Tom Colicchio

Tom Colicchio's take on what makes successful street food.

on Dec 15, 2008

In the interest of total disclosure, I have to be honest with my feelings about this week's Quickfire Challenge. As a measure of our chef's sense of taste, it didn't work. Why? Because taste is embedded in one's memory, dating back to earliest childhood. Virtually none of the flavors our chefs were given to taste were part of the American vernacular in which they'd grown up. No doubt if a panel of Japanese chefs were blindfolded and asked to taste things like ketchup, BBQ sauce or marshmallows, they too would have been stumped. So while I felt the premise of the challenge was good, I would have liked to see some less esoteric ingredients, so we could see whose sense of taste was really in place, without a visual assist. And for the record, I think they should have given Andrea ghee (it's clarified butter.) She guessed margarine, which was pretty damn close. What I did find valuable about the blindfolded taste-test is that it really points to the connection between the eye and the taste buds. This is useful when considering the importance of presentation in cooking. While I don't feel that a beautiful presentation can make up for poor flavor, clearly the visuals provide an important boost in the way we process (and enjoy) food. And it was great to see the chefs spoofing the taste test with their own "Badass Snackmaster Challenge" back at the house. Did anyone doubt that the award would be going to Chunk LeFunk, the whopper-saavy junk-food junkie, Miguel? Our elimination challenge called on the chefs to fuse Moroccan, Chinese, or Japanese cuisine with Latin food to create a unique fusion dish. The catch? It had to succeed as street food, 'sold' (for free) from a pushcart in the heart of San Francisco's mission district. I heartily approved of this challenge because I don't subscribe to the idea that only fancy food can be good food. And as someone who spends most of his life in a restaurant, I appreciate a meal I can grab and enjoy outside. The chefs pulled knives from the block to see who they'd be teamed with, which made for some unlikely bedfellows. Tiffani (often brusque) was paired with Dave (easily bruised) and neither looked happy about it. Miguel was understandably worried when he drew Andrea as a partner - she had immunity, which meant if they lost as a team, he was going down. Lisa and Harold, both low-key and hardworking, seemed a good match. The chefs were given $200 per team to shop for ingredients and off they went. Right off the bat, Tiffani and Dave decided to forego that cliche of Latin cooking - the burrito - in favor of a Cuban sandwich layered with Moroccan flavors, which I thought was a great idea. Dave made it seem as though he was magnanimously allowing Tiffani to take the lead, when in reality, he was happy to ride her coattails and benefit from her talent and strong instincts. Andrea and Miguel, on the other hand...went for the burrito. I found it interesting that Miguel deferred almost immediately to Andrea's health-centric ideas. It may have been habit: Miguel was raised by a strong, single mother. While this helped him become the resilient go-getter he is today, it also taught him to quickly toe the (female) line. Lee-Anne and Stephen decided to make sopas - Latin American corn cakes, piled with Chinese barbecued pork. Stephen likes to seem as though he has the upper hand at all times, so I got a kick out of watching Miguel infuriate him by chatting with the butchers at the Latin market in Spanish. (Don't feel bad, Stephen.