The Scotch Egg

Jay Rayner describes the abomination that is the Scotch egg.

Late in the recording of this series I finally got to meet the lovely Gail Simmons, who had stood in for me when my visa failed to come through. Her opinion: we were having it easy on Top Chef Masters compared to Top Chef. Or, as she put it, "Boy, did we have to kiss a lot of frogs when we did our show." I got her point. Our contestants were all top-drawer chefs who knew how to do lovely things with ingredients, knives, and fire. But, you know, it still managed to throw up a few nightmares and the worst of them so far turned up here, in the first of the championship rounds. That my more vituperative comments didn’t make the cut, is probably fair. I think I went a little bonkers.

We’ll get there in a moment. First though, I should say that this show also included one of the greatest eating experiences so far – though you didn’t get to witness a moment of our pleasure. It was decided that, for the elimination challenge, us judges should get to eat the signature dishes that our six chefs prepared for each other, to give us something to bench mark the re-engineered versions against. So two platters of each were made, both to be served family style. While the chefs ate in the kitchen we were on the dining room set, attacking them with a massive enthusiasm and gusto, which may be linked to the fact the cameras weren’t on us.

I remember that lunch in great detail because we all commented on how damn fortunate we were. From Hubert’s old school lobster bisque through to Michael’s Quail and Rick’s lamb this was the real deal. We adored Anita’s scallops – ooh, those sea urchins – and revelled in Suzanne’s home style chopped steaks with eggs and toast and lots of good sticky stuff. It was one of those moments that forced us to remind ourselves that we were being paid to do this. Where did it all go so right?

But there’s always a downside and that, for me, came the next day when the lovely Art Smith delivered his version of Suzanne’s stunning chopped steak by presenting us with – a Scotch Egg. Oh Lord. Oh help. Oh my.
Here’s what you need to know about the true Scotch egg: it is a British traditional food, which has no noble antecedents. Or to put it another way, it may once have been a glorious thing, but nobody of my generation in Britain is aware of such a  thing. It is a nightmarish food item, the stuff of cheap family weddings, where the irascible scary uncle gets drunk and tries to score with the bridesmaids. The buffet at that sort of wedding would always include a platter of Scotch eggs, which would leave as nasty a taste in the mouth as the party. Think dry, cold, coagulated, cheap quality sausage meat – minced pig eyelids, ground down ears and knee caps; the cheapest of the cheap – with a crust of bright orange breadcrumbs on the outside, and inside an egg boiled to such a degree that if lobbed in a crowded public space it would be regarded as a dangerous weapon. Put said item in deep fat fryer and leave to DIE. Scotch eggs are what you eat at three o’clock in the morning when you pull into a service station off the motorway and are too hungry to make a proper judgment. They are what you eat in British pubs – not the nice oldie worldy, prettified ones; the nasty, sticky floored ones, where the curtains small of nicotine and the air is heavy with the taint of regret and disappointment – when you have drunk ten pints of lager the colour and flavour of something that came out the wrong end of a cat. They are the food of desperation. At Critics' Table I asked Art Smith if he’d ever gone 10 pints in a British pub. He looked at me as if I’d asked him for the late Queen Mother’s bra size, poor love.

Now it’s true that a couple of places in Britain have attempted to do something fancy with the Scotch egg. At a really nice gastropub in West London called the Harwood arms, they serve one made of finest minced venison with, in the middle, a quail's egg, the yolk of which is still runny. And everything you need to know is there in the description: to banish the memory of the real thing, they had to make it without the usual ingredients.

So what of Art Smith’s Scotch egg? Oh dear, oh dear. Undercooked, greasy lamb, around an overcooked egg which was far less than television friendly; it made my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, which is never a good thing when you are expected to say smart, incisive things into microphones. I regarded it less as food than cruel and unusual punishment. What had I done to deserve this? The contrast between it, and Anita’s staggering re-invention of Hubert’s lobster dish also did it no favours. (I used the word genius and I meant it.)

