Waking up early on a Saturday morning to bake is actually an enjoyable activity during the fall. It’s very soothing to do it while listening to KCRW-FM, our Santa Monica-based public radio station. At 10:00 am, there’s Ira Glass’ This American Life, and right at 11:00 am, Evan Kleiman, Chef & Owner of Angeli Caffe, comes on with Good Food. One morning this summer, Evan announced her Pie a Day project. She would make a pie every day for three months. That’s a lot of pie! Somewhere along the line, an announcement hit the airwaves that she would host KCRW’s 1st Annual Good Food Pie Contest in honor of Evan’s efforts. We were so in.
The plan: Submit two pies–one sweet and one savory–ust to double our chances. The contest would be Saturday, November 14. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, we knew we had to do one of our favorite pies with sweet potatoes. You already know we love a sweet potato! The other pie would be one you may have read about before from our three-course meal at Canelé–chicken, tarragon, fennel and grapes enclosed in flakey pastry.
The day of the event coincided with the big USC homecoming game against Stanford, and Amir had tickets to the game. That meant there’d only be one person representing the Duo during the contest. We spent the week separately working on portions of our pie entries, and by Friday evening, we combined our efforts to pull everything together. The Sweet Potato Cheesecake Pie was cooling on the counter, and it would go in the fridge to rest overnight. The filling for the Tarragon Chicken and Grape Pot Pie had been made and sat in the fridge, as the final balls of dough for crust were rolled, wrapped and set in the fridge to chill as well. The final step was filling the pot pie and baking it Saturday morning, so it’d be warm for the judges. We decided to use the pie tin many of us received in our Foodbuzz gift bags during the festival and hoped it would prove to be a lucky token. The next day, the car was packed with both pies and the mandatory utensils we had to supply ourselves. Always safe than sorry, extra knives, paper towels, pie servers and plates were in the bag as well. We’ve been in enough strange situations to know that you can never been too prepared.
Upon arrival, the crowd was heavy, but the mood was light. People milled around the registration table at the Westfield Topanga shopping center, and of course, they brought their friends and family to support. Anyone who just happened to be in the mall for a bit of shopping stumbled by and perhaps found a spot to stand behind the velvet ropes. The only people allowed inside were those with registered pies, KCRW volunteers and the judges. Everyone had to slice two pieces for the judges, label the bottom of their pie dishes and set up a sign with the pie’s entry number, name and ingredients nearby. Once you were done, all there was left to do was find a good place near your pie to watch.
There were several tables all filled with pies. You could tell people brought out the big guns from all the lattice work, high layers, crispy crusts, intricate designs and specialty ingredients. There was no shortage of individual character for every entry. Evan Kleiman walked throughout the tables talking to the crowd, while the judges eyeballed and tasted what was before them. The judges included a line-up of well known names:
Mark Peel – Executive Chef & Owner, Campanile
Russ Parsons – Food Editor, LA Times
Stefan Richter – Chef & Owner, Stefan’s at LA Farm
Eric Greenspan – Chef & Owner, The Foundry on Melrose
Elizabeth Belkind – Executive Pastry Chef & Owner, Cake Monkey
Amy Scattergood – Food writer, LA Weekly
Eddie Lin – Head of DeepEndDining.com and author, Extreme Cuisine
Amelia Saltsman – Author, The Santa Monica Farmers Market Cookbook
Pim Techamuanvivit – Food Blogger and author, The Foodie Handbook
Clifford Wright – Chef and Cookbook Author, Co-Founder of the Venice Cooking School
The only person who was unable to attend as a judge was Pim Techamuanvivit. According to one of her tweets, her flight was delayed at some point in the morning, and it seemed as though she missed the event. It would’ve been great to see her there, but there’s always next year.
Waiting in the crowd as the judges tasted the pies was more than nerve wracking. Of course, all you’re concerned about is what their reaction will be when they taste your entry. As they inspected the slice, reviewed the entry label and brought fork to mouth, there is no doubt the owner of the respective pie felt their heart fall into their stomach over and over again. As a few of the judges poked their forks into the slices, they tried to maintain a blank expression, but there were a few of them who made it clear what they liked, which is nice if its your pie they are eating.
