Please Pack Your Machete and Go

Hector Santiago, chef and owner Pura Vida restaurant, Atlanta

Judgment of Food Show Continues to Provide Sociology Lessons

by Lauren Pabst

“It looks like he cut this with an ax!”

– An astonished Gail Simmons of Food & Wine Magazine on Hector Santiago’s steak on Top Chef Las Vegas last week. He and partner Ash Fulk ran out of time on the cooking of a chateau briand and had to cut 24 pieces of meat in 2 minutes.

Episode Four of Top Chef Las Vegas was very French. It even ended up being perpetually red neckerchiefed San Francisco-based restaurant owner and contestant Mattin’s birthday. The Quickfire asked the chefs to make an accessible, innovative dish of escargots (snails) and Jesse Sandlin, who created a ELT (escargots, fresh greens and fried tomato) ultimately lost and was sent home. (kicked off the island of asphalt, palm trees and neon in the middle of the desert)

You could tell Jesse was nervous about it. Head Judge Tom Colliccio asked her “What was the inspiration for this?”

“I don’t know” she said. (What about a BLT? Why not.)

“I haven’t felt like myself since I got here” said Jesse in the obligatory exit interview. “I just want people to know that I don’t suck this bad.”

The contestants moved on to the big challenge. They each drew knives listing a “classic French” sauce and cut of meat. The meat-drawers had to pair with the sauce makers to whip up an innovative take on Classic French Cooking, to be judged by super big name chefs in the world of French Cooking – superstars like a guy named Joel Robouchon.

[So, if Top Chef comes from a default setting of low-expectations from Mexican food, they LOVE Classic French Cooking. Chef, sautee, entrée, cuisine, restaurant, sauce, café, bistro, latte, mise-en-place, chiffonade, brunoir – there already exists lots of French validation to cooking. What separates a cook from a chef? I haven’t eaten much French food (do French fries count? That’s a serious question) but it does seem good and complicated (they can fold thin dough every which way and butter it up… oh, the crossaint, crossandwich). But so is –  say, Thai food delicious and complicated to the untrained. And Greek food, Chinese food (definitely!), Indian food, Mexican food, Nigerian food, and more. Is it because the wife of a State Department worker, Julia Child, got around to Mastering the Art of French Cooking as a hobby that marvelously revolutionized American taste buds and eating habits, as the recent movie Julie and Julia suggests, when she “went native” in postwar Paris? Haven’t seen it, but heard that the Julie of the book, the blogger who cooked every recipe in Julia Child’s giant French cookbook in a year was working at the same time as a counselor for people affected by the attacks of 9/11 in New York. French cooking as escaping/coping with (fill in the blank)? The ultimate compliment, maybe.]

Jennifer C. was paired with Mike V., brother to Bryan V. (who won the episode with a “deconstructed bernaise”). Jennifer C. and Mike V. displayed a palpable cooking chemistry in the kitchen.

“How was it cooking together?” asked a judge, after praising their dish. Jennifer professed seriously a highly compatible kinetic energy while preparing rabbit and sauce together. Mike affirmed.

Besides Jennifer and Mike’s bunnies, other teams cooked lobster, frogs legs, trout and young chicken – all fairly dainty cuts of meat with similar cooking times (it seems to this non-chef, merely sometime cook).

For the same amount of time, a big hunk of meat (chateau briand) was assigned by knife-pulling – an Arthurian-like practice (Camelot = $250,000 cash and products furnished by the makers of Kitchen-Aid) to Hector and Ash.

“So a gay guy and a Puerto Rican have to cook dinner for Joel Robouchon, right?” joked Ash as they got started.

Hector shimmied his knife along the fat on long cuts of chateau briand. “I used to work in a banquet hall. This is all people want, filet mignon.

The oven didn’t get as hot as Hector was expecting it to for the way he wanted to cook the beef. [One French chef judge would later frustratedly list how little time it took to roast a proper chateu briand]. They ran out of time cooking the meat.

“Eight seconds? That’s going to happen quickly” said Ash, saucing the plates in a rush.

Hurried cutting of the undercooked, bloody meat led it to absorb Ash’s sauce and to upset the delicate but boisterous Gail Simmons of Food and Wine Magazine.

“It looks like he cut it with an ax!” she exclaimed of the steak, riled up, mascaraed eyes wide.

Receiving an unevenly cooked end piece, Gail did her best neo-Mae West, almost neck-popping, in asserting that in giving her the end, they had “picked the wrong lady.”

“I am Haitian and Haitians and the French, we don’t like them and they don’t like us” said Classically trained French chef Ron Duprat. His dish went by in the middle – neither the best nor the worst, thus avoiding more than the just the most cursory critique. [It seems possible that the French don’t feel any particular way towards Haitians now… but the nation’s time spent with their feet on the island leaves a rough footprint, to say the least.]

Hector was told to pack his knives (and axes, if any, we can assume) and go on account of the undercooked meat. A chef and restaurant owner in Atlanta, he had said in an earlier interview that he started as a dishwasher and worked his way up.

“I wish I could have represented my people longer” Hector said before exiting the studio as he had been asked to do, politely.

In his “morning after” interview, available on BravoTV.com, Hector states his frustration with the experience.  That the judges were so judgmental of his traditional Latin American cooking style – when he fried a steak chicharron style – was particularly surprising to Santiago.

“In Latinoamerica, we fry everything… That they couldn’t understand that was really shocking to me.  They think that their way is the only way” Santiago said.  In the interview, he went on to state that getting kicked off on the fourth challenge would not allow him to accomplish his goal of raising the profile of his restaurant but would “actually diminish” his career.

Food for thought. Although I do not know what percentage of restaurant staff in the U.S. is Latino, it is certainly a high one. Latinos cook all kinds of food – from classical French cuisine to Japanese fare and pizza. It is interesting that Top Chef does not recognize as a valid style techniques common to Latino kitchens – the ones at home, or in Latin American restaurants. What is better-received on the show is cooking things sous vide (a style I had never heard of before tuning in to TC) – in a plastic vacuum-sealed sack, seemingly, in boiling water.  Many “cheftestants” get praised for this preparation.

Just another little interesting snapshot of real people, trapped in the pressure cooker of reality TV – and the steamy insight that drifts out.

Next Episode: The chefs visit a Wild West-like “settlement” set in the desert and circle the wagons, appearing to cook with big pots and pans.

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