6th Annual Bench Bar Culinary Challenge


Photos by John Meiu

Attorneys lambaste judges again in Bench Bar Culinary Challenge

By Steve Thorpe
Legal News

Despite gritty determination to wield the barbecue fork with the finesse usually reserved for the gavel, the judges were trounced again in the grill competition at the 6th Annual Bench Bar Culinary Challenge held on Wednesday in Huntington Woods. After racking up their sixth consecutive loss, the jurists risk becoming the Washington Generals against the attorneys’ Harlem Globetrotters but, considering the ongoing success of the event, there’s always next year.

In addition to the grilling competition between Grilled By the Bench (judges) and Grilled By the Hour (attorneys), there were also competitions in the appetizers and desserts categories. Grilled by the Hour competitors included Gilbert Gugni, Ven Johnson and Kurt and Rebecca Schnelz. Grilled from the Bench featured Judge Christopher Murray, Judge Wendy Potts and Judge Mark Switalski.

There was even a “tag team” among the judicial competitors with Macomb County Circuit Judge Switalski and Judge Jodi Debbrecht Switalski of 51st District Court in Waterford Township pairing up at one grill.

Jodi believed that the judges had a great chance this year.

“We are extremely confident,” she said before the contest. “The Switalskis are, by nature, competitive and we’re not here to lose.”

She admitted, though, that she was a draftee and not a volunteer.

“Mark called and said, ‘Honey, I signed up for the Culinary Challenge.’ I knew exactly what that meant. He gets to be social and I’m going to cook,” she said.

Their competitiveness meant that the Switalskis did what good competitors do … practice, practice, practice.

“Three nights ago we did a test run and were getting the beef marinated and I finally just said to him, ‘Please get out of the way.’ I’ve had so much steak this week that I may never eat it again.”

Attorney Ven Johnson, however, had a decidedly more laid back approach to the competition. He stood with his back to the grill, wearing a suit instead of an apron and holding a drink in his hand.

An attempt to psyche out the judges, perhaps?

“I’m trying to get the judges on my side from the beginning,” he said. “It’s an ongoing suckup process that I learned years ago in Saginaw. Because I cheat and brought my ringer, Steve Hnat, our jury consultant, I think our chances are really good. But even if that disqualifies us, everybody still gets to eat Steve’s lamb with a secret cherry mint sauce. And it’s all for a phenomenal cause.”

Hnat said that the collaboration was a natural extension of the work he and Johnson do during the day.

“This is a typical case of teamwork between Ven and me,” he said. “When we team up, either the food is good or it’s a million dollar verdict.”

Hnat insisted that he harbored no resentment about being “the man behind the screen” but he did ask the reporter to tell the judges “if they put Ven in jail for contempt, they can win.”

Attorney Kurt Schnelz had the grill next to Johnson. When asked if he was intimidated by any of his judicial opponents, he said no.

“None of the judges scare me. Ven Johnson scares me, even though he’s on my side.”

The judges didn’t lack for confidence, despite their dismal track record.

Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Christopher Murray said that, although softball was really his game, he could be competitive at cooking, too.

“Despite the record that the judges have, I’m offering a 90 percent guarantee of winning,” he said. “I don’t like losing and I try not to have it happen very often. I admit that the numbers are stacked against us because most of the voters are lawyers. I may claim victory even if we lose, because maybe our food was better but we just lost on the vote.”

All that confidence was wasted as the barristers racked up another decisive victory.

Winners in other categories included attorney Jeffrey Raphelson in the appetizer category for his Chicken Empanadas and Judge Linda Hallmark in the dessert competition for her “Blondies.” The vacation raffle was won by attorney Kirsten Gramzow.

The organizers are proud that everything is donated and that all the money raised goes to the charities Alternatives for Girls, Crossroads for Youth and the WLAM Foundation Scholarship Fund.
“We think the attendance was in the range of 220 - 240,” said organizer Lavinia Biasell. “We were expecting 250, but I’m sure we lost some people because of the threatening weather. Overall, it was a fabulous turnout considering the weather. We raised more than $15,000 that will go to the charities.”

When asked whether she foresaw, when she conceived of the event six years ago, that it would grow to its current impressive size, attorney Valerie Newman replied, with a twinkle in her eye, “Absolutely.” When asked if she also knew that the judges would lose the grill competition every year, the twinkle flashed brighter and she said, “Absolutely!”

“We’re very thankful that we can raise the money for the charities and we have such a great group of volunteers who put in so much time and effort,” Newman said.