Editor’s Pick
NOVEMBER 4, 2011 1:24PM

'Top Chef': Cooking Large in the Lone Star State

Rate: 5 Flag


When I moved to Texas five years ago, I was pleasantly surprised by the food.  It wasn't just bigger, as I expected, given the  Everything's Bigger in Texas line, but it was better than I expected as well.   

Especially after my introduction to Texas cuisine, by way of my con artist father Harold's moll, who'd conjured up a deceptive picture of the big ol' happy family life we'd all be living together here in Yee-Ha Country, just them and the boys and me.  Oh, and by the way, we've emptied your bank account.  What a wonderful father! How lucky can a girl be?
On the drive from New Jersey, the moll, Ola, looking not unlike a mole and masquerading as an "Anathea," no doubt thinking it sounded fancy, though compared with "Ola" just about any name would, if fancy's what you want, stopped off at as many Cracker Barrels as she could find once we hit the highways south of Pennsylvania. 
Ola even had her own Cracker Barrel map, preferring its ersatz country fixin's to any number of reasonable food stops along the way.

Real Texas food, she called this, good honest food. Not that Ola would know honest from her elbow, even if she could find it in all that jiggly, dimply, cellulite-riddled fat.
Ola (fan of lard, and not canola) had devised a life story featuring a wealthy British family, complete with rolling r's, castles and governesses, when all along she was just a big ol' Texas trailer trash dumpling gal, glad to trade herself for green stamps.
As I'd never been to Texas, I was unfamiliar with some of its dialects, which hit me like a pot of hot grits when I heard her peculiar pronounciations come out of the mouths of a certain type of yokel, the type Ola would be mortified -- in front of me, certainly, and all the others she had been duping -- to share a breathing space with, much less a background.  She wasn't only one of them; she was also the worst of them.

Ola loved herself lots of those big gloppy white-gravy chicken dumplings, ordering double servings she gorged herself on between chugging down cans of what she called "ersters" in hopes of sounding classy as she squeezed her way southwest behind the wheel.

White gravy and dumplings is not on most Texas tables.  

The restaurants here in Texas, especially around Dallas, where I live, are sophisticated, despite the mass influx of chains. I could happily live without another Chipotle or Texas Roadhouse in my future, and to Taco Bueno, I say Taco No Bueno No Mas.

I  grew up in New York around good food, and then living in Upper Montclair, N.J., just 12 miles west of the best food in the world. Happily, I didn't have to gear down my expectations once I began eating around Texas.

I was excited to see "Top Chef" open its ninth season on Bravo last night with "Top Chef: Texas," and though watching dozens of ways to prepare rabbit and pig for an hour is not my favorite form of entertainment, I was soon folded up into the action.

Poor 22-year-old Tyler Stone, bless his heart, a personal chef to unnamed "celebrities and politicians" in Sacramento, Calif., was the first to go, a living example of what befalls hubris.

"A lot of people mistake my confidence for arrogance," says Tyler, whose casting tape shows him doing a lame James Bond, with "Stone, Tyler Stone, personal chef." But, hey, the kid's 22.

While Tyler was hacking up a pig carcass, one of the judges, Tom Colicchio, looking as if nothing would make him happier than to take a cleaver and chop this boy to bits, decided the meal was over for Tyler, that he was to pack up his knives, and go.

Maybe I'm too kind, or not, but throwing Tyler out just because he was a bad butcher seemed unfair.  Tyler was sure to let us all know that in real life he (is so successful that, or is so rich that) can afford to hire his own butcher. Perhaps that annoyed the judges.  But what would have been the harm in letting him cook that pig, and judge him then?  The pig was dead anyway.

But Tom and his fellow judges, Emeril Lagasse (the vegan chef contestant greeted him with that awful Howie Mandel prayer hands thing -- for which I'd be tempted to drive five hours to bury him with his root vegetables while waving my jazz hands, but he was eliminated soon enough) and Padma Lakshmi, the host, have to be tough.  Or they'd be stuck in San Antonio the rest of their lives.

In the opening scene, as the 29 "cheftestants" came striding past the Alamo (can't forget that),  Chris Crary, 29, from Los Angeles, called the Spice Girl Padma hot, in the nonspicy, nontemperature way, saying, "I have to stay in the competition just to look at her," and he did, lust beating the odds.

Watching cooks slice and dice may not be what I'd normally choose to do, but that reality TV phenomenon kicked in, teasing me with each contestant's life, prompting me to pick favorites, daring me to try to look away as they revealed their hopes, dreams and best braising method.
I'm looking forward to next Wednesday's show (10 pm ET/9 CT), when a cheftestant (and that's the last time we'll be saying cheftestant around here) stands stirring his pot with one hand as someone tends to his other hand, dripping blood on the studio's great, big (Everything's Bigger in...) floor.

If you think it's not worth bleeding to death in San Antonio on "Top Chef," you might reconsider when you think about the win: a feature article all about you, you, you in Food and Wine magazine; a showcase at the annual Food and Wine Classic in Aspen; $125,000 from Healthy Choice; and the title Top Chef. 

