In 'Notes from the Caffé Frozen Dessert Competition at SIGEP', Regina Varolli shares her accounts of judging the competition and the experiences she gained at the event.
It’s an odd feeling when you hold a person’s hopes in your hands, when you watch them work so hard, focus intensely, and then personally present you the fruits of their labor for you to judge, and judge fairly. Having never before been a member of a jury for a culinary competition, I felt a great responsibility to do my best at the International Caffé Frozen Desserts Competition at SIGEP 2013. Knowing that the numbers I would scribble on the score sheet will partly determine the happiness or disappointment of each contender, I gained a new appreciation and respect for both jurors and competitors alike.
The International Caffé Frozen Desserts Competition had nine competitors from around the world. Though every barista had an Italian name, they represented a diversity of countries where they live and work, proving that fine coffee is valued enough in countries like South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, and Brazil that Italian baristas are relocating to meet the demand. Their challenge was to create a frozen dessert combining a shot of espresso and dulce de leche gelato. In the span of ten minutes, each competitor had to choose the roast they would use from a bank of grinders containing single-origin beans, grind them to the perfect consistency, pull a shot for each judge, and then combine even more shots with gelato and whatever other ingredients they chose. While this may seem like a simple task, just getting the espresso right (perfect grind, dose, and tamp), is enough to consume the entire ten minutes. Add in creating and plating (or rather cupping) an individual frozen dessert for each judge, and you have a formidable challenge indeed.
Facing nine shots of espresso in the span of ninety minutes was a bit daunting for the jury as well. We imagined ourselves with caffeine shakes, barely able to remain seated by the time the last contender was ready to go, so we decided that a sip or two from each cup would be enough to judge the shot. Fortunately that’s all one needs to determine the quality of an espresso, giving each entry the attention it deserves. Though I confess that a few of the shots were so good we just had to down the whole thing, figuring that the extra energy would only help us speed our way around SIGEP.
There was a lot more discussion among the jury beyond just caffeine intake. With every new dessert presented to us, the jury would taste, make notes, taste again, and then share our impressions and notes. The exchange of ideas could even affect the score each judge would assign any given competitor under review. Seated between Livia Chiriotti of Italy’s Pasticceria Internazionale and Luis Concepciòn of Spain’s So Good, I conferred mainly with them. Both Chiriotti and Concepciòn are experienced, talented editors who have eaten their way around the globe, not a bad pair for giving input. The other jury members, who were largely from Italy—the exceptions being Spain, Germany, and myself from U.S.—were equally qualified, and interestingly were all members of the media. At U.S. pastry competitions, there’s always a mix of media and pastry chefs on a jury, which for obvious reasons is a good thing, so it was unexpected finding myself flanked only by fellow editors and journalists.
In the majority of pastry competitions, a jury doesn’t have the chance to watch each competitor from prep to presentation. Fair enough, one can’t possibly observe every moment of a sugar showpiece being created by numerous competitors. The jury for the International Caffé Frozen Desserts Competition however had an up close and personal view of each dessert being made five feet in front of us, witnessing all the effort and concentration, the stress, the body language, of each competitor, against the backdrop of a ticking clock. Ten minutes evaporates incredibly quickly in a competition setting, both for competitor and juror, and tensions rise on both sides of the table.
Another aspect that made Caffé Frozen Desserts unique was the product being made, and who was making it. It’s not all that common on the pastry competition circuit to see baristas making desserts. In essence, these desserts originate from the affogato, and in high-end shops around the world you can find baristas taking the concept of the affogato to new levels. One competitor, Angelo Segoni of New Zealand, kept it traditional, having each jury member pour his shot over a quenelle of gelato, resulting in a straight-forward affogato. Other competitors got more creative. Davide Cobelli of Italy, who took second place, created a frothy shake-like drink with a distinguishable scoop of gelato, combined with chunks of shortbread he’d baked, and topped with a hard caramel decoration. Winner Emilio Repetti of Singapore kept it simple but superb, blending one perfect shot of espresso with gelato and powdered coffee grinds. Repetti’s little shot of silky loveliness had the perfect balance of flavors, so although it wasn’t as involved or as beautiful a dessert as Cobelli’s, it won on the pure merits of technique and taste.
Having given Repetti top points and Cobelli the second highest score, I was well pleased to see that they placed as I myself had judged them. Not because I wanted to be right, as a first-time jury member, I just didn’t want to be wrong—and by wrong I mean unfair. Judging is a mix of objectivity and subjectivity; one needs the right knowledge to be objective, and a fair palate when being subjective. At the Awards Ceremony for the International Caffé Frozen Desserts Competition the following evening, as I watched Emilio Repetti receive his award, I felt I’d done right by him, and by all the other baristas as well. As a judge, where you don’t get awarded first or second place yourself, fairness is the best you can achieve.