Tasting food is serious business. And sampling spicy foods can be hard work. Just ask the VIP judges at the 2013 Fiery Food Challenge (FFC) in Irving, Texas. Beginning bright and early Monday morning, Jan. 21, and continuing through Wednesday afternoon in six separate shifts, a roster of spicy food-fans, all volunteers, sipped, smelled, chewed, savored, examined and evaluated their way through about 700 different products.
Produced by Spicy Food Productions, the FFC is the longest running competition of zesty products in the industry. Competitors who submit hot, spicy, zesty foods and fiery food-related products vie for the prestigious Golden Chile Award, one of only two "fiery" food awards in the United States .
Winners of the Golden Chile, more than 60 of them in a variety of categories, will be announced Friday evening at an awards dinner which is open to the public at the Irving Convention Center, following the first day of Zestfest 2013. The three-day event features foods and products from across the nation, and offers tastings, demonstrations by well-known chefs, and live entertainment. In addition, Saturday attendees will have an opportunity to enter a spicy wings eating contest, and to vote for People’s Choice Awards.
Lead Judge Jim Chambers said he has been challenging his palate for the past 12 “or maybe 15” years, beginning with a Zestfest held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, his home state. As lead judge, he explained, “I get all the complaints,” but added that it is his responsibility to assure that all goes smoothly during the three days of judging. He also noted that judges, as he did, return year after year to sample the spices, enjoy the camaraderie, and learn of new products and cooking techniques.
Guidelines given to the Challenge judges say: “The Fiery Food Challenge is the most recognized and prestigious award in the world of zesty foods. Our contest entrants reap many rewards from winning the coveted ‘Golden Chile’ award. . . . In light of this, we ask that you take your judging responsibility seriously, but please have fun sampling all of the spicy fare.”
The double-blind judging evaluates samples from across the nation, and every effort is made to keep it secret and fair, said Chambers. It is more than a product taste test, he noted; judges, who can include chefs, food critics and media foodies, as well as devoted hot food lovers, also evaluate packaging, labels, marketing and foods prepared with various seasonings and sauces. It is an effort requiring much planning over a period of many months, he said.
A cadre of “hostesses,” many of them veterans of past competitions as well, prepares and delivers the samples to seven-person judging tables from an adjacent “authorized personnel only” prep room containing the hundreds of products to be sampled. All are identified to the judges by category and number only, and results of the judging are carefully tabulated and controlled.
Among the products in this year’s competition are low-carb and sugar-free sauces, Cajun, mustard-based and catsup-based products, salad dressings, desserts and candies, chips, rubs, sauces and marinades, Asian-flavored products and numerous pepper sauces. The variety of edible spicy, zesty, fiery products is almost endless.
John "CaJohn" Hard of CaJohn's Fiery Food in Columbus, Ohio, serves as the FFC Senior Product Consultant this year. His products have won more than 400 awards in regional, national and international competition, including 79 Golden Chiles. Hard termed the Golden Chile the “highest award in our industry,” noting that he took home 16 of the impressive awards in one year alone. In the 2012 Challenge, he was the recipient of the Best Overall Award. CaJohn's Xecution Station - eight samples of sauces ranging from Very Hot to “Xcruciatingly Hot,” will be a feature at this year’s show. Four of the station sauces contain Trinidad Scorpion Pepper, the hottest pepper in the world.
Zestfest 2013 opens to the public at 1 p.m. Friday, continuing from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are available online or at the door.