South of the Border
Jay Rayner ruminates over all the chefs' decisions to go Latin.
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.