Gourmet Burgers
You Make 'em, You Rate 'em!


George Bay, flanked by judges Karen Haram and Jeremy Hawkings, evaluate burger merits.

by Kate Heyhoe


Recently, I had the extreme pleasure of being a judge in one of the top four national recipe contests. The Bays English Muffins company has been holding an annual contest for fourteen years, and it is one of the highlights of the year for the entire Bays family, whose second and third generations are deeply involved with their product, running all aspects of the company. This year's contest theme of best burger recipes garnered twice as many entries as previous years, with over 5000 recipes submitted.

What fun the whole event was! and done with such style. The judges came from such diverse points as New York's Metropolitan Home to the Arizona Republic/Phoenix Gazette to Scotland's Connoisseurs and points in between. And even though Princess Di was in Chicago at the same time, I doubt she was treated in any more grand manner than were we. After arriving at O'Hare International, each judge was graciously picked up by limousine, comfortably whisked to a suite at the Four Seasons, and treated to dinner, complete with a vertical wine tasting, with the hospitable George and Sally Bay at one of Chicago's best restaurants, Gordon's. And the contest judging had yet to begin. This, I am thinking, I could do again, and again, and again.

But not all recipe contests offer the same royal treatment. While waiting for the finalists to serve up their entries, the judges began swapping 'war stories' from past recipe contests. Karen Haram of the San Antonio Express-News recounted her worst experience: being the only judge to show up for a Mexican menudo contest (menudo being the traditional tripe soup, not the former adolescent musical band). Single-handedly, she dutifully tasted no less than 250 entries in one day. "Do you even like tripe?" asked an incredulous George Bay, to which Karen aptly replied "Not anymore!"


The judging itself was quite jolly as well, some of the judges being seasoned pro's, coming most recently from the now infamous Pillsbury Bake-Off, others being newbies like myself. Here's how it went: After a leisurely breakfast in bed, the six judges were chauffeured to the International Institute of Food's test kitchens. We were seated in a room around a large conference table. Our judging packets contained a copy of each finalist's recipe (six in all) and a scoresheet for each. (In the back is Judy Walker, Food Editor, Arizona Republic/Phoeniz Gazette and in the front is Lisa Higgins, Food Editor, Metropolitan Home)

The contestants were judged on a scale of 1 to 10, from low to high, on four criteria: Appearance, Taste, Imagination, Practicality. The actual contestants were flown in and treated just as elegantly as the judges (a nice touch by the Bays family). For the judging, each contestant was hidden away in the test kitchens and required to prepare their own entries themselves. One by one, the entries were served to the judges. First, a single entry was brought out for us to judge on Appearance. Then, we each received our own individual burgers to taste and evaluate. This was done separately for each recipe. The judges and contestants knew nothing of each other until the post-judging lunch at the Four Seasons, where the winner was officially announced.

I mentioned that over 5000 entries were originally submitted. This year's Hole In One Burger Contest featured as the grand prize a trip to Scotland's Gleneagles, St. Andrews Old Course and Turnberry world-glass golf resorts plus a few days in Edinburgh and London. As judges, we speculated that the increase in contestants may have been due to more men entering the contest than in prior years, golf and burgers being decidedly more appealing to most males than many alternatives, such as beauty make-overs and salads.


Perhaps that's why the winning contestant did not surprise us: a man! Yes, not only did a guy take away a million Pillsbury Bake-Off bucks this year, but the best burger was created by a terrific guy named Gary Smith. This was his first contest, although his wife enters them regularly and even was a finalist in the previous year's Bays Pizza contest. Gary, a former Sacramento police detective, now works in the private sector. Commenting on his winning, Gary noted "When my wife told me about the contest, I said, 'Hey, I can do that. That's what I make all the time—burgers.' I can do this! and besides, golf is my game." (Gary, seen here with company patriarch James Bay)

Gary couldn't wait to call his wife and give her the good news. He'll be making an appearance on the electronic Gourmet Guide on AOL later this year, and perhaps we can get the other finalists to join him. One thing the judges all agreed, every finalist's recipe was awesome, making the competition really tough to narrow down. So why don't you be the judge of which burger is best?

Here are the six final recipes from the Bays English Muffins Burger Contest. All of the judges varied slightly in their evaluations, with the winner being based on the cumulative score. with summer grilling at its peak, we invite you to try them yourself and send us your scores. Remember, the categories are ranked 1 to 10, with 10 being the best, and include: Appearance, Taste, Imagination, Practicality. (Unfortunately, the Appearance category is a bit unfair, as the creators are not available to present the burgers in their best light, so you may want to exclude it.)

Email your scores and your rankings to [email-address-removed] and we'll see how they compare. Remember, though, it's not fair to judge only a few of the entries against each other. You have to judge them all. But with such a diverse selection, you'll surely have fun doing so.

Good luck, and let the burgers—and golf games—begin!


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This Archived Page created between 1994 and 2001. Modified August 2007