Finale from the Eatonville Chef Contest: We Have a Winner
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.
After four previous rounds and God knows how many tastings in CulinAerie's smaller classroom, the competition for Eatonville's chef had come down to two men. Both had grown up in the South, which no doubt helped them grasp the cuisine they were expected to prepare, but both chefs also had dramatically different personalities. One had the gift of gab, the other a gift for silence.
Tasked with making the final decision, the judges began to dissect the intangibles—the chefs' personalities, their potential management styles, even their ability to chat up a customer in the dining room. The intangibles had become paramount. When evaluating the two cooks by their food alone, the judges were all but deadlocked. Some liked the talkative toque, some liked the quiet one.
For the final cook-off, owner Andy Shallal asked the men to prepare a signature appetizer, entree, and dessert for Eatonville. The quiet one prepared some stuffed hush puppies, a fried rockfish over greens and vegetables, and bread pudding. The talkative one produced barbecued and fried oysters, blackened flounder with tasso ham and crab, and gingerbread tea cakes with warm pears.
But the talkative one also had stories to share. For his "sweet and spicy" barbecued oysters, he told the judges, "I think we all know that Zora [Neale Hurston] was a sweet and spicy person." He went on to talk about Hurston's connection to the Southern coast, where the sea would offer up its bounty to satisfy her appetite. His dessert was even inspired by the character, Tea Cake, in Hurston's novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
The judges ate that stuff up.
The stories would prove important in the final analysis of the chefs. "I loved the story," said Carla Hall, the former Top Chef contestant. "Can you imagine having little stories on the menu?"
Besides, dining out is "an experience," Hall added. "How will I be different after I come to this place?" She thought the talkative toque's stories would show people "what happens in the chef's head," a sort of inside look into the creative process.
Fellow judge Mike Curtin, CEO for D.C. Central Kitchen, also picked up on the stories. Curtin felt they showed the chef was putting the Eatonville concept before his own ego. "It's clear that [the chef] is cooking for this restaurant. He's not cooking to show off."
But the true turning point likely came when Pamela Pinnock, director of marketing for Busboys & Poets, pulled a flip-flop worthy of John Kerry. Throughout the contest, Pinnock had supported the quiet one. No, in fact, she had done more than that. She had sang his praises throughout the competition.
She changed her tune.
"This was more than a competition of cooking," Pinnock said. This was a contest in which the chefs were supposed to be inspired by Hurston's life and, specifically, by her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. The talkative chef "followed the assignment and executed the assignment best," Pinnock added. "So I'd have to say it's [that chef] for those reasons."
Shallal had made up his mind. He called the two chefs into the judges' room and apologized for "slightly" misleading them in his initial employment ad, which didn't offer specifics about the grueling contest. Then he dropped the final bomb.
The quiet chef was toast.
The quiet one showed poise in defeat. He shook the winner's hand and even placed his hand on the victor's shoulder, a sign of friendship in loss.
As for the winner, he mostly felt relief. He had been searching for a gig "for a long time."
"I have a job," he said matter-of-factly. "That's good."
[Note: The winner's name and more details on the contest will be revealed later in the City Paper.]