Five Minutes With: Mike French

On average, Australians eat a whopping 270 million meat pies every year—around 12 for every man, woman and child—so it’s a safe assumption we know a good one when we taste it. Mike French, however, tastes well over the national per-person average as the chief judge of the Great Aussie Pie Competition. We caught up with Mike to find out how one lands such a delicious gig, and whether it’s easy as (eating) pie.

How did you become a pie judge?

I started in the trade as an apprentice, went to college for two years, doing the British City and Guilds training to become a pastry cook. I worked in the UK in bakeries and came to Australia in 1983. I started working in bakeries here, then a job came up with what was then MAURI Foods—I worked for them for five years as a technical demonstrator, and part of their brief at the time was providing judges and stewards for the local bread and pastry shows. I don’t know if it was an easy task, but it was a great opportunity to do some judging, which I’d never done before.

It all developed from there, and I was chief pastry judge of two local shows for just under 30 years.

How do you learn to judge professionally?

For the first three or four years I worked with other judges who had been in the industry for many, many years and learned a lot from them. The experience was good and I picked up a lot of tips and tricks, but there’s no secret to judging.

We judge everyday—if you want new clothes or a new car you look at it and say, ‘I like that one’, then you take a closer look and decide whether you want it still. It’s the same with pastries and cakes: you walk into a bakery and see lots of pies and pastries and think, ‘well, that looks nice’. Visually, we buy with our eyes first, then select it. If you eat it and enjoy it, you’ll go back for more.

What we do is the same as if you’re buying from a shop. Does it have eye appeal, to start with? And then you start to analyse a bit closer the technical way it’s been put together by the artisan who made it.

What does the judging process entail?

In some judging, like the Royal Show where you’ve got Best in Show as opposed to Gold, Silver or Bronze, you take the best-looking product in that row. Say there’s a dozen pies in front of you, one will catch your eye straight away and if it does, you put it on the left. Then you put the next one to that all the way down the row to the right. Then you start to cut them open and look inside and see if they live up to what they look like, and then of course at the end you get to the tasting section, where you taste them to see if they taste as good as they look. That’s basically the criteria.

[In the Great Aussie Pie Competition] there’s 17 criteria for every pie: you’ve got thickness, pie bake, colour, pastry bake, gravy, the filling… you don’t want it to fall in your lap while you’re eating, so it should be nice and firm but not glug—it certainly should not fall apart as soon as you cut it in half. ‘Stability issues’ is what we call that.

In a competition like the Great Aussie Pie Comp, how many entries would you be tasting in one day?

We have pairs of judges per unit, and we judge 15 units at a time. So, we start off with general appearance, cut them in half, cold, look inside, see if the colour’s good, the gravy, the consistency, the size of the meat—if it’s chunky, there needs to be good chunks of meat in there. You score them cold first. You probably do five, six or seven sets—it depends on how the day goes and how we progress, because we’ve probably got around 12-to-15 judges, depending on the competition and what we expect to come in.

While the judges work through them cold, the spare pies are in the pie warmer ready for tasting. Once they’ve done the cold, they’ll probably do another cold set, then go back to the hot ones from the first cold set. So, it’s hundreds!

Do you actually eat the sample, or is it like wine tasting where you spit it out?

That’s the horrible part—it’s taste-and-spit, taste-and-spit because if you’re tasting pies all day, you can’t literally eat them all—but if you get a pie that just tastes so beautiful, you have to have another piece. And sometimes that’s a real indication as to whether it’s a good pie, because you really do want to eat one.

Do you get to a point where you just never want to eat another pie?

Oh look, the best pie is always around the corner. I’ve been judging pies for over 30 years and you always think, ‘I’ve had the best pie’ and then another one comes along where you think, ‘oh that was even better’. It’s like a never-ending voyage of discovery, as I call it. You’re forever looking because pies, when you cut them open, there’s such expectation. Anyone who has a pie and it looks good thinks, ‘I can’t wait to get my teeth into that’, so it’s the same with judging.

Have you ever refused to try one?

We did have one once. They sent pies from Birdsville one year and it had to go via private plane to somewhere in South Australia, to the airport, then to Melbourne, then Sydney… it took about three days to get there. All pies usually travel overnight and that’s it, we get them fresh the next morning. But this one, no one wanted to taste and of course you shouldn’t, not having come that far. But we did judge them as far as you can without tasting.

Some strange looking pies come, but we do taste. If anyone really does have a problem—say you cut open a nice warm seafood pie, if it’s got anything at all that might look a bit odd, we won’t taste it. Generally, you can tell—there are no dramas there.

Have you ever gotten sick from an entry?

In 30 years, never. You taste an awful lot of product, and we’ve had camel, buffalo, crocodile—you name it, all kinds of food—but I don’t know if it’s my constitution or the fact that when someone’s entering a competition, you hope they’ve put the best product they can in. There’s a lot of faith involved in this.

But no, I’ve never been sick, and I’ve never heard of any judges that have been sick—or seriously sick, I should say.

How do you cleanse your palette between entries?

During pie tastings we have lemon iced tea, which cuts through everything. We used to have pineapple pieces years ago to try to cleanse the palate, but we’ve found that the lemon iced tea really does the job. They say a glass of chardonnay works well, but you wouldn’t want to be doing that over a week of pie judging—you’d be very generous with your points!

Do judges in these competitions ever have big disagreements about entries?

We have two judges on each pie and usually we discuss and agree in the end. You might have a difference of opinion on the chilli pie, whether it’s too hot or not enough chilli and so on, so you get a middle of the road: What’s acceptable to the general public if you buy a chilli pie? It’s got to have chilli in it, it’s got to be nice and warm, that nice afterburn and so on, without blowing your tastebuds away. So, the judges do discuss, and usually they’re allowed within one or two points difference. But if they’re way out and they can’t agree, they’ll call me—the chief judge—in and I’ll adjudicate on what we do with it.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to enter their product for the first time?

Use quality ingredients. There’s plenty of advice around these days on the internet; there are judges, people who call on the industry like flour suppliers… most of those guys have been judges or stewards in some competition or another around Australia, and they know. There’s nothing secret about good stuff. Look on the Great Aussie Pie Competition website, because there’s information, tips, pictures of what pies should look like—what we call a good pie—it’s all on the internet.

Is there any single entry that just stands out in your memory as fantastic?

It does change each year, but a good chunky steak pie or pepper steak pie is really beautiful. You get a nice warm glow with them, and the flavour…it’s just incredible. I mean, crocodile and camembert is nice, and we once had camel in plum sauce—that was a bit dry—but these are the kinds of flavours we do get in the gourmet section. There are exotic ones, strange ones and different ones. I must have tasted hundreds, if not thousands. Everyone has to do their bit for Aussie pies!

Do you have to throw it all away at the end of the day?

We do, but because there’s a spare pie from each set when they come in, they get donated to the local charities, and we donate all the eskies that come in from interstate as well.

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