The Eatonville Chef Contest: Trent Conry’s Perspective
Conry takes a break from his job interview to answer questions.
As I noted in today's cover story on the Eatonville chef contest, Trent Conry was, without much question, the most accomplished toque among the nine finalists who competed for the $75,000-a-year gig at Andy Shallal's new Southern restaurant. And yet: The former executive chef at Ardeo and 701 didn't even make it to the finals in the cooking contest.
During the semi-finals, Shallal told Conry that his modern approach to Southern cooking — and perhaps even his personality — wouldn't make for a good fit at Eatonville. During a long phone interview several weeks after the competition, Conry says he wasn't surprised by his dismissal, even if he looked stunned and hurt when Shallal delivered the blow.
Conry tells me his reaction was more of a sudden shock. He says he was momentarily spacing out; he was expecting his would-be boss to talk more about the dishes before deciding which of the chefs to bounce. Instead, Conry remembers Shallal launching right into this announcement: "I’d say you’re probably the most talented [chef] we had, but that’s not all we’re looking for...I’m not sure we’re going to be a great fit, and that’s why I think we need to move on.”
"I really didn't think I was going to make it to the end," Conry says. "Andy had an idea where he wanted to go with the restaurant," and that idea didn't include him.
In some ways, Conry admits he wasn't suited for a restaurant devoted to Zora Neale Hurston and her writings. The chef rattles off his SAT scores to prove his point: He scored 731 in math — and 302 in English. Perhaps even more problematic, Conry has back troubles that make it impossible for him to sit still and read for prolonged periods.
Not that Conry's blaming his back completely on his inability to get through Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, which the competing chefs were supposed to use as an inspiration to prepare one meal. "I started reading it," he says, "and I was, 'Oh my God, I can't read this.'"
Instead he did some research on Eatonville and its foodways. He discovered that no generic idea of Southern cooking could touch the area's real culinary influences, which come from both the Spaniards and the native American Indians. In the end, though, Conry's dishes for the Hurston challenge fell back on traditional notions of Southern cuisine, which only made sense. He prepared chicken with rosemary, asparagus, and mushrooms; buttermilk biscuits, and Dr. Pepper-braised short ribs.
I got to taste a number of Conry's dishes during the course of the contest, and I found many of them creative and delicious, particularly his take on a vegetable pot pie, a deconstructed version that seemed to confound a few judges. So I had to know: What did Conry think of Rusty Holman, the second-place finisher who got the Eatonville job when Shallal fired the real winner, Chris Newsome?
"Rusty made some dishes that were really really good," Conry says. "They were simple, but they were solid."
Conry, by the way, is still unemployed, just like Newsome.