Good Food Awards Berkeley-based judges: Dafna Kory (photo: Jeffery Kong); Michael Pollan (James Collier) and June Taylor (Leigh Connors)

Berkeley’s food mavens will likely be out in force tonight at the Good Food Awards at San Francisco’s Ferry Building and many of the judges for this annual event — sponsored by Seedling Projects and now in its second year — hail from this city’s gourmand ranks. But only one Berkeley name may find a place on the winners’ podium.

The concept behind this socially and ethically responsible food contest is to highlight “best in show” from five regions of the country in various edible categories. This year, prizes will go to makers of beer, charcuterie, cheese, chocolate, coffee, pickles, preserves, and — a new area — spirits.

At last year’s soirée — with a keynote address by restaurateur and sustainable food champion Alice Watersthree Berkeley winners emerged in the beer, charcuterie, and pickles categories.

This year, only one Berkeley product is a finalist out of 926 entries from 46 states — a repeat appearance for Café Rouge, which is in contention for a prize for its duck paté.

“It’s an honor to be recognized for the charcuterie we’ve produced for 15 years,” said Café  Rouge chef Rick DeBeaord. “We’re proud of our products; it feels good to be acknowledged by other food professionals for our work.”

But back to the arbiters of taste: more than a dozen judges from this side of the Bay served as blind tasters, and the list reads like a “who’s who” of Berkeley food legends and rising stars. A judge with Berkeley connections tasted in every category except coffee, and some of the adjudicator pairings make for interesting speculation about how things went down at judging time, which took place in October.

In one corner of a crowded food hub, author and Cal professor Michael Pollan shared a brew or two with Chez Panisse Café chef Cal Peternell. In another, chocolate aficionados Alice Medrich and John Scharffenberger compared cacao notes, and in yet another veterans such as Waters and preserver June Taylor sat at a table with up-and-comers like jammer Dafna Kory and chef Samin Nosrat. Also in the judging mix this time: The Local Butcher Shop‘s Aaron Rocchino, Sunny Side Café chef Aaron French, and Acme Bar owner Jennifer Seidman.

So what do judges look for? Each category has its own unique criteria, of course, but in general judges score on flavor, aroma, texture, appearance, and balance. “I think a really good product stands out easily,” said Dafna Kory, of INNA jam, who was a member of the preserves committee and judged the pickles category.

No argument from Aaron French there, who weighed in on cheese wheels. “We judged about 20 qualities for each cheese on both positive and negative scales.  The process was designed to be both comprehensive and tough,” said French. “Most cheeses were OK to good. Cheese making in particular is a tough craft, but there were a few exceptional ones that deserved to win an award.”

What does a winner label on a product mean for consumers? “Buying a food product off the shelf is a bit of a gamble. Unless you’ve tasted the product before, you don’t know whether you’ll like it or not,” said Kory.  “A Good Food Award winner label makes it clear that lots of other people who take taste seriously like this product. So chances are, you’ll probably like it too.” It also means the product has met strict sustainability criteria.

The impact of the label bling attached to a Good Food Award win is hard to measure. Meat man DeBeaord said that last year’s award for Café Rouge’s smoked beef tongue triggered a surge of interest in the product and the accompanying label in the first couple of months after the sticker showed up at the meat counter. But that product — like the duck paté — has always done well for Café Rouge.

At work in Berkeley's Cultured Pickle Shop which won a Good Food Award last year. Photo: courtesy Cultured

Similarly, over at Berkeley’s Cultured Alex Hozven said she puts the award sticker on her jars when she remembers (and the label is featured on the company’s website), but it hasn’t made a significant difference in sales of her spicy oregano purple carrots. That may be because she sells out of pretty much everything she makes anyway, and wasn’t able to take advantage of distribution offers that came her way (some with hefty percentage takes attached) after winning the award.

Hozven submitted products again this year — including chili paste, mustard greens, and sauerkraut — but came up empty handed, which she takes in stride, since tasting, after all, is a pretty subjective matter.

While grateful for the recognition, Hozven is not convinced it’s the best way to honor food artisans — or to judge a product either. “It’s a bunch of people eating pickle after pickle out of little plastic cups,” she said. “That’s not an ideal way to taste anyone’s product.”

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Beer, tongue, and pickles: three Berkeley food makers win awards
Homegrown truths: Sunny Side Café chef Aaron French [02.18.11]
Jam maker turns hobby into thriving local business [02.18.11]
Alex Hozven and Kevin Farley, Cultured Pickle Shop [09.07.11]