Meet the judge, judge the meat

Alan Zeeman


Full disclosure: I'm a judge at the Nugget Rib Cook-off, and I love my job. But there's one guy who really loves his job—Alan Zeeman. Aside from his lofty position as head judge of the Nugget Rib Cook-off, he's executive chef and regional sales manager for Rational USA, and he's owned and operated award-winning restaurants. He's a great guy. A prince. Plus, he can probably get me kicked off the judging team.

So, how did you get this gig being head judge?

I started out as one of many. Used to be, I was kind of the young guy in the group, but not anymore. What happened was, when I first got invited, the food and beverage manager at the time was Vinnie Oakes. He was the vice president of [food and beverage] here at the Nugget. He was a CIA [Culinary Institute of America] grad. … We were weighted a lot heavier with chefs then, so I was kind of the young guy at the table. Gradually over the years, I’ve gotten invited back every year, so I must not have screwed up too much.

Was that the first year?

No. … I’ve been coming for 16 years. I think my first one was 1999. Then Jim retired, and when Jim retired, they asked me if I’d be the head judge. If I would have known that I didn’t get to taste the ribs unless there was a tie, I might have declined.

It’s an awesome responsibility.

I think what they want to have is someone who’s been here and seen a bunch of them to answer any questions as we bring people in. And I think it’s great that we have kind of a cross-section of people in the industry—from food writers to people that cover food, cover restaurants, to people that actually cook the ribs, like Mike Peters. I think we always come up with a great result, the way the judging works. And the double-blind system is really unique, in that nobody knows—nobody knows when the judging is over who won, and it’s amazing. Also that the rib cookers themselves have a representative in the room. They don’t even know who made which ribs. I talk to her or him, depending on who it is, and they usually have questions. Last year she goes, “I … think those are mine, but they might be those over there.” They can’t tell. So that’s what I think is great about it. I remember one year, a few years back, the same rib-cooker won two years in a row, and they asked the judges, “Hey guys, what’s going on here?” I go, “I’ll tell you what’s going on: He’s got the best rib because we don’t know whose rib it is.” Even if you wanted to try to vote [in favor of someone in particular], there’s no way to know.

What does the Nugget do right with this contest? You said earlier that it’s one of the biggest, if not the biggest. What makes it so big?

I think it was the Nugget. It was John Ascuaga’s, and now they want to carry on the tradition, but I think it started off slow. The history of it was they went around, and they looked at all the different things that were going on around the country. They started in ’88 or ’89 and it just gradually grew and built. I think the timing of it also makes it perfect. The location makes it perfect. And they draw the best and the biggest rib cookers. You gotta be big in order to perform. I remember one of the rib cookers said [he’d used] 5,000 pounds of ribs on Saturday night. Our rib cooker that’s with us today said 80 cases. Eighty cases is like 3,000 pounds of ribs. It’s a lot a ribs. Maybe you can cook a good rib, but can you cook 5,000?

And what is the one key, how can you tell when it’s done perfectly?

When a rib is cooked perfectly, it should be tender and juicy. The meat should fall off the bone when you bite it, but not when you pick it up.