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From the wine-stained notebook of a newbie culinary judge ... 

Yes, competitive cooking shows are super popular. But have you ever stopped to wonder why? It really makes very little sense on a practical level. Viewers can't eat—or even smell—the food on their screens. For all we know, every cooking show is rigged and the ingredients are all fake. Perhaps the food is atrocious and those attractive, bespectacled judges have no idea what they're talking about!

Chopping onions, stirring gravy, and accidentally overcooking scallops isn't really all that captivating in real life. Yet, when sprinkled with the dazzling magic of "cooking competition" glitter, you can't tear your eyes away from the TV.

click to enlarge KRUSH VS THE JUG The clock ticked down as The Krush 92.5's Cork Dorks (Adam Montiel and Jeremy West) battled 98.1 KJUG's Tom and Becky in the Morning (Tom Keffury and Becky Kingman) during a cooking competition held earlier this month at Idler's Home Paso Robles. The good-natured battle featured recipes and guidance from Chef Jacob Town of The Spoon Trade and Chef Jacob Lovejoy of love.joy.eat Private Catering. Pictured: Radio personality Jeremy West of Krush 92.5 plates meatballs with local chanterelle mushroom gravy while his Cork Dorks cohost, Adam Montiel, races against the clock. - PHOTOS BY HAYLEY THOMAS CAIN
  • Photos By Hayley Thomas Cain
  • KRUSH VS THE JUG The clock ticked down as The Krush 92.5's Cork Dorks (Adam Montiel and Jeremy West) battled 98.1 KJUG's Tom and Becky in the Morning (Tom Keffury and Becky Kingman) during a cooking competition held earlier this month at Idler's Home Paso Robles. The good-natured battle featured recipes and guidance from Chef Jacob Town of The Spoon Trade and Chef Jacob Lovejoy of love.joy.eat Private Catering. Pictured: Radio personality Jeremy West of Krush 92.5 plates meatballs with local chanterelle mushroom gravy while his Cork Dorks cohost, Adam Montiel, races against the clock.

Anyone who calls themselves a die-hard fan of Food Network's Chopped (is there any other kind of fan?) knows that little can touch the drama of watching multiple chefs sauté, sear, and cuss all while battling for an arbitrary title. This is my kind of sportsball, people!

Maybe it's the minutes ticking down on a clock, the sweat beading as the pressure mounts, or the trash talk that bubbles to the surface as everyone eventually loses their cool. Maybe it's like NASCAR, and we're all subliminally waiting for someone to accidentally draw their own blood with those gorgeous, glimmering slabs of culinary grade steel.

Whatever the true magic, there are only a few basic ingredients of any decent cooking show, and, as The Krush 92.5 has figured out—for a live cook-off. All you really need is talent, plus a countdown, plus an element of unpredictability.

When Krush DJ Suzanne Schonig Facebook messaged to ask if I'd be down to judge one of these live competitions, I didn't have to think long.

"Absolutely," I replied.

click to enlarge LOLLICHOPS Chef Jacob Lovejoy of love.joy.eat Private Catering eyes the lamb lollipops cooked and plated by KJUG radio personalities Tom Keffury and Becky Kingman. - PHOTOS BY HAYLEY THOMAS CAIN
  • Photos By Hayley Thomas Cain
  • LOLLICHOPS Chef Jacob Lovejoy of love.joy.eat Private Catering eyes the lamb lollipops cooked and plated by KJUG radio personalities Tom Keffury and Becky Kingman.

Secretly—morbidly—I wondered, "Will I get to actually chop someone?" I'm not sure what I want more in life: To chop someone or to be chopped.

The Idler's Home store in Paso Robles is an unassuming spot for this kind of culinary brawl to take place, but I was surprised to find the place packed and noisy with excitement on a Thursday night.

Rows of folding chairs were already occupied with wine-wielding locals sampling complimentary snacks.

Like a wedding, each side of the room had self-divided itself into the "bride" or "groom" side. On one side of the room, fans of 98.1 KJUG's Tom Keffury and Becky Kingman (aka, "Tom and Becky in the Morning") had congregated in flannel and ball caps. On the other side, sat the slightly more wine-centric 92.5 KRUSH people (fans of "The Cork Dorks," aka, Krush radio hosts Adam Montiel and Jeremy West).

click to enlarge PROUD TO BE AMERICAN Melted gourmet American cheese and bologna (crafted by Chef Jacob Town of The Spoon Trade in Grover Beach, but cooked by radio duo The Cork Dorks) receive a moment in the spotlight. - PHOTOS BY HAYLEY THOMAS CAIN
  • Photos By Hayley Thomas Cain
  • PROUD TO BE AMERICAN Melted gourmet American cheese and bologna (crafted by Chef Jacob Town of The Spoon Trade in Grover Beach, but cooked by radio duo The Cork Dorks) receive a moment in the spotlight.

