AKA Men Who Cook Judges Talk About the
Key to Culinary Success
|Current and past Men Who Cook judges Rod Ladson (l-r), Kevin Beier, Mathew Grange
and Forrest “Kipp” Thomas
ask themselves a series of questions on creating an award-winning dish.
“Who is my audience eating this food,” Ladson asked. “Do I expect them to make it on their own? If so, how accessible are the ingredients? Can I make it without
salts, if so what can I use to satisfy the pallet? Can I make it affordable to be duplicated by others?”
Mathew Grange, kitchen manager for The Great Dane at Hilldale, likes to see something new.
“I would say first and foremost that I always like a new idea or at least a spin on something already delicious and then just putting your heart and soul into it using
the freshest ingredients possible,” Grange said. “The qualities I look for I guess would just be taste, creativity and I guess smell. Presentation I guess helps
because sometimes something doesn’t look very good, but it tastes and smells amazing.”
Forrest “Kipp” Thomas, who has operated Kipp’s Catering for almost a decade and is currently a partner at Lucky’s 1313 on Regent Street, is looking for an artistic
“I believe time, effort, and preparation go into an award-winning dish,” Thomas said. “Many dishes require practice and patience as well. While judging, I look for
presentation, color, freshness, and creativity.”
And Kevin Beier, kitchen Manager for The Great Dane’s downtown location, wants cooks to know that they’ve just about seen it all, so they are looking for execution
on a dish.
“Obviously presentation is the first thing because that is the first thing that you see,” Beier said. “So if it looks good, it’s going to, in our minds, automatically taste
better than it might if it looks really good. If the presentation is good, then we’ll sit and look at it and say, ‘Wow that looks really good.’ But we have to see how it
tastes. And then the complexity of flavors is important. The concept of the dish is also important. Did they meet the expectations of that concept? A lot of those
dishes, we’ve had them before. We’ve had them in a lot of different places. And we will probably compare it to the last time that we had that or the best time that we
had that dish. Did it meet the concept? And if they did, it really comes down to, for me, the flavor. If you match up with the first two, then the flavor is going to be
there. But if it isn’t, then it’s like, ‘What happened to the dish?’ They were going along this great line here and then it didn’t match up to the flavor component of it. The
actual execution of the dish goes along with the concept. If you’re going for some almond fried rice and it ends up being sticky rice, then one thing we might talk
about the rice being overcooked. It’s just not up to par.”
These are volunteer judges who come back year after year for the competition because they believe in the cause. Beier learned to love it.
“Honestly, I was kind of forced to become involved by my employer,” Beier confessed. “The first time I did it, they just told me, ‘Hey, this is a good cause. We do this
and it’s your turn.’ After I did it, it was just fun. So I have volunteered every year since. Honestly I was forced to. I didn’t know what it was about. And then I went
and did it and it was fun. That’s why I continue to do it.”
For Thomas and Ladson, it is a commitment to the community.
“I know that it is for a great cause supporting children in their pursuit of post-secondary education,” Thomas said. “It is a time to fellowship with colleagues in the
field and get your eat on!”
“Anytime I can assist anyone in helping others, I am onboard,” Ladson added. “The Men Who Cook reminds me of when I was learning how to ‘play with the big
boys’ in the chef world, which was sometimes stressful, but always fun. But, the love and talent that rises through cooking is absolute, and it is undeniable that
these men are in it to win. Although, it’s to help with scholarships and awareness, let’s face it, it’s about the foods. I serve food for a living. But for one day in a year
I can serve these proud Men who Cook and give them a chef's perspective. You won't believe how many men really want to hear the feedback. “
And Grange knows a good thing when he sees it.
“I enjoy trying other people’s food,” Grange said with a laugh. “As long as it tastes good.”
While the people get their vote for the top dishes at the event, the professional chefs give the voting and the bragging rights of the contestants a touch of class. No
matter who you are — judge, audience member or cook — you will enjoy Men Who Cook on Saturday March 11th, 2 p.m., at Kromrey Middle School in Middleton.
By Jonathan Gramling
It’s hard to believe, but the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority’s Men Who Cook
scholarship fundraiser is almost a quarter century old. Each winter, the
AKAs bring together 20-40 male cooks — amateurs and former
professionals alike — to cook their favorite dishes for an audience of as
many as 350 people to taste and judge as to what their favorite entrée,
side dish and dessert is.
It is a delightful time for the volunteer cooks, seeking bragging rights
while helping the sorority to raise money for college scholarships. And
while the cooks brag and talk trash, there is another group of men who
sit silently to the side and just smile. These are the professional cooks
who also judge the Men Who Cook offerings and award prizes. And they
have discriminating tastes — and strict standards on what they feel is a
Rod Ladson has been on the Madison cooking scene for many years. He
has hosted a cooking segment on TV and is now in charge of the
Bonefish Grill on Madison’s west side. Ladson would suggest cooks