Guilty Pleasures

Miami chef and restauranteur Barton G. weighs in on Top Chef.


Toward the end of the Guilty Pleasures episode I was struck by the urge to find out if Howie and bulldogs really do share personality traits. How many times during the last two shows have Sara or Sara N referred to Howie as a member of that breed of quadrapeds? It's obvious how a physical comparison might be drawn, but the two Saras are referring to Howie's character. I wondered if he or bulldogs were being maligned. Turns out bulldogs are drawing the short end of the analogy. According to various websites about them, bulldogs are cherished for their quiet and calm behavior. They are also legendary for their patience with children. If Sara N was indeed the baby of the house, as Howie claimed, he certainly didn't have any patience for her.

Where her pouting, poor-pitiful-me attitude toward the late night party snack challenge was concerned, I don't blame him. As her parting shot, Sara declared "There's a really fine line between being competitive and just being an asshole." There's an equally fine line between legitimate complaint and whining; Sara whined herself out of the competition. Since she was so demoralized by unintentionally wearing a low-cut blouse to Fresh Markets, would the outcome have been any different if Dale had not dismissed one top she had considered wearing as too frumpy? Had she worn it, would she have been an enthusiastic and energetic part of the team?

Did I say team? Correction. They were a group of individuals struggling through the challenge, every man and woman for themselves, apparently oblivious to one another other despite the close quarters. Their dysfunctional non-interaction was especially painful to watch in contrast to the efficient, even joyful, camaraderie of the competition. Last week's team challenge proved a lack of communication translates to poor choices and execution. It did again for this exercise. Conceptually, the menus of the Black Team and the Orange Group were equally strong. And I know a thing or two about party menus, late night and otherwise!

The difference was the Black Team based their menu on smart choices that made the best of what they had to work with, like dividing their limited work space into four different sections assigning appropriate dishes and personnel to each. Meanwhile the orange folks were going more on gut instinct and Howie's experience with bar menus in the Miami market, with no regard to logistical not having a sandwich press.. So why on earth would they attempt a Cuban sandwich, which is characterized by being toasted and compressed in, yes, a sandwich press? Especially in Miami where everyone knows what a Cuban sandwich is and what it isn't. The choice should have been obvious - with no press, they should have 86'd the idea and substituted something else.

The poor choice was compounded by Howie's insistence on referring to his creation as a media noche - "midnight snack - a derivation of the Cuban sandwich. The non bread ingredients are the same, but the bread for a proper media noche is made from a sweetish yellow egg dough. I don't know what kind of bread Howie used, but it didn't bear any resemblance to brioche - a better analogy (for the bread associated with a media noche) than Howie as bulldog! However, Howie's mess of a media noche was only one of the culinary problems for his group. With the exception of Casey's quesadilla, the judges had concerns about all of their efforts. For me, just as in the case of the frozen pasta dinner challenge, verification that the discord among the chefs manifested itself in their cooking. How else to explain screwing up milkshakes or chocolate covered bananas? On the other hand, the judges were in as much accord as the team they were evaluating about Brian, Hung, Sara and Tre's offerings. Barely a negative word was uttered. And they waxed poetic over Tre's twist on the lowcountry classic shrimp and grits combination. I knew Tre had a winner there when he first described the dish - it hit all the right notes as comforting, palate-pleasing late night sustenance for the masses, but with an elevated edge to intrigue the judges.

Not to mention the bacon card, which Tre played with such swaggering savvy. There are a lot of people of the opinion that bacon makes everything better; Ted Allen obviously being among them. But it's not an ingredient that is necessarily top-of-mind for a competition like this. Tre saw an opportunity to utilize the crowd (and judge!) pleaser and he seized it. So now I'm even more convinced than I was last week that Tre is a major contender. Which brings me to a question posted by Gus Moore, who the administrator of the popular site. He asked if I cared to share who I think will be the last three competitors standing.

Gus, I hope you'll settle for two out of three - Tre and Hung. Maybe after next week I'll feel comfortable sticking my neck out on a third. Meanwhile, thank you for sharing you were blown away by your recent meal at Barton G. The Restaurant and for the ongoing discussion about your experience on the site. Finally for those of you who subscribe to the bacon is always better theory, have I got a book for you, Seduced by Bacon. Written by acclaimed food authorities Joanna Pruess and Bob Lape, it's a compendium of bacon blessed recipes for any meal, any course, even dessert!

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