Would it be the summer pastries with the strawberry cake on a porcelain-white tray made of sugar and gelatin?
The pink-and-white petits fours surrounding an edible flower basket?
Or the sugar doll of Marie Antoinette with the elaborate white sugar gown surrounded by chocolate truffles?
The three judges at L'Academie de Cuisine's fourth Annual Bastille Day Cooking Contest were grave and unsmiling. Each of the desserts had scored 75 points (out of a possible 90), and there could be no tie. After all, the stakes were high--the winner received a round-trip ticket to France.
They discussed. They reconsidered, tasted again, fingered the confections and eyed them closely. Finally, they decided. Marie Antoinette's head had been made from a mold, not by hand and although the flower basket was nice, its mint leaf decoration just didn't look right.
The summer pastries won; calories be damned.
The winner was Annie H. Gudis, of Chevy Chase, a graduate of L'Academie who is now an apprentice at the White House specializing in pastries. She said the work had taken her two full days. She explained that her cooking was a "classical art, just like ballet or music. In fact," she said earnestly, "it's not unlike photography--a combination between art and technology."
You could say the prize winners got their just desserts, but this was not just a contest for desserts.
Seventeen dishes were entered in the contest, held three days before Bastille Day at a chic cooking school in Bethesda. The entrants were both professionals and amateurs ("damned good amateurs," specified one), and their dishes ranged from Mousse de Foie Fondante (a loose translation: liver mousse that melts in your mouth--and it did) to trout in shrimp mousse to a variety of chocolate cakes and fruit cake--the kind that draw oohs and aahs at restaurants.
But there was no oohing and aahing for these judges. This was a somber crew and very professional. It included Henry Haller, the executive chef at the White House; Ann Amernick, the pastry chef at the restaurant Jean Louis, and Robert McDaniel, a food critic and head of the Washington chapter of the Confrerie de la Chaine des Rotisseurs, a French gourmet fraternity.
"Nothing is perfect," said Haller, the harshest and most opinionated of the three.
"Look at these crudites," he said, approaching a huge basket of raw vegetables arranged attractively around a dip. "This"--he picked up a crinkle-cut carrot and twirled it, his voice oozing disdain like a brie in summer--"this looks like a French fry.
"These"--he waved at a wax bean--"they have not been snipped. That's not right, it's not good."
L'Academie had arranged for eight prizes, ranging from the round-trip to France to two Lancome tote bags from Bloomingdale's. With only 17 entrants, it was like summer camp: almost everyone went home with something.