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Wish you could be a food critic?

Support your local (or favorite) chef at these tasty cooking competitions where everyone's a critic

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I’m usually more than happy to help out when local charities ask me to judge a cook-off. I’ve enjoyed the opportunities to taste some incredibly good dishes local chefs and/or winemakers prepared, hoping to beat their competitors—and who wouldn’t? But there are times when judging a competition sucks. I’ll never forget the chili cook-off where I could have sworn the contestants found the cheapest, funkiest ground meat in the world to make their grease-laden pot o’ something with a slight resemblance to chili. That thought was confirmed by one of my favorite Paso Robles’ chefs who was there judging alongside me. Afterward, the two of us went to Pappy McGregor’s in Paso for a fresh draft in hopes of cleaning the grease out of our pipes.

- GET YOUR GRILL ON :  The SLO Wine & Grill event pairs savory food with delicious wine. -  - PHOTO COURTESY TRANSITIONS MENTAL HEALTH ASSOCIATION
  • PHOTO COURTESY TRANSITIONS MENTAL HEALTH ASSOCIATION
  • GET YOUR GRILL ON : The SLO Wine & Grill event pairs savory food with delicious wine.

The Paso Robles Winemakers’ Cook-Off, however, always rates among my favorite events to judge. Now in its 13th year, I look forward to it every time.

Despite the rigors of tasting more than 30 different barbecue specialties (just kidding), I always find myself amazed by the great dishes these wineries have prepared. Last year, for instance, we judges tried taste samples of Silverstone Winery’s grilled chicken legs when we were nearly finished judging all of the other wineries’ offerings. Yet, as stuffed as we were, we were blown away by the awesome drumsticks Silverstone served us. That made the conclusion a tough decision for us; we were torn between Eberle’s tasty grilled ribs and Silverstone’s drumsticks. The fact that we were full and still found those chicken legs irresistible won Silverstone the judges’ prize in the end. The people’s choice award was won by Arroyo Robles Winery for their calamari on Chardonnay risotto plus triple chocolate and red velvet cupcakes, draft beer, and Arroyo Robles Port.

One of the ironies of this cook-off is that cheating is encouraged among the wineries. Each winery prepares a main dish, but some of them throw in a kicker, like the aforementioned cupcakes, or an unexpected beer, to bribe everyone who’s judging them. It’s all in good fun, including the costumes: The Arroyo Robles crew dressed as pirate seadogs and wenches, which earned them even more votes.

Guests can bring along blankets and beach chairs, but no children, no pets, and no ice chests. Believe me, you won’t need to bring anything extra to eat or drink at this bacchanalian feast, where you’ll enjoy the food with the wine it was meant to be paired with at each and every one of the 28 participating wineries. And it’s quite the blowout: After the judging was finished, my husband Dan and I found ourselves singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” with one passionate winemaker to the delight of many guests who came over to join the songfest. Sorry to say I can’t remember the winery’s name, but you’ll be happy to hear I had a designated driver taking me to a nearby hotel. Another plus: Most of the participating wineries will offer guests discounts and/or special events at their tasting rooms all weekend.

The Paso Robles Rotary organizes the event, set for Aug. 6 this year, and the money raised benefits their Harlow Ford Scholarship Fund providing deserving Paso Robles High School seniors with college and vocational scholarships of about $30,000. To date, the Paso Robles Rotary has provided scholarships totaling $350,000. The Paso Robles Winemakers’ Cook-Off tickets cost $75 each, $40 for designated drivers; reserve your tickets by going to winemakerscookoff.com or call 1-877-264-6979. Some tickets may be available at the door, but you’ll ensure your entry by reserving tickets online before the day of the event.

The SLO Wine & Grill Affair

Here’s good news if you don’t make it to the official Paso Robles Winemakers’ Cook-Off: You can still get into the SLO Wine & Grill Affair on Aug. 13. It’s a smaller cooking competition among South County winemakers with six wineries participating, but it’s every bit as delicious and fun. This is the other competition I judge, and I consider it a total pleasure to participate in. It’s held at the historic Filipponi Ranch, and it has a grand picnic area where Sleepy Guitar Johnson (AKA winemaker Denis Degher of Domaine Degher Winery in Paso Robles) will perform his original music and other popular tunes.

The participating wineries each barbecue the foods under their own tent, where they can provide you with a plate of their special recipe and a taste of the perfect wine they’ve paired with it. Among the appealing participants, you’ll find Chamisal Vineyards, Clesi Wines, Edna Valley Vineyard, Filipponi Ranch Cellars, Per Bacco Cellars, and Salisbury Vineyards, with a special appearance by Central Coast Brewing. The latter will provide their fresh brews, but they aren’t part of the cooking competition. Transitions has also added local specialty purveyors, including Growing Grounds Downtown plants and gifts, Cook Well with Courtney, Bella Pops handcrafted frozen pops, Tiber Canyon Ranch Olive Oils, and the California Bee Company.

Here, rather than being sequestered as celebrity judges, we walk around with everyone else sampling all of the delicious treats. Once the judges have finished sampling everything, we get together to decide who won the competition. The food served is so good, this decision is much more difficult than it sounds. Guests are provided tickets that can be dropped into an individual winery’s box. Browsers vote for the wineries that provided their favorite food and wine combinations. Near the end of the day, the event coordinators will announce the two winners.

New this year: You can buy bottles of your favorite wines at the wine shop, and 10 percent of sales will go to Transitions-Mental Health Association. They’ve sponsored this event since it started four years ago, and the proceeds benefit local, handicapped adults and children who live, work, and grow in the community with 24/7 support service by Transitions. This popular event takes place at Per Bacco Cellars in San Luis Obispo, 1850 Calle Joaquin Road, Aug. 13, from 1 to 4 p.m. Tickets cost $35 if purchased in advance, $40 at the door. For tickets and details about the SLO Wine & Grill Affair, call 540-6526 or visit t-mha.org. 

Contact New Times’ Cuisine columnist at khardesty@newtimesslo.com.

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