Lunch of 38 Courses Puts Judges to the Test at Taste of London

Lunch started with smoked chili-braised ox cheeks with cheesy polenta and ended 37 dishes later with pork cheek and belly braised in pepper sauce with soft polenta.

In between, the menu included chocolate and walnut cake, salted PX caramel and vanilla yogurt; followed by black cod, crab and crayfish dumplings with chili dressing. Strawberry macaroon heart came after beef Wellington and before Shake Shack burger.

I’m feeling queasy remembering it.

Judging the best dish at Taste of London, a five-day gourmet festival in Regent’s Park that ended yesterday, was not the easiest of tasks. Even the greediest of us -- that will be me -- would be challenged by that much food.

I haven’t mentioned the fromage frais mousse with coconut, raspberry and lime, followed by slow-roasted belly of pork with pink grapefruit puree, braised chicory and buttered spinach. Or the baked banana blossom with grilled tiger prawn, yam bean, kaffir lime leaf, Thai basil and coconut chili jam.

The judges were seven food writers plus guest chef Massimo Bottura, who holds three Michelin stars at Osteria Francescana, in Modena, Italy. Taste of London brings together dozens of restaurants that set up in temporary kitchens in tents and serve tapas-sized plates to thousands of food lovers.

Chefs Watch Anxiously

We wandered from stand to stand on the afternoon of June 18 before the event opened to the public. Chefs cook specially for the judges and watched anxiously as we ate, which was a little testing as we felt increasingly nauseous.

It was relentless in the nicest possible way. David Chang of Momofuku, a previous guest chef, said he could only get through it by taking a single mouthful of each plate and then spitting it out round the corner. This year, under a hot sun, we all took quick breaks to drink Champagne and beer. Water would be more effective but who wants to drink water with lobster?

The winner was chef Pascal Aussignac of the French restaurant Club Gascon. It was a controversial choice. Aussignac had triumphed twice in the past three years and his dish, Croque Gascon, featured roasted foie gras. It was seasoned with smoked salt and glazed with a barbecue sauce, then served in crispy pastry with shredded spring onions, duck scratchings and baby gem, topped with popcorn salt powder and tomato powder.

Hitting the Wall

“I don’t even like foie gras,” Bottura said after the judging, which was unanimous. “I don’t cook it and I don’t order it. But that was the best dish, and the standards were high.”

Second place was taken by Andre Garrett at Cliveden House, for peanut-butter parfait, salted caramel and raspberry jam. Third was Begging Bowl, for the baked banana blossom with tiger prawns.

The judging was spread over five hours. The opening party for Taste of London started immediately after.

Some great chefs were there. They included Rene Redzepi, whose Copenhagen establishment Noma holds the title of World’s Best Restaurant; and Nuno Mendes, whose Chiltern Firehouse, London, is so fashionable, only celebrities can get in.

Waitresses weaved through the throng, their trays laden with canapes. It felt as if they were converging on me. I realized I had hit the wall when I couldn’t even swallow the Champagne.

I left the party and went home to bed. But I’m already looking forward to next year.

(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines)