Shoe-Leather Pork and Lettuce Wraps

I know it’s only two episodes in, but this season of Top Chef hasn’t completely hooked me yet. I’ve always wanted it to be more about the food than the drama, and so far this season definitely has a higher food-to-feud ratio than either of the first two (though it looks like that’s about to change with the Howie-Joey tiff that broke out last week). The problem for me, so far, is that with a few exceptions, the food just hasn’t been all that exciting.

The “high-end barbecue” elimination challenge in Episode 2 was especially lacking in imaginative food ideas. Texan Tre Wilcox talked a big game about having barbecue in his blood, because did he mention he’s from Texas and therefore knows barbecue? But he let the Lone Star State down with his salmon dish, says the Dallas Observer. Meanwhile, early favorite Hung basically grilled a flank steak. I definitely wanted to sink my teeth into the winning dish—Brian’s seafood sausage—but otherwise everything (or everything we heard about, anyway) was bo-ring: shoe-leather pork, chicken drumsticks, lettuce wraps.

The seeming conceptual lameness here may stem from the way the challenge was designed in the first place. As several hounds have pointed out, this challenge wasn’t really about barbecue, high-end or not—at least, not barbecue in the sense of slow-and-low cooking over a pit or in a smoker. Sure, we all know it’s a matter of semantics, and many people use barbecuing to mean grilling on the Weber. But there may have been another reason that the cheftestants were limited to grilling instead of having the option to use, say, kamado smokers to slow-roast their meat overnight: product placement, which is increasingly rampant on the show.

As Withnail42 puts it, “I think what this issue of culinary semantics comes down too [sic] is what the folks at Kingsford wanted ‘their’ challenge to be called.” Perhaps the company’s marketing arm was set on having the product evoke “barbecue” (never mind that true ’cuehounds eschew fossil-fuel-laden briquettes like Kingsford’s for the off tastes they create), or maybe it didn’t like the name “high-end grilling.”

I wouldn’t blame those execs, either; grilled food seems so five-minutes-ago these days, so ubiquitous in casual eateries and on Weight Watchers meal plans that it’s difficult to do in a “gourmet” way. Truly “high-end” restaurants (like judge Tom Colicchio’s, in fact) tend to prefer smoking, braising, roasting, and poaching—techniques that create juicy, falling-off-the-bone meats and tender, succulent veggies. Yet when lovably faux-hawked cheftestant Sandee brought some of these sophisticated techniques into her lobster dish (in addition to actually grilling certain components of it), she got the boot.

As Jane Goldman notes in CHOW’s exit interview with Sandee, “the criteria are getting a little fuzzy—are you following instructions to the letter, or does it taste good?” Taste-wise, the lobster won a lot of fans, and Sandee did seem to be interpreting the concept of barbecue in a perfectly legitimate way, even if there weren’t as many grill marks on her dish as the judges seemed to want. Hopefully they’ll stop taking points off for creativity in the future—otherwise the interpersonal drama will go back to being the most exciting thing about the show.

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