Light it Up
Francis Lam describes his first experience at Judges' Table.
No one’s ever accused me of being shy and retiring, but when my first seat at the Top Chef Masters table wasn’t just with James and Ruth, but with living-chef-legends Jonathan Obi-Wan Waxman, Mary Sue Milliken, Susan Feniger, and Rick Moonen, I did think, “Maybe it’s better to just listen and learn, little grasshopper.” Also: “What the hell do they need me here for? They got this locked down.”
But there I was anyway, and it made me understand what a serious honor it was to be there. (At least until Waxman made some joke about stripteases, and I was like, “DAD, STOP.”) But honestly, I realized that I have to take what I say to the chefs seriously—I mean, voting on what you like or don’t like is easy, but, among this crowd, I think you have to earn your opinions. I owe it to the chefs to explain what I’m seeing, tasting, and thinking… and I owe it to you.
So let’s start with the art of teppanyaki. The first thing, really, is to bring the show. Hamming it up while slinging food on a hot flat top was, I believe, the genius of Rocky Aoki, the Japanese American restaurateur who built the Benihana empire. So maybe it’s more traditional to 1960s New York than Japan, but look, you gotta bring the drama, and Kerry and Art are my heroes for getting airborne and flammable. I mean, if you’re not blowing up the spot when you’re on teppanyaki duty, if food isn’t flying and little girls aren’t crying and old men aren’t yelling, something’s not right. But goofball acrobatics and pyromania aside, the real challenge of teppanyaki is to cook with the weight of a dozen peering eyes on you. It’s tough to work so naked in front of your customers, and I sympathized with the chefs, whose movements seemed jittery and only accomplished though (wo)manful effort. Mark and Lorena’s dishes suffered especially from being seriously underseasoned, and while I would have wanted them to taste while they were cooking, I could see why they felt like that would be a little… icky. It’s an intimate thing to be eating or tasting, and I’m sure it’s got to feel extra weird when everyone’s staring at you. Or it might have just been the stress of that staring that made them forget to do what is second nature, kind of like how, when you’re trying to walk across a room all extra-sexy, you always end up tripping on your own feet.
And that pressure of being watched I’m sure didn’t help when they were struggling with a teppan that seemed to stay as cool as the other side of the pillow, except for that one spot that burned with the heat of a thousand angry suns. The spot that scorched Lorena’s rice (sugary fruit sauces have a gnarly habit of doing that), the spot that threatened to turn Thierry’s crepes into carbon... so much of cooking is really just about controlling heat, and when the equipment gives you a two-way choice between warm and nuclear, it’s hard to deal with.
So maybe it was a combination of all these things that did in Mark’s dish of seared scallop, bok choy, and pickled mushrooms. But it was clear that he was taking a huge chance. Mark said it himself: “When something is so simple, everything has to be perfect.” There’s a real art to simple food, and I totally agree with Mark here. But I’ll go even further and say that it’s not just about everything being perfectly cooked and seasoned—it’s that you have to make a kind of magic happen; you have to show us a relationship between those ingredients we didn’t know was there. You have the unique challenge of making the diner taste things they know and have them seem new, which is a little like catching lightning in a bottle. Art’s dish was anything but simple: seared shrimp with Old Bay, cheese grits, watermelon and greens salad, two kinds of tomato dressing. I have to tell you, watching those grit cakes turn before our very eyes into grit puddles, I thought it was going to be like watching that Chinese hurdler trip over the first hurdle, knock himself out, grab his injured leg, and limp to the finish line just for dignity’s sake. But then he brought out the booze and set stuff on fire. If you set stuff on fire, and it isn’t my hair, you get 15 bonus points. And it turns out he didn’t need them: the shrimp were beautifully browned and generously spiced, the grits’ richness took the edge of the shrimp, the watermelon brought fresh sweetness, and the dressings had bottomless oh-mommy-umami. On a day where the pressure was building second by second, this dish exploded with flavor, and damn, it was delicious.