Soul food may be comfort food, but that’s not to say it isn’t inherently complex. That’s why Marcus Samuelson won such raves for his barbecued chicken with macaroni and cheese—the sweet-sour flavor combination, the soothing cheese sauce. These dishes are not easily mastered. You can’t just dash them off without knowing what you’re doing. If you ask me, Marcus overcomplicated things a bit with the coconut milk and capers and cranberries in the greens. Those were unnecessary flourishes, salvaged by the simple beauty of the other dishes on the plate.
Marcus wasn’t the only chef to overcomplicate things. Thierry’s dish was soulful: who doesn’t love succulent, fork-tender pork shoulder with a refreshing slaw (and his raw Brussels sprouts slaw was a real revelation). But the farro salad, the corn-and-onion accompaniment, the harissa—it was overkill. Same with Monica’s deconstructed shrimp and grits. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried the Lowcountry staple done the traditional way, as a heap of grits topped with saucy shrimp, but it’s one of the most satisfying dishes on earth, and each bite is a perfectly calibrated package. In Monica’s dish, the soul of it was stripped away because each element had to be eaten separately. (Had it all been served together, maybe I wouldn’t have noticed how undercooked the shrimp was.)
At one point during the judging process, Gail Simmons called into question whether Carmen’s oyster stew (which, for all intents and purposes, was a beautifully executed gumbo) qualified as “gourmet.” Of course it did. The reason it hit the spot so perfectly was that it wasn’t trying too hard. It wasn’t preening, or reinventing, or riffing. Frankly, I think the fact that the other chefs burned her yucca accompaniment was a good thing; it allowed us to focus on the exquisitely rich broth, the sweet brininess imparted by the oysters, the bright zap of the cilantro on top. It allowed us to appreciate the dish for what it was: honest-to-goodness, and inherently elegant, soul food.