And if you think that title isn't worth it, just look at Hugh Acheson, a former "Top Chef" winner who went on to vast wealth and fame as a "Top Chef" judge.   Kidding about the vast wealth and fame, unless you're going by "Real Housewives of New Jersey" standards.  Which I hope you are not. 
My favorite contestant is Chef, Isaac Hayes from "South Park."  That would be Keith Rhodes, a 39-year-old big boy who owns a Southern seafood restaurant, Catch, in Wilmington, N.C.  He already made it past the first round last night, with his chicken-fried rabbit.

Keith, who is among the older contestants, has a hard-luck turned golden story sure to win the heart of even the crustiest food connoisseur, or judge.
"I made a lot of poor decisions," Keith said, telling how he ended up in prison for selling drugs.  Where -- we can gasp in awe and delight now! -- he turned his life around by learning to cook.

High on gruel!


Dollars to chili-dipped doughnuts, Keith is going to be the season's winner, the very brightest lone star of all. And perhaps he'll even come up with a sauce reduction for all that dripping blood.  

                                    PACK YOUR KNIVES, AND GO!

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Good stuff. Great little review. I hope to read more of your stuff as the behemoth cast gets whittled down to where I can remember names.

Glad to hear your transplanted nuevo-Tejano (tex mex lingo for ya) stories are more in the positive, at least as far as cuisine. Despite pockets of asshattery and small minded civic leaders, the state has a lot going for it. These kinds of things are fun. There are a lot of great restaurants and cuisine here.

Great choices in multiple locations, too. Dallas has some very high end and gourmet places (Houston does too). Austin is strong in both BBQ (although the outskirts have the best food - including the Hill Country fare) and soul food. San Antonio is the locale numero uno for Tex-mex or authentic mexican food. And in between, there are various european enclaves, such as towns founded by Czech and German immigrants and the restaurants that have stuck around.

And all over the state are fantastic BBQ or steak places. Some amazing seafood as well, especially not far from the coast.

Your Cracker Barrel recollections are hilarious. Yeah, not real Texan food, more like a corporate imitation of Southern food. The kind of thing Bourdain would probably go batshit about.
Hilariously rendered and colorfully done. You should tweet this and get all up Bravo's website skirt with this. Personally, I'm rooting for my friend Nyesha. Trust me when I say that woman can cook
I really enjoyed your blog, Andrea. I'm a big "Top Chef" fan, too...though I have no real reason why I should be...I can burn water.
I lived and worked in Houston for several years and i agree that there are, were, several good restaurants but,
.Tex-Mex is a travesty of real mexican food like that that I ate in New Mexico while living there
. while New York (close to upper Montclair) has great restaurants, especially ethnic ones, they are at best a close imitations of what you can get around France and Italy

Enjoyed your writing style, bello!
Haven't seen this show but was riveted anyhow. Great writing style. Hope to catch up on your BH housewives posts soon. I've missed all but the first one . I guess I can't watch such super rich people nowadays.
As to why Tyler was axed early:

As a cook in a high end restaurant, we (the kitchen) greatly depend on whomever is doing butchery to do their job well. Because it is a job requiring precision, patience and knowledge, it's a job that in most restaurants is left to either a dedicated butcher, or a sous-chef.

The contestants on Top Chef are meant to be of a high-caliber. Many are chefs-de-cuisine (or, a much mis-used term, executive chef) in their restaurants. Those who aren't, are sous-chefs. These are people who will likely have worked their way through a dozen different types of animal a thousand times or more. They know the animal inside and out.

Tenderloin is one of the simpler pieces to remove from that primal cut he was using, and he did not remove it before trying to (sadly) hack himself out some pork chops. The other cheftestant had requested the tenderloin, so one would assume it would be given to her whole. It was quite obvious to any experienced cook watching that he was doing a horrible job and probably didn't even know where the Tenderloin was to be found. He not only showed his lack of skill, but he ignorantly ruined another chef's dish.

On his Facebook page, he apparently complains the knives and saw he was given weren't sharp, but I truly believe he didn't know what he was doing. And as they say, a bad workman always blames his tools. Bones are not fused together. A blade (when used properly) will be used through weak points (joints and cartilaginous areas). He showed he didn't know where to go or what he was doing. Removing a tenderloin from the chine and ribs is something learned by most culinary students in their first semester. While it's not the most valuable piece of meat on pork, it's one of the most valuable pieces on beef, and the method of removal is exactly the same.

His lack of experience and incredible compensation-through-arrogance were too much. No chef-de-cuisine would take that from a cook in his kitchen. His own website seems more about surrounding himself with an air of "authenticity" than it actually is about cooking. He has two pictures of his food, and several dozen of him posing with famous chefs. What does that tell you?

Anyhow, my point was, Tom was more than fair in getting rid of him early. He's obviously someone who used a facade to get himself on-air, rather than someone who actually had a chance of making it. It would have been much worse seeing him flounder a few episodes deep before cutting him loose. More amusing for the viewer, but damaging to both Tyler's and Top Chef's reputation; which is still high amongst cooks. Other shows including Hell's Kitchen have lost the respect of many in the industry for keeping the "controversially bad" around when it's clear they shouldn't be.

At the very least, Tyler never got the chance to cook, and can thus continue to try and save face by blaming his tools, rather than his food.