Scene 2 from Eatonville Chef Contest: Something for Vegetarians
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 second 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.
The chef, one of five left standing in Andy Shallal's unorthodox hiring process, didn't waste a second letting the judges know that he had absorbed their criticisms from the previous round. He had taken the fuss out of his Southern-minded food. "The tutu came off," he told the judges.
Then he rolled out his menu for this third round of competitive cooking, which required the chefs to plate some vegetarian dishes. Mr. No Tutu served up a vegetable pot pie, creamed corn, a root-vegetable gratin, a casserole, and a salad with grilled shrimp and green goddess dressing. These descriptions, however, were just rough outlines.
Mr. No Tutu's gratin, for example, was this gorgeous, puff-pastrylike stack of mandoline-sliced turnips, parsnips, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. His casserole was a delicate combination of yellow squashes and wild mushrooms. His creamed corn was creamless. His salad included tiny golden cubes of spiced peach gelee. But it was his pot pie that truly confounded the judges. It wasn't traditional at all. His vegetable-loaded liquid came with an accompanying piece of sweet-potato flatbread, a thin plane that rested on the edge of the bowl, where it was easy to overlook as a vital part of the dish.
"I think he would have done better to call it a hearty vegetable stew," one judge noted while the chefs loitered in the kitchen at CulinAerie, the downtown cooking school where the Eatonville competition took place. "It's not a pot pie."
"Maybe he doesn't know what one is," another judge chimed in.
Two other judges thought the pot pie was too thin and watery; they apparently wanted more thickeners. Some also wanted to see a real, honest-to-goodness crust on that baby.
It was around this time that I broke with all professional decorum and expressed my admiration for the chef's work. I told the judges who cared to listen that it was a sort of deconstructed pot pie, and while it may be too fussy for a place like Eatonville, it was absolutely delicious. The liquid was closer to a delicate, creamy bechamel than a pot-pie gravy; it had none of the usual heavy-starch content of such a pie. Plus, I thought the sweet-potato flatbread thingy added just the right amount of sweetness to the savory soup.
My thoughts really didn't change their minds much, which was good. I should have just shut up, but I couldn't help it. That poor pot pie needed a defender.
When the chefs entered the judges' room for the final verdict, one of the arbiters echoed her earlier comment and told the chef that he should have called his pot pie a "stew or soup...or a take on pot pie."
That's when the chef said the single smartest thing of the day: "I've never had a pot pie that I actually enjoyed," he told the judges. "It always seems like a glutinous bowl of glop."
In the end, the chef didn't need anyone's help. He was at the top, or near the top, of every judge's scorecard. He, along with two other toques, made it to the semi-final round tomorrow, when they will have to prepare a po' boy sandwich as well as a dish (other than gumbo) that incorporates both shrimp and okra. The last two ingredients were apparently favorites of Zora Neale Hurston.
As the day's contest came to an end and the winners were packing up their gear, I stood there with two of the semi-finalists. They were excited. They were also stressing about where to find good okra, since it's not exactly season for the Southern vegetable.