James Oseland was caught by surprise by Jonathan Waxman's reaction to his comments at Critics' Table.

I’ve been called a lot of things in my day, including “wrong” on more than a few occasions. But, yikes, the sudden tsunami of anger that chef Jonathan Waxman spewed my way when he uttered that word after I told him that the steak in his tacos had been sliced too thick really threw me for a loop. Where was Jonathan’s inner Obi-Wan that night?

For the record, I don’t enjoy dishing out negative feedback. But critiquing the food on Top Chef Masters is precisely why Gael and Jay and I are there; it’s a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it. And even if Jonathan believes with all his heart that his steak was utter perfection, doesn’t he understand that when it comes to food, taste is ultimately subjective?

As it turned out, I wasn’t alone in my displeasure with Jonathan’s dish. Sure, the meat tasted fine (like a more sumptuous version of Mom’s London broil); the problem was that it arrived in ungainly slabs surrounded by a stale, cold, lifeless tortilla, which fissured like scorched earth the moment you folded it over. There was nothing tacolike about it. Had he put that steak on a crisp slice of grilled bruschetta or even right on a plate, with a drizzle of that gorgeous bordelaise sauce, it would have probably worked just fine. With a taco, you want a mouthful of, well, taco—not a chewy slab of rare beef. I’ve eaten countless tacos in my life, from homey Tex-Mex varieties to the real back-alley deal in Oaxaca. The food’s brilliance is in its down-to-earth deliciousness and its balance, qualities that were lost in Jonathan’s misfired version.

Jonathan is a great cook—one of the country’s best. But the fact is that he and most of the other chefs in this episode seemed stymied by the challenge. Even though they’d been handed a gift from the gods in the form of a Weber grill—a tool that’s engineered for producing exactly the kind of food people want to eat outdoors on a sunny afternoon—I feel that, for the most part, they didn’t comfortably embrace the concept of tailgate food.

I’m certainly no tailgating expert myself, but I have a pretty good idea of what I might crave if I found myself hanging out in a parking lot before the big game. I think we all know what I’m talking about here: hearty, satisfying noshes like burgers, shish kebabs, chili dogs, all washed down with a nice cold Budweiser. Nothing “wrong” with that—no pun intended. The difficulty with this challenge was that the chefs weren’t just tailgating; they were also cooking for a competition, so they weren’t about to serve plain old barbecued chicken or hot dogs. I get that. The chefs that nailed it—namely, Susan and Marcus—did so by staying true to the fun, breezy, and downright delicious spirit of tailgate food. Susan’s taco, with its steak and salsa wrapped up in a warm, airy corn tortilla, was that perfect mix of spicy and tangy, cool and warm. It was killer outdoor food, just like Marcus’s juicy, slaw-topped burger.

Everyone else (seemingly) made the mistake of overthinking the challenge and serving food that didn’t fit the occasion. Rick’s charmoula chicken pita was tasty, but it was deconstructed and hard to eat. And Susur’s dish, with its marinated beef and weird and out-of-place semolina dumplings, seemed like something you might find at a Korean-Austrian fusion restaurant, not a sporting event. The judges were unanimously excited about the promise of Tony’s pizza, but he clearly hadn’t mastered the art of grilling pies. His pizza was as crisp as a saltine cracker and lacked all the cheesy, doughy goodness of a fine slice. Like Jonathan’s taco, it was a downer.

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