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Food writer and former Food Network Star contestant Mary Beth Albright knows what it’s like to eat 84 cookies, 105 snack foods, and 79 cheese and dairy products in a single sitting.
“I’d say it’s like a marathon, but I’ve run a marathon, and this is infintiely harder,” Albright says.
Albright and Neighborhood Restaurant Group owner Michael Babin were among the local judges for the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade’s annual Sofi Awards, which recognize the best specialty food products in the country—from chocolates to olive oils to barbecue sauces. They joined a panel of food industry vets and professional buyers for grocery stores or gourmet shops in tasting nearly 2,000 different products in 32 categories over the course of a week. The winners were announced yesterday at the Fancy Food Show at the Washington Convention Center.
The process started a couple months ago when the judges convened at a test kitchen at NASFT’s New York headquarters. The first round of tastings lasted around seven hours a day for a full week. Albright did three of those days, and Babin, who also judged the final round several weeks later, brought in Red Apron Butchery chef Nate Anda and Vermillion chef Tony Chittum to take over half of his six total days.
Babin estimates he ate at least one product per minute: “I was the slow kid,” he says.
Albright says the secret—aside from “buffet pants”—is to eat “TV bites,” meaning they’re small enough that you won’t be talking with your mouth full, but big enough that you can taste the product. In some cases, judges try the products to get the flavor, then spit them out. “It’s kind of like wine tasting,” Albright says.
The judges also must write comments for all the products, which then go to the companies. According to NASFT, 17,505 comment cards were filled out by judges.
“My Achilles heel was cookies. I walked into the cookie room, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is a room full of cookies.’ For me that’s nirvana,” Albright says. “Cookies was really devastating.”
Both Albright and Babin swear no one threw up. “A couple people might have been hallucinating, but no one got sick,” Albright says.
In fact, Albright and Babin say they both went out for dinner after. Babin, who was in town with others from his Neighborhood Restaurant Group crew, managed to try seven or eight restaurants one night after a full day of tasting.
“That probably didn’t make it any easier the next day,” he says.
Photo courtesy of NASFT