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The Grind in a Bind: It's Hard to Judge With Smoke in Your Eyes, Mouth, and Nose

Walking into the Miami Entertainment Complex at 5:30 this past Saturday, I knew something wasn't exactly kosher (and I'm not talking about the bacon burgers either). The building, a converted school warehouse, was smoky and warm. The show wasn't even open yet, many restaurants hadn't really begun cooking, and the air was already heavy and visibility unclear.

What happened afterward will likely be the subject of discussion for some time, possibly attaining mythical status (as in, "I was at the Grind. Were you?").

I was a judge, along with a slew of talented and notable people including WSVN news anchor Belkys Nerey, NBC 6 sports anchor Adam Kuperstein, CBS 4 meteorologist Jeff Beradelli, chef Norman Van Aken, restaurateur Steven Haas, businessman Stan Rudman, Burger Beast Sef Gonzalez, and Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff. We were to begin judging at 5:45 p.m., but because of circumstances, we didn't really start until 6:30.

Even with the smoke, we started out in good spirits. The burgers were good, we were taking the tasting seriously, and we had an immediate bond among us (nothing like a little smoke in your eyes to get a group of people talking and joking). We were supposed to try 15 burgers each of the 30 burgers represented, and the votes would be tallied, with all 30 burgers being voted on by at least half the judges.

Alas, that was not to be. The judging was slow, to say the least. We were sweating and our eyes were burning, yet we were probably positioned in the best spot in the room. We had gotten through only about a half-dozen burgers before we were asked to stop. Fire marshals came in and commissioner Sarnoff said there was chatter that the event would be shut down. We were told to take a break. That was actually the time the fire department told the restaurants to stop cooking.

I took a walk outside to see hundreds of people lining the railroad tracks, seeking some fresh air. Back inside, the judges were all joking around, just waiting to soldier on or (better yet) to be released from our duties so we could get home and into a hot shower. "My dog is going to love me" and "I'm going to have to burn these clothes," were two popular sentiments. Adam Kuperstein's eyes were killing him. I looked into the mirror and appeard kind of stoned. I have asthma and was wheezing a little. Everyone with asthma has a trigger. For me it's smoke, and I forgot my inhaler at home. I was just a tad concerned.

Finally, we were told the cooking was done for the night. It was around 9:30, and I'd had enough. Some of the judges hightailed it out of there so quickly I couldn't find them to say goodbye. I did see Steve Haas, who hugged me and said this was a night to remember. And it was. For the record, as I was leaving, there were still hundreds of people dancing, oblivious to the smoke and the lack of food. There were still long lines for beer and cider. Sometimes people make the best of a situation.

I got home and took out my contacts, puffed a few hits of the asthma medicine, and drank about five glasses of water. The next day I woke up with a headache, my lungs still heavy, and my eyes still red.

I spoke to Tony Albelo on the phone yesterday. He was still cleaning up the space but was very contrite. He explained that even with eight months of planning and pulling the required permits, Saturday night was a perfect storm of things gone wrong. Here's the conversation:

New Times: Tony, can you break down what happened?
Tony Albelo: What happened? The thing that bothers me the most is that people are saying the event wasn't planned well. What happened wasn't due to poor planning. It wasn't like eight months ago we decided to hold an indoor barbecue.

We met with HVAC contractors, we met with a fire sprinkler contractor because we wanted to make sure the fire sprinklers wouldn't go off. We piped in gas so that there wouldn't be a propane hazard. There were a lot of concerns and planning. So we did account for all those things.

The way we set up the ACc wasn't only for cooling. We had three air-conditioning units. There were six extractor fans and fans placed above the curtains in the back to help push the warmer air up and out. The biggest air conditioner we had went down. It wasn't blowing any air. There was always a little bit of smoke, but it was like what you would find in a kitchen.

At some point, it got worse. We checked everything. So we called the A/C contractor; we called a bunch of rental places to get some fans out here. The A/C guy brought four portable air scrubbers down so that the air could continue flowing. That's what we did to try to solve the problem.

But it got to a point where the fire marshal said, "Let's shut everything down for 15 minutes. Let's let the fans catch up with the smoke, and then we'll reassess." By the time we shut down the kitchens and the 15 minutes passed, the smoke cleared somewhat, but it was around 9 o'clock. After that, the fire marshal said it's getting better, but not good enough and it's going to take more time to clear and you're not going to have enough time before the event ends.

I went to every restaurant that night and explained what was happening. Not one restaurant was up in arms on Saturday. They all took it well.

Today I got together with my PR person and I sent out an apology. You want to create something and sometimes things go wrong.

When did the fire department shut down the cooking?
It was sometime between 8:30 and 9 p.m. Closer to 9. So it was closer to the end of the night. I remember thinking, If we can get one more hour of cooking in...

Did you test any of the systems before the event?
We put a lot of planning into this. We were working on this for eight months. I have a special events permit, I have a fire permit, I have a permit to run gas. We had the A/Cs in since Tuesday. We were running them every day.

But we couldn't test them with 30 restaurants.

What do you think you could have done?
We really worked hard on it. It just goes to show that you can never overplan something. In the grand scope of things, could it have been better? Yes.

There are people on Facebook who are asking for refunds. Do you have an official position on that?
I will give an official statement regarding that very soon.

Did anybody need any medical attention?

The fire-rescue team was called about smoke coming out of the building, but I don't know if they came for anything else. They were here because they got a call about smoke coming from a building. But I don't have an incident report. I didn't see anything else.

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Laine Doss is the food and spirits editor for Miami New Times. She has been featured on Cooking Channel's Eat Street and Food Network's Great Food Truck Race. She won an Alternative Weekly award for her feature about what it's like to wait tables.
Contact: Laine Doss