The Inevitable BBQ Challenge

The Inevitable BBQ Challenge

Tom Colicchio explains that the errors made had little to do with the chefs' inexperience with BBQ.


You knew we’d be doing a BBQ challenge.  \We're in Texas. So, yeah, you were right – it was only a matter of time.

Don’t be surprised that six of the nine contestants wound up on the bottom of this one. This was a very, very difficult challenge. How difficult?  Let me recount the ways (sorry, Elizabeth Barrett Browning): The mere fact that the chefs were asked to do three different meats and two different sides essentially overnight was in and of itself a lot to contend with. Factor in that the chefs were working outdoors on unstable tables of the wrong height at which to comfortably work. Factor in, too, that the chefs were cooking over an open pit and had to keep the fire going the whole night, watching that the temperature and the smoke stayed at just the right levels.  My restaurants send a team to Memphis for the world championship of BBQ, and I can tell you that open pits have hot spots to be accounted for, particularly when one is cooking with BBQ sauces with sugar in them, which can easily burn. The chefs couldn’t just pop the food into an oven, set the temperature and a timer and come back after catching a nap. Now also factor in that it was at least 95 degrees AT NIGHT and that there was a heat index of 115 degrees during the day, making it at least 135 or 140 degrees near the open pits and making this a challenge of endurance in addition to one of skill. This was a tough, tough challenge.Not one of our chefs traditionally cooks this way, so it’s not surprising that they all had a hard time, between the environment, the challenges, and being tired. The stress got to a lot of them. I am surprised that they didn’t make greater use of the smoker, perhaps because one rack fell early on and it may have spooked them. But you can get a great deal of smoke over the pit, too, so that doesn’t explain why so many of the proteins didn’t have more smoke to them.

All of that said, though, many of the errors that were made were really simply errors of cooking not attributable to inexperience with BBQ. Ed’s decision to start slicing the meat early was a gaffe that yielded steamed-up cafeteria food. By my way of thinking, a long line of people waiting for good food is better than a short line of people waiting for bad food. It wouldn’t have killed the people to wait for their food; they may even have appreciated it more. The biggest error of the challenge, however, was not Ed’s steamed food or Sarah’s less-than-crispy chicken skin or Beverly’s playing it safe and tame. The excessive saltiness of the brisket and ribs was by far the biggest problem, and Chris C. was responsible for that. On a brighter note, though, the Blue Teams’ food was excellent. That chicken Paul made was phenomenal, and the other meats and sides were fantastic, too, and it wasn’t just us judges who thought so. It was pretty much unanimous among the crowd of dyed-in-the-wool Texans that attended that day that the Blue Team’s food was best. It just goes to show you that having a point of view and carrying it through is important. Many places and cultures have their own variations of BBQ. Texas is all about brisket. In Kentucky, the BBQ is more vinegar-based. BBQ can be found in South America, in South Africa, in India, Japan, Korea, Russia… you name it. BBQ requires a dry rub -- usually salt, some sugar and seasonings. Paul and his team decided to use flavors that he really knows -- curry, coriander, mustard -- figuring that the flavors were probably going to taste good… and it really worked. Furthermore, you’ll note that the team worked exceptionally well together. There was very little tension among them. They were OK with one person taking the lead, and no one was snotty about it. Lindsay even said, essentially, “Paul’s been doing really well, and I’m comfortable working with his vision for this.” And, in fact, the team did support Paul’s vision and did so in great spirits, whereas there was a lot of backstabbing and second-guessing going on among the members of the other teams. They were tired and stressed out, which is inevitably when things start to break down.

You may be asking why we had the first chief technology officer at Microsoft as a judge on Top Chef. Simply put, he’s an expert at BBQ and a great choice for this challenge. I’ve known Nathan Myhrvold for years… since he was at Microsoft, in fact. He has a very, very bright and inquisitive mind and is a real Renaissance man, excelling in all he does. He started college at age 14 (not a typo), has worked on quantum theories of gravity as a postdoctoral fellow at Cambridge under Stephen Hawking, and his areas of expertise range from paleontology to technology to barbeque to applying scientific principles to cooking, to geoengineering. Geoengineering? He’s figuring out how to reverse global warming. Really. Oh, and he’s also figuring out how the creation of clouds at will can ameliorate drought and hunger. Meanwhile, his barbeque took the top prize att he world championship of barbeque in Memphis. He brought his trademark enthusiasm and intelligence to our challenge this week, and it was an honor and a pleasure to have him with us.



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