I've attended this event for two years - the first year to support our friend Marc. He and his wife Sara, as you know, have Marc's on Market. Marc won the first year, and was up against some excellent competition with Keith Rhodes (who is regionally renowned) and James Bain, who used to own one of the best restaurants in town. (Before he had babies and decided he actually wanted to see them once in a while.) And we attended last year to help them serve dessert at their booth (a dessert whose base recipe came from yours truly!), while Marc judged. He wasn't eligible for competition last year.
And as this year's voting kicks off, he apparently isn't eligible this year, either, despite being told that he was only out for one year. They changed the rules this year and made it three years ineligibility for prior winners. I don't fundamentally have an issue with this, but I have some criticism of the way this event is being set up.
First of all, in a town this size, I think it's incumbent upon the organization to state very clearly on the voting page that prior winners are not eligible to compete for three years. This is buried somewhere in the contest rules, that ordinary consumers are not going to read. Memories are short, and the absence of the past two years' (and soon to be three) winners from the nomination list is bad publicity for those restaurants. The voters are just as likely to assume that the restaurant has gone downhill as make any other assumption, and I think by not stating that somewhere obvious, they are doing the past winners a tremendous disservice.
Second, the voting procedure itself unfortunately renders the nomination process utterly meaningless. There is no check on voting, so it's extremely easy to stuff the ballot box. You can vote as many times as you like. So instead of being reflective of a true customer following, we wind up with nominees who are simply good at getting their existing base to vote early and vote often. I'm happy for these places that they have an uber-loyal following, but restaurants with an older clientele, who aren't especially internet-savvy or even internet-interested will vote once, and only once, and think their vote counts. When in reality, for their vote to count, they probably need to submit it a hundred times. There should be a simple registration process in place to prevent (as much as possible) this multiple-vote per person problem, and make the finalist list meaningful.
The Top Chef nomination and narrowing process aside, I do think this event is worth attending. Each year, more restaurants are participating. They provide food samples, you get to meet the chefs, try local wines, and it's been a great way for me to discover new restaurants I didn't know about. The exposure factor is terrific. And the competition is fun to watch.
I hope this event continues to grow, but I do hope it grows with integrity. However, for it to do so, there needs to be a layer of sophistication added to the process that is currently lacking.