For most of the crowd, the tasting process for the judges was a bit confusing and for some disheartening. A few people expressed belief that their pie had not been tasted by a judge, but it is difficult to know if that is true. It appeared as though the first round had all the judges walk through the tables, tasting a list of 10-15 pre-selected pie numbers. They voted on their respective pies, then there was a second tasting of more pies followed by another vote. We made it to the savory category’s top five for entry #137–our Tarragon Chicken and Grape Pot Pie. Unfortunately, the Sweet Potato Cheesecake Pie with Pralines did not place in the sweet custard category, but that was no problem. You can’t win them all.
Although Amir couldn’t be there in person, he was there in spirit with texts asking for updates. He received rapid fire communication about our savory entry as it was tasted by judges and our movement into the top five category! Making it into the top five was a huge honor seeing as how there were supposedly just over 160 entries for the entire contest. There were many more sweet pies dominating the entries, so unfortunately, Mr. Sweet Potato Cheesecake Pie did not place. There’s always next year for him!
There was a bit of confusion about our pie entry’s number, which surfaced during the judge’s second round of tasting. In the top five list, someone had accidentally thrown in an entry for pie #138…but there was no pie listed under #138. Just our pie at #137 and another one at #139. Several judges crowded around our pie in complete confusion as to whether it was indeed #137 or #138. Thankfully they figured out where the mistake had been made, and we were in the clear. One of the judges who blatantly expressed his enjoyment of our creation was Eric Greenspan. During the numbering confusion, he leaned over and emphatically whispered, “This is your pie? It’s really good”. Score! As a side note, Chef Eric has one of the most hilarious, loud and perhaps grating laughs in all the world, but he loved our pie, so it’s all good.
They called the final winners for the savory category, and our pie was number one! It’s one of those surreal moments where you’re not sure they said your name, but yes, they did. Once the winners were announced, photos taken and prizes awarded, the flood gates opened and bystanders had the opportunity to come in and taste any of the pies on the tables. It turned into a pie fiend madhouse! As soon as they ran in, it was time to run out to safety. That also meant there was no chance to taste any of the other pies, but it seemed like everyone else enjoyed their samples.
The final list of winners included:
Best in Show
1st – #109 – Barbara Treves’ Apple Pie
Fruit & Nut
1st – #109 – Barbara Treves’ Apple Pie
2nd – #115 – Jeff Winett’s Chocolate Walnut Rum Pie
3rd – #118 – Hae Jung Cho’s Blueberry Hand Pie
1st – #22 – Marni Landes’ Chocolate, Peanut Butter and Banana Pie
2nd – #15 – Daniel Hong’s Banana Cream
3rd – #5 – Marina Castle’s Dulce de Leche Coffee Peanut Butter Mousse Pie
1st – #137 – Chrystal Baker & Amir Thomas’ Tarragon Chicken and Grape Pie
2nd – #143 – Zoe Jarocki’s Mushroom Pie
3rd – #140 – Edie Black’s Veggie Pot Pie
1st – #123 – Nita Larronde’s Yin-Yang Pie
2nd – #131 – Sharon Treinen’s Ice Box Lemon Pie
3rd – #119 – Lisa Giardino’s Mystery Pie (aka Ritz Cracker Pie)
There were two notable parts of the afternoon that stand out for sure. One was meeting Marni from Happy Go Marni who took home first place in the sweet custard category for her Chocolate, Peanut Butter and Banana Pie. Many congratulations go out to our fellow food blogger! Her site is full of very sweet treats, so go check them out. Luckily, she had someone take our photo, so the memories will last forever. Another familiar face in the crowd was Charles from 100 Miles. The funny part is that Charles was one of the first people to order our three-course menu from Canelé in September. He was the only person in the crowd who had already tasted the pot pie before the judges. Lucky Charles! If you haven’t checked out his blog, give it a whirl. Many thanks to Charles for all of his kind words and encouragement too!
We’re both very excited to have won first place over the weekend. The gift bag was full of notable prizes, including one of Dorie Greenspan’s cookbooks, a gift card and four fancy port wines. Everything will be put to good use folks! Hopefully KCRW will have more cooking contests like this in the future. It’s a great way to bring professional and amateurs together to have them test their skills, and we’re up for the challenge!