The influence of Top Chef in restaurants around DC has been obvious for a while, with kitchen and front-room staffers who look like they walked off the Bravo set—a preponderance of tats, piercings, and sensational hair. But it goes both ways: The show is also teaching everyday foodies the language of judging and being judged. This weekend at the International Gold Cup Races near Middleburg, Virginia, I had my own Padma Lakshmi moment. Along with the 88th running of the Gold Cup, an event with a long history in the Virginia hunt country, came the tailgate competition, and I was one of the judges.
We gathered at noon near the winner’s circle at the Great Meadow race track just as the announcer started to call the first of the point-to-point races. Blustery weather, a moody sky, the horses, and the jockeys’ colorful silks combined to give the feeling of having walked into a Wolstenholme painting—not to mention the endless parade of hats and other race fashions. It goes back to when it was held only in the spring in Warrenton, then a more low-key event compared with its higher-voltage corporate iteration at Great Meadow. It’s also now held in the fall, as well. A big part of the newer Gold Cup is the growth of the tailgate scene, not quite on a par with the pregame feasts at FedEx Field, but getting there. This race was also the first fall Gold Cup race to have parimutuel betting.
The tailgate contestants were all Top Chef-ready as the judges arrived to taste their food. We had ten tailgates to judge and each amateur chef was ready to woo us, offer us tastes, answer our questions, and tell their stories. They eagerly provided inspirations—a mother’s birthday, for example—and detailed explanations of the preparation scheme.
My fellow judges were chef Ype Von Hengst of Silver Diner, Adam Caskey of WJLA-TV, and Channing Muller of Bisnow. For a couple of hours we slipped, slurped, tasted, chomped, nibbled, and admired the fare from one end of the race course to the other. When it came time to judge, we were in agreement across the board. First place went to Cindi Miller, who made a theme out of her favorite colors, red and black, including sofas and small chandeliers. She served a wicked pulled-pork tortilla. Second place went to Alexandra Mannino, who produced a gluten-free menu, including delicious gluten-free chocolate chip cookies.
Others were honored for Best Bar; honorable mentions went to a group from the British Embassy who had a “baby Prince George” in the tailgate extravaganza along with an assortment of scones with clotted cream and sausage rolls, and to John and Vanessa Procter’s entry, especially for the contribution of 3½-year-old Charlie, who helped design and decorate horse-themed cupcakes.
We were amateurs, too, but my guess is the Top Chef judges would have picked the same winners.