So why did Art Smith not go home? A number of reasons. Firstly, I fully accept that my reaction to his dish was re-enforced by my personal and traumatic memories of Scotch eggs (though I would argue that as the relationship between food and memory is very tight, it’s entirely valid). The point is that neither James nor Gael shared those memories — lucky, lucky people. Secondly the other things on the plate really were rather nice. Whereas poor old Suzanne’s dish just failed on every level, and so she was the one who had to go.

Art Smith got to fight another week. And I got to remind myself exactly why I was being paid.

Jay Rayner is the author of The Man Who Ate The World, published now in paperback by Henry Holt.

Francis Lam: What's on the Menu?

The critic focuses on the first part of the cooking process.

When I talked with Chris Cosentino about cooking last season's Top Chef Masters finale dinner, he said one part of it was easy --the menu planning. The challenge then was to cook four courses, with a theme of letters: a love letter, an apology, a thank you note, and a letter to his future self. Chris' menu came together quickly because, he said, "I know who I am." The wording of the challenge was provocative, but it was really just a way of asking the chefs to tell a story about themselves through their food. It left lots of room for personal interpretation. 

This year, the finale challenge also asked the chefs to dig into their personal lives but with more specific instruction. Asking Jen, Bryan, and Douglas to make dishes that represented their past selves, their current lives, something from a mentor, and something from a protégé was asking them to encapsulate their careers in four courses. (Only giving them a day and a half to do it meant that no one could lie on a therapist's couch to unpack their memories, which is probably a good thing.) 

I loved this challenge, and I was happy to not actually be there as a judge, but rather as a diner, as an observer, and as a fan. Without having to worry about who did “better” than the rest, I could just focus on the food and, even more, on the insight into each chef’s culinary life. Who these great chefs thought they were.   

I loved the way Douglas’s first thoughts were to his formative cooking experience, the first dish he remembers making in a restaurant, and how it became his mussel billi bi soup. I once had a version of that soup at his restaurant Cyrus in 2007. It had so much mussel flavor I can still taste it. To taste it at finale was, for me, like the past come back to life. And for him, someone now so inspired by the lightness of Japan, to reach back to the glories of a wallop of cream and brine… it felt like he was starting the meal by going back to his roots. 

I loved the way Bryan went in another direction, going to the first dish he ever cooked for his wife. I thought his dish was fantastic: the sweet subtlety of crab hovered over the grains and the egg yolk, but honestly, I also could’ve eaten the OG version of a sautéed chicken breast with crab and cream sauce. I kind of miss food with names like Chicken Chesapeake. Who will be the brave soul to bring back ye olde cruise liner food in their restaurant? But anyway, Bryan’s cooking impressed me through the whole season with its creativity and intelligence—I was shocked to realize he hadn’t actually won a challenge until the end—but it was so great to see, in the end, how grounded he feels in his emotional side as a person and as a chef. The dish was light; it felt full of possibility. You could tell his was cooking with the memory of being at the start of something, the excitement of it. 

And I loved it when Jen took the “something borrowed” part of the dinner as a chance to nod to her old mentor Wolfgang Puck, from when he was borrowing from Chinese cuisine at Chinois on Main. Her “Chinese duck with shiitake broth, eggplant, daikon, grilled bok choy, and duck wonton” was too busy, too over the top, too 1992… and just freaking awesome. Just like L.A., really. (I used to think that L.A. is stuck in the '80s and '90s, until I realized that, no, it’s just that in the '80s and '90s, the rest of the country was just trying to be like L.A.) I hadn’t had the pleasure of eating her food before Top Chef Masters, but I could see a direct line between what she was “borrowing” and her own food: it pulls flavors from a global palette—pulls them mightily, puts her back into it—to come up with thoroughly American dishes. Her cooking is so muscular, so full of umami and depth and, when she wants to use them, pungent spices. 

There were many other dishes that day: thrilling ones (Bryan’s white-on-white dessert), masterful ones (I mean, you try to wrap a piece of fish in individual noodle strands like Douglas did!), just bang-up delicious ones (Jen’s paella gnocchi. That is all.) But I most loved seeing into these chefs’ past and how they went from there to who they are today. I haven’t had a chance to talk with them yet, but I wonder which of them will say that writing the menu was easy. All three of these chefs were so good, their cooking so assured, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that from all of them.