Jay Rayner

Who does Jay think has the most soul? Read his thoughts on the latest challenge

on Apr 15, 2010

Many cultures have a soul food tradition; they just don’t call it that. In France it’s the Cuisine de Grand’Mere (literally, grandma’s cooking). In Italy, they intone the name of Nona (grandma, all over again). Whatever the name it refers to food with a domestic pull and, most importantly, the visceral reach of childhood: an armed assault on the immature vascular system, by love, saturated fats and carbs. There is, however a difference between what goes on in Europe and what goes on in the US. In France and Italy there is a direct line between those homely, domestic dishes and the product of the most ambitious, gastronomic kitchens. So serious French chefs do riffs on cassoulet, pot au feu and the venerable daube. Likewise, every Michelin three star Italian restaurant will have on its menu great reworkings of classic pasta dishes.

For decades in the US the same was not true. Soul food was soul food and you didn’t screw with it; didn’t try to gussy it up or try to make it fancy. If an ambitious American chef wanted to get all haute they too headed for the comforting shores of the French or Italian. Only in very recent years have serious US restaurants started to work up riffs on milk fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, grits and lobster rolls and gumbos. And even then, with a wry and ironic nudge to the ribs.

So getting five big beasts of the kitchen – and I include wonderful Carmen in that title, even though she could win a limbo competition without bending her body – to cook soul food was always going to be interesting. On the one hand this is a cooking competition. On the other, as Marcus put it, ‘you don’t want to compete with grandma’. No, indeed, you don’t. Cos grandma can get awful cross. Which may explain why David Burke did so poorly: personally I liked his egg, with its crab, bacon and corn topping, more than the others. (It had shards of crisp bacon in it. What’s not to like?) But he appeared to have pirouetted too far away from the mother lode.