Please Pack Your Knives and Go

Jennifer Zavala, Philadelphia chef

by Lauren Pabst

“In America, deep frying steak is not a good idea”

– European emigrant Wolfgang Puck to (U.S. Commonwealth of) Puerto Rico native and Top Chef contestant Hector Santiago. Though placed in the bottom four, Hector escaped the first Top Chef elimination on the August 20th season premiere.

An argument can be made that Top Chef is the most decadent TV show ever. It pretty much has it all: elitism, sexy women eating food, competition, money, gluttony, excess, shopping, criticism, rejection. And food; oh, food: plates and plates of food for each challenge, course after course for the taste buds of the judges. Quickfire challenges with arrays of burgers and fries purely as a visual (maybe someone ate them, but who? The crew? The shoppers of the Top Chef Kitchen’s garbage cans?). Tens of thousands of dollars shelled out at various posh Whole Foods branches over five seasons (“I can’t find half my stuff!” Haitian chef Ron Duprat moaned good-naturedly, after asking a Whole Foods employee if they had an “island station”). Lots and lots of food, all of it usually looking good, some definitely going uneaten (“It was so good I finished it all!” has been an occasional judge comment in the past).

But at least every episode, a chicken wing or a salad or a tart displeases the panel of professional food eaters. Someone is dissed and dismissed. Somebody is rejected; sacrificed to the gods of reality television. Voted off the island. Fired. Cut. Sent home. Told to pack their knives and go.

Ultra dramatically, the pronouncement is accompanied by -”jing!” – the sound of a sharp blade slicing (the air?). Often the chucked chef will hang their head at the precise moment of this sound effect, giving us the quick impression of a parody of a beheading. This is what happens when you let them eat (apparently) sub-par cake.

A friend recently asked me the difference between documentary and reality TV. The question was interesting to ponder. Reality TV is utterly constructed, proudly fake. But “documentary film” can have elements of the constructed or forced; the mere presence of cameras has an impact on the action, often times.

But if a documentary is the filmmakers bearing witness to the subjects in a situation, “Reality TV” is the producers leading the subjects by the hand through a series of hoops – through competitions creative or personal. The personal competitions (The Bachelor / Bachlorette, Flavor of Love, The Biggest Loser) are squeamish to watch. The creative ones (Project Runway, Top Chef) also contain an element of discomfort, but are much more interesting. Because the contestants are there for a skill or craft, their personalities come out – perhaps – a bit realer.

Judgment of something so universal and cultural as food is curious. After all, isn’t food a matter of (hm) taste, which is determined by so many things – history, personality, habits, culture? Such harsh judgment of such carefully prepared, abundant food would probably be anachronistic and baffling to much of the planet. This show is no place for the philosophy that, to paraphrase Chris Rock from his book Rock This! (1998), anybody in this world lucky enough to have a steak in front of them (deep-fried chicharrón style or no) should probably just bite the s*** out of it.

But then without judgment, we wouldn’t have a contest or a show, would we.

On the premiere episode, which aired on Thursday, August 2oth, someone was cut (told to get out of there and take those sharp blades she brought with her, with her). She was Jennifer Zavala, executive chef at Philadelphia’s El Camino Real, mother of a three year-old boy. She had earlobes gauged out to the size of nameplate hoops and tattoos that read: “Sacred” on her throat and “Scarred” on her chest – (a weird but fascinating slide show on bravotv.com chronicles the illustrated arms and torsos of the chefs) who boldly stated that she felt she had to win to finance an education for her son.

“I want to win everything, no matter what” said fellow Philly-based chef Jennifer Carroll, another contestant, former sous-chef to celebrity chef Eric Ripert of New York City’s Le Bernadin and now chef de cuisine at his restaurant 10 Arts. Jen C. did win the Quickfire challenge with a clam ceviche (which she rhymed with beach). Carroll’s win in this Las Vegas themed show also came with a $15,000 chip courtesy of the hosting casino.

She won the two-tiered Quickfire, where only four people got to compete after winning in a butchering relay race of “some of the most popular foods in Las Vegas,” according to Tom Colliccio, which were – interestingly – shrimp, lobster, clams and meat, many of which, say, the Paiute probably didn’t have as part of their diet.

