The finale marks my third trip to the beautiful island of Puerto Rico.The first trip, about ten years ago, was to cook at a charity dinner. My wife (then girlfriend) and I strolled happily around old San Juan enjoying the pastel Colonial architecture and ocean breezes. My second trip, a few years later, was to a large family resort where we ran through a trough of sunscreen and suffered through endless rounds of chicken fingers (even chefs' kids go through this phase).
This time around I was hoping for some better food. Puerto Rico does its own distinctive riff on Latin cuisine by marrying indigenous (fruit, seafood) Spanish (beef, pork, rice), and African slave ingredients (okra, taro) into something uniquely its own. I was interested to see how the cocina criolla, as the locals call it, would find it's way into the final four's efforts. I was also really curious to see how each of them would attack their pig.
Now people who know me know I take pig (what we chefs like to call "that magical animal") very seriously. Butchered well, an entire pig is capable of yielding up more satisfying culinary opportunities than any other creature on earth, down to their snouts and tails (haute dog cuisine). And as I said in my previous blog, I think butchering is a skill that every chef should have. I was lucky enough to be taught how to butcher from one of the cooks at a restaurant gig in Union, NJ that served a lot of veal (learn to butcher a young cow, and you can handle any mammal nature throws at you, with the exception of a whale). My suggestion to aspiring chefs -- if butchering isn't taught to you in culinary school (and even if it is) -- toss your charts and apprentice yourself on weekends to a local butcher. You will never have cause to regret it. Especially when you're handed an entire pig during an Elimination Challenge.