Each rival team donned aprons as they received last-minute encouragement from their respective "chef coaches" (on the Cork Dorks team, Chef Jacob Town, owner/chef at Grover Beach's Spoon Trade; on the KJUG side, Chef Jacob Lovejoy of love.joy.eat Private Catering, also known for his work at Cass Winery in Paso Robles).

The kitchen demo area made for a sexy cooking show-worthy "set": a long multi-burner range, several ovens, shiny pots and pans, plus plenty of countertop for all the flour, sauce, and crumbs that would eventually fly.

Of course, there was a catch.

In this case, the radio hosts would be the only chefs in this competition. The real-life chefs—"the Jacobs," as I began casually calling them—would simply be "coaches."

Rendered useless and unable to put forth their incredible culinary skills, each "chef coach" had come only with a killer recipe, ingredients, and a whole lot of faith in their radio DJ counterparts.

The rules were very clear: The coaches could not touch the food, much less squirt a bit of oil into a hot pan.

This was going to be good!

My co-judges, Chef Joanne DeGarimore of PasoTerra and Anissa Hedges, owner of Bottles and Ice Bar Service, settled in for the chaos. One hour was ceremoniously put on the clock.

The crowd hooted as the radio hosts turned up the gas, opened Tupperware containers, and started prepping (awkwardly).

Yes, faith would be required if any of these chefs were to get through the competition without blowing their lids. KJUG's Kingman had an I Love Lucy moment early on with a wayward wad of biscuit dough, eventually flinging her gloves into the trash and really putting her back into it.

Co-judge DeGarimore confessed that she'd have a hell of a time not cooking during a cooking competition, and by the sight of her judging style—poking her nose into a bubbling pot of cranberry sauce, walking behind the counter to inquisitively sniff the pre-made meatballs that Town planned to serve the audience—was certainly "hands on."

Former Culinary Throwdown winner, chef Jeffry Wiesinger of Jeffry's Wine Country BBQ in Paso Robles was in attendance (a thoughtful guy, he brought two bottles of wine, one for the winner and the loser). I asked about his own experience "not cooking."

click to enlarge NOM NOM Judging a food competition is way harder than it looks (food gets cold quickly, so speed-eating is your friend). - PHOTOS BY HAYLEY THOMAS CAIN
  • Photos By Hayley Thomas Cain
  • NOM NOM Judging a food competition is way harder than it looks (food gets cold quickly, so speed-eating is your friend).

"It came down to the wire; it was a burger throwdown, and Brendan Gough of Central Coast Brewing cooked. We won by one point," he said. "For a chef to be the instructor, and not touch anything, within a fixed timeline, that is stressful. Of course, all these people are watching, and that's why you're not seeing anyone totally freak out."

Weirdly, the chefs did keep it together. I found out that, normally, these competitions pit the Cork Dorks against each other. This time, the guys were banding together to defeat KJUG, aka, the "rival high school." For this reason, there was a lot less trash talk and lot more concentration.

The crowd held its breath as the Cork Dorks delicately cracked quail eggs, each no larger than a quarter. The judges (and Kingman) gasped as Keffury sliced into a rack of lamb, producing six distinct "lollipops."

When the clock finally ticked down to one minute, the room grew unruly, chanting "5-4-3-2-1" in unison (at this point everyone had had more than a few glasses of wine).

It did come down to the wire, The Cork Dorks drizzling gravy over Town's meatballs and—at the very last second—placing wild Avila Beach chanterelle mushrooms atop the mounds of savory goodness. However, I never got to yell "Just get it on the plate!"

In fact, I had barely time to do anything but eat. One thing I'd never considered about a live cooking competition: Food gets cold quick and you've got to solidify your thoughts in a flash. There is no time to hem and haw. Score the dish on creativity, taste, and presentation. Try not to slobber on yourself (Facebook Live sees everything).

Also, living, breathing audiences are hungry, and not just for the food you so rudely get to eat in front of them. They want those hot results, stat.

The judge's panel ate quickly, scribbled furiously, and disagreed/agreed/decided to agree on disagreeing (did Chef Lovejoy's fried and battered turkey biscuit need more butter, salt, and another glob of that yummy cranberry sauce? I thought so. Did Chef Town's house-made bologna and American cheese sandwich with quail egg, pickle, and Dijon mustard make me proud to be a 'Merican? Oh yes. Did this sandwich need a "side" of bacon-wrapped dates? Not in my opinion. The one thing we could all agree on? Chef Lovejoy's lamb with minty chimichurri could not have been cooked more perfectly.

Really, the final figures don't matter when a competition comes down to such locally loved chefs like "The Jacobs." But still—for all you Chopped fanatics—here is the rundown.

The final figures: The Cork Dorks and Chef Town won with 142 points; KJUG and Chef Lovejoy were right behind with 138 points. And for that reason, they were chopped. There, I said it! Now, does this bespectacled judge really know what she's talking about? That's fodder for an entirely different show. Δ

Hayley Thomas Cain hopes you'll tune in next week. She can be reached at hthomas@newtimesslo.com.

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