Young and Hungry

Scene 1 from the Eatonville Chef Contest: Fried Chicken

Note: Busboys & Poets owner Andy Shallal is taking an Iron Chef approach to hiring the chef for his forthcoming Eatonville, a Southern-oriented restaurant that pays homage to Zora Neale Hurston. This is the first in a series of blog posts chronicling the competition. This series will not announce the winner; it will be revealed later in the City Paper.

Six cooks have gathered at CulineAerie, the new cooking school near Thomas Circle, to see if they can earn the top prize in Andy Shallal's unusual hiring competition: the executive chef gig at Eatonville, a job that comes with a $75,000 a year salary. The candidates have been whittled down from the more than 200 who originally applied, and before this session is over, these half-dozen will be further downsized to four.

Their task for this second phase of the competition? Prepare fried chicken and a Southern-minded sandwich, plus sides.

The chefs have had a couple of days to plan and prep for this phase, and you can tell by the many different approaches they take. The sandwich challenge inspires a wide range of dishes, from a Dr. Pepper Braised Beef Sandwich to a Honey BBQ Meatloaf Sandwich to a Double Decker Pimento Cheese Sandwich (with fried green tomatoes and pickled okra).

The other challenge, however, proves trickier: Fried chicken, after all, is fried chicken. There are only so many ways you can mess with the dish, perhaps with a brine or a buttermilk dip or with Panko crumbs and cornflakes in your batter. The competing chefs try all of these tricks.

And still it's not enough to truly impress the judges.

Shallal says that some of the fried birds on display aren't any better than the wings, legs, and breasts found at Popeyes. "At a restaurant (like Eatonville)," Shallal says to the chefs before dropping the axe, "if we can't do at least as good or better (than Popeyes), we shouldn't do it."

One of the judges goes even further to dis these chickens. "Nobody stood out for me," E. Ethelbert Miller, a literary activist and editor of Poet Lore magazine, tells the chefs. "I still expected more, but maybe that was just me."

(Miller went even further in his comments during the judges' private discussions. "I'm an African-American," he said. "I've been eating chicken all my life...I didn't taste any chicken that I wanted to go back and eat some more.")

Perhaps you think this doesn't bode well for a chef of a Southern-oriented restaurant? But just when it seems like all the chefs are unqualified to fry bird parts at Eatonville, Shallal acknowledges the obvious: The chefs were working in a foreign kitchen, and everyone was having trouble maintaining oil temperatures.

If Shallal isn't totally letting them off the hook, he's at least telling the chefs not to fret so much over their mediocre birds. There are mitigating circumstances.

In fact, you could say that mitigating circumstances are the theme of this phase of the competition. Instead of telling two chefs to pack their knives and go, Shallal and the rest of the judges axe only one. The five others will compete all over again tomorrow, in phase three of the contest.

  • Joseph Zumpano

    I think Andy Shallal has watched to much television and might suffer from Foodtvism. He also sounds like a real narcissists. Get a grip hire a Chef for his/her talents, not cooking like it's Top Chef. Get real. I've done numerous tastings throughout the years as a Chef. What takes to be a great Chef is integrity, passion for the ingredients, and staying true to the craft. Not playing hopscotch in a kitchen. Tim get a grip and learn how to actually become a food writer not a gossip Paperatizi.

  • Tim Carman

    Is this Joseph Zumpano, the chef at BlackSalt? If so, I truly appreciate that you wrote under your own name. I think that, with your note here, you have insulted not only Shallal (for trying something new and, of course, getting publicity for it) but also the chefs who are trying out for this job in a tough economy. I witnessed this whole second phase, and I can tell you that each chef showed a lot of passion, for their craft, their ingredients, and each dish they turned out. As for your last remark, I think I will let it slide; one blog item does not define my work as a food writer, just as one dish does not define your work as a chef.

  • Pingback: Busboys And Poets » Blog Archive » Scene 1 from the Eatonville Chef Contest: Fried Chicken

  • Courtney Parks

    Except for the slam against Tim I agree wholeheartedly with Joseph. I've been cooking for 20+ years professionally and this display of restaurateur buffoonery should be mocked, not chronicled like it's the next big thing. Andy should be working on employee retention so his people would stop jumping ship. I am embarrassed for us all.

  • What is a Paperatizi?

    Is it a new kind of pasta?

  • Pingback: Scene 1 from the Eatonville Chef Contest: Fried Chicken

  • Pingback: Food.Fun.Stuff: Open For Business —