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.

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.