Don't Be Scared
James Oseland admits his biases toward Art Smith's winning chicken dish.
“James Oseland scares me.” Those were the words of chef Art Smith in Episode 6. Having seen you at work, Chef Art, and having had some time to reflect on the delicious food you prepared, I just want to say, Please don’t be scared! Maybe you read the skepticism on my face when, given your roster of ingredients from Chef Roy, you came up with three very down-homey dishes: fried chicken, smothered chicken, and a mango cobbler. I admit it: the foods sounded great — the kind of fare I’d want to eat for a Sunday supper — but I had the feeling at first that you were staying inside your comfort zone and not challenging yourself as a chef.
I also admit that, despite my promise to myself always to go with my gut reactions to the food and the food alone, I came to the table with a few biases. When I sit down in a fancy restaurant or any environment (including that of Top Chef Masters) where masterly cuisine is the order of the day, I’m going to be subconsciously looking for certain bells and whistles: the architecture of the plating, the visual panache of contrasting shapes and colors, the rare and arcane ingredients, and so on. Then you served up your fried chicken. Looking back, I see it was an audacious move: making this iconic Southern American dish in its simplest form, not tricked out or dolled up in any way.
On its face fried chicken really is a simple thing. The version I make at home consists of nothing more than a whole free-range chicken cut into pieces, seasoned with salt and pepper, and left to sit overnight before being dredged in flour and fried in a few inches of hot peanut oil. But, as any veteran of fried chicken knows, it is remarkably hard to pull the dish off successfully. If the oil is too hot, you’ll scorch the skin; if it’s too cool, the chicken will come out greasy; if the pieces are crowded in the skillet, the skin won’t get crisp. The dish requires unremitting attention and care. When fried chicken is done right, though—as yours, chef Art, was—it is as deeply satisfying to the senses and the soul as any creation of a three-star Paris chef.
In the end, you may have stayed in your comfort zone, chef, but it paid off. Your fried chicken was some of the best I’ve ever tasted. Was my scoring affected by my preconceptions? Maybe it was.