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For me the most hilarious moment so far in Top Chef Masters came this week when Ludo Lefebvre accused Rick Bayless, the king of Mexican food, of copying him by deciding to do a taco – because Ludo had already said he was going to do a quesadilla. It’s like accusing Fred Astaire of copying because he decided to tap dance. Dear sweet Ludo: accent straight out of central casting, hair from West Hollywood, self-belief courtesy of having ten tonnes of crap
kicked out of him for years training in brutal French kitchens. Nobody is more of a fan of Ludo than, well, Ludo himself.
Even so, when he picked the pig’s ear for the offal street food challenge, I did manage to feel sorry for him. Heart? Essentially one big lump of muscle. A bit lean, but not hard to work with. Tongue? Us Jews have been sustained by that for centuries. Tripe? OK, a little more challenging, but cook it long enough and hard enough and it can make for a fabulous stew. But pig’s ear? That’s all about texture, and almost nothing else. I challenge anyone to tell me what pig’s ear tastes like. Sure, we can all do what it feels like. But taste? Go on. Try. No. Me neither.
In the circumstances he did very well indeed, and I don’t apologise for leaping to his defense. I’m really not sure what else he could have done with them other than put them in a cheese sandwich. What did surprise me was that all four of our chefs chose, when faced with a street food challenge, to go Latin. I thought at least one might go Southeast Asian. But no, it was south of the border all the way. Which given the presence of Rick may well be
characterised – and this is a technical food criticism term – as "completely nuts."
There was one other curio here. This was a street food challenge in a city with no streets and so, bar a few taco trucks on the edge of LA’s Korea Town, almost no street food culture whatsoever. What would the punters make of it? For the most part they were impressed, as well they should be. In truth we critics were less of a hard sell. One of the things that unites us – not just this panel but all the critics and professional food writers that I know – is a love of the slippery inner organs of animals that other people tend to leave behind. It may simply be
that, being greedy people by nature, we are more likely to at least try everything once. In my experience, anybody who tries the inner organs, properly prepared, quickly becomes a fan.
For us, being forced to feast on heart, tongue, and the rest was a good day at the office. My one disappointment was Cindy’s menudo. I am a huge fan of tripe. The great British chef Simon Hopkinson whose book, Roast Chicken and Other Stories is a bible for me, makes the most fabulous tripe stew and I was hoping for something like that. Instead what Cindy served was limp and completely underseasoned. It was a waste of good stomach, both the animal’s
The rest though was very good stuff indeed. My tacky joke about "hearting" Wilo’s tripleta may have caused a little eye rolling in the audience but it was a lovely pile of meaty things inside bread, and even Ludo’s cheese sandwich with gooey long stewed pig’s ear hit the spot. But Rick, right in his comfort zone, really did deliver with a tongue taco that I was dreaming about for days afterwards. I dream about it still.
Next week I step aside for Gail Simmons. Don’t miss me too much; you’re in safe hands.
Jay Rayner is the author of The Man Who Ate The World, published now in paperback by Henry Holt.
Excellent comments, however, Wilo was certainly a natural to go Latin as well.
The other two were nuts.
I totally agree. Ludo should have been given a break for the long cooking of the pig ears. At least he knew how to cook them. I felt sorry for him with the quickfire when he had a helper but forgot to include the tomatoes.
Certainly, Rick Bayless deserved to win, like you said, who , in their right mind , would buck Rick in Mexican cooking. I'm not unhappy. I love Rick Bayless. He seems like a sincere, and nice guy. Someone whom I would love to have to my home for dinner, knowing that it would be quite a challenge.
Hi, First off, Id like to say that I'm really enjoying the show. I find it kinda of amusing seeing these top chefs actually sweat a bit at some of these quickfires and elimination challenges. LOL! Now, the "other" reason for this blog is to ask a question. I saw on a regular Top-Chef episode that the contestants had to make an Amuse-bouche. In that show, it was explained that an amuse-bouche was supposed to be "one perfect bite"! It was done during a quickfire and some chefs were eliminated because what they served was considered to be too big. BUT, I just recently saw the TC-Masters episode where those chefs had to make an Amuse-bouche too! Even tho all the dishes looked "good", not one of them (ok, maybe one did)was "one perfect bite". All of them were at least 2 bites, some even more. So, what's up with that? LOL!
The pig is one of my four food groups. I've never eaten pig's feet or pig's ear, however, and while I'm just fine being cremated before I try the first one, I'd be willing to try the second. However, the idea of it in the form of a quesadilla doesn't crank my tractor. It seems Rick Bayless--who in my opinion is the biggest gun we've seen on this series so far--just totally nailed his tongue taco. Or tongueco. I remarked to my girlfriend that of the four, I'd have the hardest time sampling the tongue. (Cow hearts I've eaten, no problem there.) However, Rick's creation made me want to reach into the screen and chomp.
Looking forward to your return. Have a safe holiday weekend (U.S. or U.K, your choice!)!
Please get real. Rick does a taco? Top Chef Masters and he does a taco? That guy is not a Top Chef I can tell you that. He isn't even Mexican!!! First of all, Wilo (pronounced weelow, not willow. Would someone please inform the host) is Puerto Rican and of course is going to do something hispanic. Second, What can you do with an ear for crying out loud? Ludo should have won just for no one throwing up. Third, menudo is tripe stew, Jay. I find it very ironic that the English guy is complaining about seasoning. I mean the entire country shares one taste bud. She didn't put enough "bland" in it for you Jay?
Pig ears are tasteless. Before I ate my first, asked my friend what a pig ear tastes like. He replied - a pig's ear.
I expected an egg roll, pot sticker, sausage or slider.
Guess when the clock is ticking, it is harder to think.
I am so glad Rick WON! He came in with the most awesome attitude and really had a good time while creating dishes that were beautiful to look at and I would have loved to taste.
As you said, Jay: "[We] Jews have been sustained by that for centuries." I remember coming home from school to see a big old beef tongue on the kitchen counter, waiting for my grandmother to process it. We never had a cold cut platter that lacked pink, thinly sliced tongue. Rick really had it too easy. I'd have preferred to see brains or chitterlings among the offal.
Chinese people have been eating pig's ear for centuries. Braise the pig ear in soy sauce (and other spices, I'm not a chef), then slice it paper thin, serve cold with chopped garlic, red peppers and cilantro as an appetizer. It has a great crunchy but soft texture, kind of like onions. It taste similar to the beef briskets in beef noodles for anyone familiar with Chinese/Taiwanese cuisine.
I'm still waiting for a contestant to be familiar with authentic Asian techniques, that will be quite a show down.
No Richard, it doesn't taste like beef brisket. It tastes only of the soy that it's been doused in.
Hell, marinade Dick Cheney in enough soy and he'd probably taste like beef brisket too.
Pig's ear tastes of NOTHING.
PPPPPlease Help!!!!! For all you veiwers out there-Somebody on Top Chef Masters or Top Chef used a rub for meat that used Anchovie Paste and Mayo. Can you please help me find the episode or the Chef or the recipe. I will be eternally grateful. Thanks. Deb
I also found it strange that all four chefs chose Latin/ Mexican street food, especially with Rick and Wilo there. This is Wilo's strength and Rick has spent most of his life studying Mexican/ Southwest cuisine. He lives for this. Ludo sort of went with what he felt everyone would know already...a quesadilla. He did seem a bit intense and paranoid, but what I found interesting was that he claimed to have cooked pig ears several times and still he did not realize he would have a congealed glob by the time the food was to arrive at the event site. It looked like the fifteen minutes lost chopping everything again was time he really needed.