Taste Tests And Street Cred
Tom Colicchio's take on what makes successful street food.
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.
After all, you speak grape.) During my kitchen walk-through, I questioned Harold and Lisa's choice of a seared tuna, which I thought would be a tough sell out on the street (although, since I was judging, I couldn't come out and say so). While rare tuna may be ubiquitous in restaurants, many Americans still veer away from fish that doesn't seem cooked all the way through. Harold dismissed my question easily, leading me to wonder -- was he optimistic? Or out of touch? It was a beautiful, sunny day when Katie, Gail, Chef Mike and I strolled outside for our own taste test. The pushcarts were set up in the heart of the Mission District, a largely Latino neighborhood that is also liberally sprinkled with students, bohemian intellectuals and homeless individuals. A real mixed bag. So what worked? Frankly, Andrea and Miguel's burrito was tasty, but hard to eat. For reasons I haven't figured out, they opted to serve the dish open-faced, making a fork and knife necessary. In my book, this more or less disqualified them from the realm of 'street food' which I feel needs to be portable and easy to eat. Lisa & Harold left the jicama salad they had prepared back in the kitchen. That left their dish incomplete - it needed the snap and freshness of the jicama to balance the flavors. But worse, more than a few pedestrians shied away from rare tuna. Of course, if Harold and Lisa had been thinking on their feet they would have recast the dish as 'ceviche' - a dish familiar to many Latino diners. But their own satisfaction with their dish blinded them to the larger idea of the guests' satisfaction, which was a crucial factor in this challenge. Stephen and Leanne's sopas were delicious - sloppy, but portable. The Chinese barbecue worked nicely with the texture and mild sweetness of the cornmeal, and the lychee mojitos were a nice touch. On the other hand, Stephen's ungovernable need to educate his guests, rather than delight them, clashed with both the neighborhood and his bright orange tie. Tiffani & Dave worked hard as a long line immediately formed alongside their cart. Their dish had it all - it was balanced and nuanced (the pickled vegetable on top of the Moroccan-braised pork provided the perfect topnote of acid) It was easy to carry and eat on the street, requiring no additional cutlery to be juggled with handbags, cellphones, etc.. In short, it worked. At the Judge's table, Lisa & Harold acknowledged that they forgot a key component of their dish and both seemed willing to take responsibility. Chef Mike was hardcore in his criticism, practically calling seared tuna with avocado a has-been on restaurant menus. But my issue was that their dish wasn't street food. And I felt that they lost this one by caring more about their own culinary goal then the street challenge presented to them. But where it all got most interesting was when Miguel and Andrea were called to task for their unwieldy, unrolled burrito. Miguel wasted no time in pointing a finger at Andrea. Andrea's response was to offer her immunity to Miguel (who had just sold her up the river) since she figured winning meant more to him in the long run. Miguel's shock made for the best photo op all day. Andrea is a class act, as Miguel (and all of us) learned. In the end though, we made our decision based on the weakest dish and the weakest member of the team that created it. Harold was clearly sad to see his partner go, and I was too. As Dave pointed out, Lisa is a person of integrity, a genuinely nice and decent person. She lacked the competitive edge to be a Top Chef, but not the heart.