Some chefs were shy and nervous, some were boisterious and selfish and thought they were hilarious, some were frantically cocky, some were overeager to please. All this personality was tweaked by the producers who had them (inspired again by the reputably debauched desert city locale) create a dish based on a sin they were personally guilty of [sic]. Quite a few chefs dished up plates of food based on their drinking habits, some on their unhealthy food penchants, smoking,  procrastination, and one on not being able to let go of twenty-seven days spent at sea on a boat from Haiti to Florida.

“I’m not sure how that’s a sin” said Tom Colliccio about the inspiration of that last one, Miami-based Haitian chef Ron Duprat’s Chilean sea bass sitting on top of a squat, colorful stack of chunky sauces and cooked veggies at Judge’s Table, though he didn’t question anybody elses’ interpretations of the nebulous and probably mis-translatable concept of “sin.”

Hector Santiago, from Puerto Rico and a chef/owner of a restaurant in Atlanta smoked, then deep-fried a steak: “Steak and potatoes, Latino way!” he shouted in the kitchen, presenting it on a plate sliced on the bias next to a fresh jaunty pile of light sprouty looking greens.

“It’s a little bizzare… I don’t get it!” New York restauranteur Tom Colliccio sputtered to the rest of the unanimously distainful panel about Hector’s steak, like one who had never lunched above 96th Street.

“What would you do if a chef in your restaurant put a steak in the deep fryer?” Colliccio fed to guest judge Wolfgang Puck.

“I’d throw HIM in the fire!” fired back Puck triumphantly as host Padma Lakshmi and judge Gail Simmons of Food and Wine magazine giggled in low cut dresses with mock exasperation.

Along with Hector, three chefs landed in the bottom four in a weird electoral college-like system that plucked a loser from every relay race group.

Some dishes were called overcooked by the judges. The chefs guiltily copped: Jesse Sandlin sweated over a dry chicken breast and Michigan chef Eve Aronoff was as flustered as her shrimp were flushed. (or something… hard to write about food you only see)

Jennifer Zavala served up a seitan-stuffed poblano chile with grilled tomatillo salsa based on a hot temper. “Anger can also be really good for you” she said. The big shiny dark green chile was crispy and fried, with creamy sauce-coated chunks of the wheat gluten meat-substitute protien nestled inside.

Tom Colliccio raked his fork through the insides of the chile and looked offended. At that moment, had this week’s loser already been selected?

“I love a good chile relleno… This is not a good chile relleno.” Colliccio said.

[The weird way Top Chef has treated Mexican food in the past doesn’t begin and probably won’t end with Colliccio’s defensive love for chiles relleno. When Rick Bayless was a contestant on Top Chef Masters, the judges and narration kept going on and on about how much Bayless had “done for” Mexican cuisine, as if the centuries of tradition and flavors hadn’t obviously done more for him. On that series’ final episode (a sociology lesson in itself), Bayless was asked to recreate the dish that made him want to be a chef: in his case, it was the Mexican chile/chocolate/nut/maybe a dozen more ingredients sauce known as mole (literally: sauce, in a Mayan language). The judges were so overwhelmed with the well-prepared traditional Mexican dish that the British food critic (who rather unnecessarily later raved that Bayless “took his mole virginity”) suggested that instead of talking about the dish, they just make “weird, guttural noises” to show their approval. Huh?]

“This dish was so clunky to me” complained Gail Simmons [of Food and Wine magazine, also a judge on the upcoming Top Wino] of Jen’s poblano.

“If you cooked that at home, those people would never come and visit you again” chortled Puck. “There’s really no flavor to it” – back to Tom.

Padma called it a midnight special from a vegan bar – not so clearly an insult if you’ve never even considered the idea of a vegan bar. And also maybe not if you have been to a vegan bar.

Jen Z. tasted defeat in Episode One. Or did she?

Next Episode:

“I love that you had the cojones to make that dish!”

Tom Colliccio to Hector Santiago on tofu ceviche

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