You Can't Fake Soul
James Oseland explains the hidden challenges of making a simple plate of soul food.
There’s nothing I love more than homemade macaroni and cheese, beautifully seasoned collards, and red beans served with a huge hunk of honey-slathered corn bread. I could eat soul food every day of the year. So when I learned that the elimination challenge on Episode 2 called for some of the best chefs in America to create a “gourmet soul food” plate, I was both thrilled and, to tell you the truth, a bit worried.
Why worried? Well, soul food is deceptive. People think it’s fried chicken and ribs—which it is, but it’s also salmon croquettes, iced layer cakes, impossibly airy cornmeal dumplings, and all kinds of other classic dishes that home cooks codified into the Southern canon back in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s glorious food, and like rustic French food or great Slavic home-style dishes, it’s grounded in a tradition of serious cooking and solid technique. In other words, you can’t fake it.
Because soul food is comfort food, people think it’s easy, too easy. I could taste that notion in the dish that David Burke made. I mean, here’s a chef who could cook circles around most people. He must have thought to himself: Where’s the challenge in making a simple plate of soul food? So what did he do? He used Southern ingredients as a springboard for reinvention, turning sweet potatoes into a fancy custard served in precious hollowed-out egg cups, along with a diminutive sliver of watermelon pickle (which I would have liked a larger serving of). Sure, all the dishes were delicious on their own, but the act of eating them felt cerebral and cold. Where was the soul?
Rather than reinterpreting or intellectualizing the idea of soul food, he would have had better luck had he just respected it. If he’d nodded to the great culinary tradition behind, say, a sweet potato casserole with a crackly pecan crust, he would have delivered a dish far more glorious and elegant—and soulful.
Soul food may be comfort food, but that’s not to say it isn’t inherently complex. That’s why Marcus Samuelson won such raves for his barbecued chicken with macaroni and cheese—the sweet-sour flavor combination, the soothing cheese sauce. These dishes are not easily mastered. You can’t just dash them off without knowing what you’re doing. If you ask me, Marcus overcomplicated things a bit with the coconut milk and capers and cranberries in the greens. Those were unnecessary flourishes, salvaged by the simple beauty of the other dishes on the plate.
Marcus wasn’t the only chef to overcomplicate things. Thierry’s dish was soulful: who doesn’t love succulent, fork-tender pork shoulder with a refreshing slaw (and his raw Brussels sprouts slaw was a real revelation). But the farro salad, the corn-and-onion accompaniment, the harissa—it was overkill. Same with Monica’s deconstructed shrimp and grits. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried the Lowcountry staple done the traditional way, as a heap of grits topped with saucy shrimp, but it’s one of the most satisfying dishes on earth, and each bite is a perfectly calibrated package. In Monica’s dish, the soul of it was stripped away because each element had to be eaten separately. (Had it all been served together, maybe I wouldn’t have noticed how undercooked the shrimp was.)
At one point during the judging process, Gail Simmons called into question whether Carmen’s oyster stew (which, for all intents and purposes, was a beautifully executed gumbo) qualified as “gourmet.” Of course it did. The reason it hit the spot so perfectly was that it wasn’t trying too hard. It wasn’t preening, or reinventing, or riffing. Frankly, I think the fact that the other chefs burned her yucca accompaniment was a good thing; it allowed us to focus on the exquisitely rich broth, the sweet brininess imparted by the oysters, the bright zap of the cilantro on top. It allowed us to appreciate the dish for what it was: honest-to-goodness, and inherently elegant, soul food.