The unbelievable amount of food the judges eat on American Barbecue Showdown - Exclusive

Seven-time world barbecue champion Melissa Cookston is the star judge of the new Netflix cooking competition, American Barbecue Showdown, alongside fellow BBQ legend Kevin Bludso. Together, over the course of eight episodes, the two sink their teeth into everything from cookout staples like brisket, burgers, and ribs, to far more exotic entrees... including iguana stew! And let's not forget the side dishes — we see them stick forks into multiple variations of macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, salads, and fries — not to mention the dressings and sauces, like a cowboy sauce that contains old coffee grinds yet manages to produce blissed out looks on the judges' faces. 

Of course, no meal is complete without dessert — and it's hard not to drool as we watch Melissa and Kevin taste the dozens and dozens of cobblers, pies, and brownies that the contestants submit. The icing on the cake? Often the challenges require two main dishes and accompanying sides, which means that before any contestants are eliminated, Cookston and Bludso are tasting a total of 16 dishes!

That's a lot of food, glorious food, for anyone to eat... so how does the notably petite Cookston, who also judged season 4 of BBQ Pitmasters, manage to give every entry a fair taste? In an exclusive interview with Mashed, Cookston explained how she prepares to judge such an unbelievable volume of food.

Melissa Cookston eats almost nothing before judging a competition

Before she assesses what the contestants have prepared, Cookston is pretty much starting with an empty stomach. This is par for the course for her, though, contest or no contest. "I don't eat a whole lot anyway," she explained. "So, I always keep snacks in my trailer just in case I start getting hunger pangs or whatnot. And I'm kind of always the mama on set. I always bring snacks for everybody. So, I've always got something to be prepared, but I just don't eat a lot."

If you're wondering whether not having a little something in your stomach makes it tough for Cookston to judge fairly, rest assured that she does just fine using her current process. "I've been a judge for 25 years certified, [and] you're kind of taught to eat crackers. But that's a little filling," she explained. "I'm bigger on citrus, really, for palate cleansing. I do drink a lot of water, but I'm a big coffee drinker." (Hmm, no wonder she loved that cowboy sauce!)

Coffee has a very strong flavor, as anyone who drinks the stuff regularly can attest — but doesn't that warp Cookston's palate? She's certainly only received feedback suggesting the contrary. "I will tell you, the contestants, every one of them I believe, said something to me about, 'Your palate is so sophisticated,'" she said. "'I didn't even mention that, but you picked up on it.'" Cookston attributes her ability to hone out even the most obscure hints of a flavor to her nearly four decades of experience in the food industry. "I've been in the restaurant business for 38 years. And there's just something about tasting things so much that I can eat one thing, and it might be spicy, but even without palate cleansing, I can pick up just simple nuances and something right behind," she said. "And it just comes from doing it so often, I think."

As for whether it's difficult to eat so much in one sitting — true, Cookston is tasting rather than eating these dishes, but many of them are very rich and filling — the lady of 'cue said that this is her duty as a cooking competition judge. "Well, I come naturally from a competitor's point of view. So, as a competitor at heart, you want to make sure that you get it right. I want to give my undivided attention to the competitors and make sure that I have an open mind when it comes to judging every facet of the food, and make sure that I'm giving them my all when it comes to judging," she explained.

Here's what Melissa Cookston is looking for when she tastes a dish

When a meal is placed in front of Melissa Cookston — whether she's judging it on an empty stomach or after some of her trademark coffee — she is assessing it based on a variety of factors. But some are more important than others. While many judges care quite a bit about how a dish is plated, "I would say plating is at the very bottom," Cookston shared. "For me, flavor would probably rank as number one. That would probably be my highest multiplier."

Next in line is not how the dish smells, even though barbecue is known for its enticing aromas. Instead, said Cookston, "Texture's very important when you're judging food. I'm a texture eater, so texture's very important for me." She waved off the "aesthetics" that other judges can get wrapped up in, adding that these only make a difference if it's a tight race. "But that would be the only time it would come into play," Cookston added. "And it can be a hot mess. As long as it tastes good, and it's got a great texture, I'm in."