Scene 3 from the Eatonville Chef Contest: Too Fancy for His Own Good
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.
Christina Giallourakis, a former lawyer who now does health counseling, had nothing bad to say about the chef's dishes. "I think his whole array of food is like two notches above the others' food," the judge said, refering to the other two chefs competing last Friday in the semi-final round of Andy Shallal's hunt for an Eatonville chef. Giallourakis could, without much doubt, see herself driving across town for this guy's cooking.
The array of food that Giallourakis loved included a chicken/chicken sausage po' boy, a beet risotto with peas, a potato cake topped with smothered onions and shiitake mushrooms, a shrimp-and-okra dish, and a "coffee and doughnuts" dessert in which the drink was a multi-layered "parfait"-like creation with java-flavored granita in the middle.
Carla Hall, the almost-but-not-quite Top Chef, could not share her fellow judge's enthusiasm. "It's all really technically good," Hall said, but it was missing a certain warmth. Besides, Hall added, the chef didn't follow directions. He made extra dishes beyond the required three: a dessert, a po' boy, and an entree that included two of Zora Neale Hurston's favorite ingredients, shrimp and okra.
He was playing a numbers game, Hall said. The chef "made so much that you could put two aside and still have favorites," she said. "Hell, he did like 40 dishes, but for me, he's missing heart."
And if the food is missing heart, then it's missing the point of Hurston's writing, which Hall believes is essentially nurturing. "You want this food to hug you when people are eating it," she said.
Shallal zeroed in on another concern about this technically gift chef with no apparent heart: He "will be a major challenge to work for." Shallal worried that the chef, with his restless creative spirit, would never be happy making Southern dishes in the $12 to $20 price range.
Finally, another judge chimed in and stated the obvious: If the chef "is not where you want to go, let him go now."
And so it was decided.
Shallal called the three semi-finalists into the room and handed each a check for $1,000—not a bad day's work—and told them that "this was probably the hardest round, because you're all very, very good."
Finally, he gave one the boot. It was the chef whose food caused one judge to swoon and another to feel no warmth. "I'd say you're probably the most talented [chef] we had, but that's not all we're looking for," Shallal told the odd toque out. "I'm not sure we're going to be a great fit, and that's why I think we need to move on."
The chef looked crushed at the news.