me in Taste. In each case, however, other categories were lacking. For example, the Cozumel seemed a relatively standard frozen drink in terms of Creativity. If you've had a Mango Tango on a Royal Caribbean ship, that's pretty much it (with some blue curacao and peach schnapps thrown in for good measure).
On the other hand, my personal favorite, Eureka, received a 20 out of 20 from me for Creativity; who would have thought gin, cucumber, basil and white cranberry juice would be so fragrant -- and so delicious -- together? Overall, I rated this cocktail highest (96), with the refreshing Cucumber Martini not far behind (93). Which all goes to back up the old adage "different strokes for different folks."
Our Prediction: In addition to the categories spelled out on paper, the judges -- especially the cruise line executives -- had a few other criteria in mind. Most importantly: Will someone order this drink not only once, but two or three times? Based on the empty glasses heading back to the bar, I'd say the Cucumber Martini has a strong chance of fulfilling that requirement, and winning its creator the coveted title of Bacardi Bartender of the Year. We'll have to wait and see.
Agree? Disagree? Cast your vote today! In April, one bartender will receive a Cruise Critic Cruisers' Choice Award.
Community Frontrunners: Herb Crusted Drambuie Soaked Tenderloin with Morel Mushroom Sauce has been in the lead among Cruise Critic readers since day one. As of today, that entry is still far ahead of the rest of the pack with 51 percent. The closest competitor, with 23 percent of the vote, is the Fruit Sushi in Bacardi Raspberry Coulis.
How I Voted: I, too, went in favoring the tenderloin and the fruit sushi (the plating of both was just so gorgeous!). I was in for a surprise, however, once it came time to taste the dishes -- my favorite turned out to be the Cumin Crusted Conch with Mojito Essence, a fish up until now I thought I only liked deep-fried.
Conch, popular in the Caribbean, can be tough when grilled or served cold in salads, but this preparation was tender; the avocado and apple slaw with mint and BACARDI Limon were perfect complements. It was the first plate I sent back completely empty. Overall score: 93.
Meanwhile, the sushi netted a 91, losing most points, surprisingly, in Taste. As gorgeous as it was, the rice pudding wasn't quite the right consistency for chopsticks (though some leeway was given as it could have been a fluke in the Westin kitchen). And as for the tenderloin? A complicated recipe churned out a solid, but basic, steak dinner I could have made at home, except maybe the sauce; I gave it an 84.
Our Predictions: The chef responsible for the rum-based "mojito essence" in the Cumin Crusted Conch dish proved not only that he or she can cook, but that he or she is also tuned in to industry trends. Mojitos are hot, and Bacardi has been promoting its Bacardi Mojito heavily as the "next big thing," hoping to earn it a place in the stratosphere with the likes of the Cuba Libre (good old fashioned rum and Coke). I think this dish's inventor has a fine shot at being named Bacardi Chef of the Year.
Also delicious was the vegetarian Mediterranean Blossom, couscous with eggplant, tomato and a vermouth reduction.
Ready to voice your own opinion? Head over to the polls! The top-scoring chef will receive a Cruise Critic Cruisers' Choice Award in April.
Once the results from this judgment are tallied, the creators of the highest-rated cocktail recipe and highest-rated culinary recipe will be awarded the honor of Bacardi Bartender of the Year and Bacardi Chef of the Year respectively at a private event in April 2008 in Florida.
The 10 semifinalists will each receive a $500 cash scholarship for independent study. The Bacardi Bartender of the Year and Bacardi Chef of the Year will be presented with an additional cash scholarship of $1,000 each for a grand total of $1,500. Cruise lines whose employee(s)' entries make it to the semifinals are required to prominently feature the winning recipe(s) aboard all ships in their fleet for the 2008 sailing season.
Stay tuned for a full report on the announcement of this year's Bacardi Chef of the Year and Bartender of the Year, as well as the recipients of the Cruise Critic Cruisers' Choice Awards!
--by Melissa Baldwin, Managing Editor