Winners & Losers

On Saturday I was a judge for a chili contest. I had a great time though judging is not something I like to do. (To my mind, judging is the opposite of mentoring.) This chili contest was interesting though because there were five judges and only four contestants. Our unanimous verdict was to make everyone a winner. We gave each contestant a prize. It was an inspired decision because it made us all happy.

The best part of being a judge is that you meet a lot of new people. One of my new pals observed, “Being a judge is a lot like working in a whorehouse — there’s a lot of standing around punctuated with short, sharp bursts of intense activity.” So it was with us too, except, there was something else going on that I hadn’t noticed when I have been a judge before.

I was watching the scene and I suddenly realized that the landscape was divided into three sectors. As in a court of law, there’s the judge, the contestant, (the defendant), and the spectators, (the courtroom observers).

I found these parallels to be fascinating because it would be hugely helpful to figure out which role we ourselves prefer when we are making a decision about a career or a career change.

If you like to be a judge, you would flourish as an executive chef, because you would always have the last word. You would also enjoy being an event planner, cake designer, a restaurant or book reviewer or a buyer for a specialty food store or restaurant. All these roles require decisions to be made, quickly and decisively.

As a contestant, you would more naturally fit into an innovative, creative job. You would probably thrive being an entrepreneur, a public relations specialist or a personal chef who has to constantly conjure fabulous variations on established themes. Chef Anne Rozensweig dreamt up the idea of serving a new version of a BLT in which she substituted a brioche, lobster and sun-dried tomatoes for the traditional ingredients. (At the chili event on Saturday, one of the contestants substituted pieces of hot dogs and a jar of salsa for the usual beef and beans. You cannot possibly imagine how horrible it was. The prize he received was for, Hmmm, originality.)

As a spectator/observer, there is a job for you as a journalist, reporter, wise consultant, trend tracker or literary agent. In this role, you have to know what is going on around you and your task is to match your knowledge with the ever-changing marketplace. You must decide whether to stick to the rules and make good old-fashioned, traditional chili using ground meat or cubed meat, beans and the right balance of spices. On the other hand, recognizing the increasing numbers of vegetarians, you could substitute chicken or turkey, (but not hot dogs), for the beef. Or in these hard economic times, it may be necessary to become so frugal there is no chicken, no beef, no pork at all, only beans. In this case you may be pronounced the winner because as a humanitarian you were able to make a hot, nutritious and tasty meal for a hungry family.

I wrote an article on the topic for Chef magazine about Winners but I missed the essential point I’m trying to make. There is no such thing as a winner or loser. It’s just a matter of finding the niche that is most comfortable for you and enables you to follow your natural instincts.

You may have been climbing a ladder all this time and only lately begun to realize the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall. If so, it’s high time to get down and start out on another path. First though, as Lewis Carroll wrote in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you are going any road will take you there.”