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.