It pays to watch the judges in the competitions on the Food Network. Attending this week’s Beer Meet Food, Food Meet Beer cooking contest at the Culinary Institute of Charleston (on the Palmer Campus), I ended up in the spotlight as one of three “celebrity judges” on the main panel. Going in, I thought I’d be milling around the Culinary Institute’s snazzy kitchen facility, casually sampling six dishes cooked with beer as an ingredient. Instead, surrounded by contestants and their supporters, my judging methods were on full display, brightly lit, from bite to bite.

A brief reception the Culinary Institute’s elegant dining room included light hors d’oeuvres and tasty ales from Anchor Brewing Co. and Palmetto Brewing Co. (a big thanks to Palmetto’s Chris Winn for the Espresso Porter samples). Unfortunately, no beers were paired with the courses in competition later on.

Presented by Pearlstine Distributor Inc. and the Culinary Institute, this was the inaugural Beer Meet Food, Food Meet Beer “cooking with beer” contest. The organizers hope to host it every spring.

In March, the contest invited local cooks to enter either the Home Chef or Pro Chef category with an original recipe using any product from the Pearlstine family of products as an ingredient. A panel decided on the six finalists, who were then invited to cook their recipes at the Culinary Institute.

Seated alongside fellow judges Heather Solos (author of the cute book Home Ec: 101) and Steve Kish (co-proprietor of 82 Queen), I had to help determine the top three recipes from each category, based on creative use of beer in the recipe, cleanliness, originality, flavor, plate presentation, and timing.

We tried an espresso porter chocolate cake, a hearty onion soup made with Budweiser, and a bready shrimp burger made with lager, but the top three dishes stood out as clear winners.

In the Pro Chef category, Holly Shinn won with a Sam Adams Cherry Wheat Cake, which arrived warm, topped with fresh whipped cream and cherries. It was like bread pudding in texture, tasting much lighter than it looked. The cherry flavors from the beer complemented the grainy taste of the dessert.

In the Home Chef category, Culinary Institute student Josh Shea wowed the panel with a beautiful dish of sautéed scallops over delicate risotto with beer blanc and beer caviar using New Belgium Mothership Wit, Sam Adams Imperial Stout, and Sam Adams Cream Stout. The scallops were perfectly cooked, and the blend of spicy and roasty beer flavors worked nicely with the entire dish.

At the award ceremony at the end of the judging, Pearlstine’s Christina Lor made sure to make honorable mention of Jim Monaghan for his hot and cold brisket sliders made with Sam Adams Black Lager and his and crispy onion rings battered with New Belgium’s Fat Tire-Battered. The winners each received Budweiser grills and $500 in cash. I wish I’d had a few sampling vessels full of ale on the judges table to raise with my cheer.

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