Hard to believe it’s already August. Tomatoes are almost at their peak in these parts…we just have to hope the deer have left us some. I just threw a party this past weekend for 40-50 people for my son’s first birthday (without a sous chef! It can be done!) at which I made a salad with a medley of tomatoes that were incredibly flavorful, and I can’t wait to do more with them as the month progresses.
Meanwhile, in D.C., our chefs this week were asked to be inspired by the ingredients, spices, and culinary traditions of nine different countries spanning the globe. I’d like to take a moment to discuss what it actually means for a chef to “be inspired by” a particular cuisine. What it does not mean is to simply copy wholesale some dish or other from the country in question. First of all, there is no creativity in that process; it is merely an exercise in reproduction, and where’s the joy in that? Paul Simon went and spent time in South Africa and didn’t return intent upon recreating South African music. He got busy songwriting, and worked with South African musicians in collaboration with musicians here to bring to fruition his own music inspired by the music that had so moved and motivated him there. This is actually what chefs here in the States tend to do with foreign cuisine anyway — they use the spices, the flavors, the ingredients from a place they’ve been without being intent on a narrow recreation of the dishes they’d eaten while there. As much as I love Chili Crab, I’m not going to return from Singapore intent on making a straight-up Chili Crab dish. But will the influence of a great Chili Crab wend its way into some dish or other that I make at some point this year? Odds are that it will, and I’ll realize as it’s shaping up, “Oh, that came from my last trip to Singapore.”
Furthermore, where Top Chef is concerned, we knew that a lot of these chefs had never studied most of the cuisines we were asking them to draw from, so “inspired by” was a more reasonable challenge, and fitting for a competition in which we’re asking them to show us who they themselves are as chefs.
Kevin’s dish deserves mention as a terrific example of what I’ve been talking about regarding inspiration. He didn’t know how to prepare Indian cuisine; he didn’t have to. He knew enough to braise the chicken properly, and he knew how to work with spices. You need to know to toast them first before grinding them, in order to release some of the oils. That’s a given, and Kevin knew it. He embraced the challenge of being inspired by Indian flavors and created a balanced and delicious dish.