13 May Constructing A Critique
By Joshua Siegel
The cooking competition this past Saturday night was the best yet in terms of caliber of cooks and judges. The food was excellent, the crowd boisterous and supportive and the critique from the judges went beyond my expectations.
It’s the critique that I want to focus on because I think it’s a fascinating experience to taste a dish and then listen to a variety of expert opinions regarding that same dish. Because the competitors are well seasoned cooks, there wasn’t a lot of discussion about technique — that was sound for the most part. Most of the critique focused on composition, flavor pairings and the decisions the cooks made about what to put on their plates and why.
One of the main challenges for the cooks is putting together dishes that will stand out, that will impress, that will delight. This brings up what I like to call the chicken piccata predicament. Simply put, I have resigned myself to the very annoying reality that despite 20ish years of creating dishes and curating menus, I will never create a dish better than chicken piccata. Which (call me Sisyphus) doesn’t stop me from trying.
But, you absolutely cannot serve chicken piccata at a cooking competition and expect to win. People will likely make fun of you for doing that. You must be creative, take risks, shoot for the moon. What this means to younger cooks is adding components, multiple sauces, extra garnishes, exotic items, modernist applications.
However, the judges this time around were all grizzled vets, loaded with experience, battle tested, exceptionally familiar with the chicken piccata predicament. They consistently espoused the opinion that less is more, the point of a dish is to highlight the main component and support it by developing and layering flavors that bring out its essence.
The main critique that was mentioned multiple times was that the cook didn’t prepare and eat the entire plate as a way of testing the dish. This is a critical component of menu development that does separate the strong from the weak. Many, if not most, chefs will taste the components of a plate and imagine the entire plate in their head, rather than sit down and eat an entire portion. The problem here is that they do not put themselves in the position of the diner who is experiencing the dish in its entirety.
That’s why sometimes you’ll get a dish that’s a real head scratcher and you wonder how it ever made it onto the menu. Maybe all the components are salty and by themselves delicious, but cumulatively high blood pressure inducing when consumed together. There are lots of ways that components which are great on their own get compromised when combined with other components. This is why small plates are so popular with chefs, I think. Typically they feature just one component, some stand alone item, so they are less challenging than an entree which must combine multiple components harmoniously (chicken piccata, broccoli, potatoes).
It is truly a joy to see the cooks put their best effort into creating dishes that exemplify their style of food and where they are headed creatively. It’s also rewarding to witness the customers praising the cooks in person and really getting caught up in the moment. And finally, the critique, the intellectual component that elevates the experience from simply gustatory into one that truly makes everyone stop and consider what makes a dish great.