This post has spoilers about the Top Chef finale. Read at your own risk.
Standing in a dense crowd holding my arms close to my side as I carefully pulled a glass of “Hawaiian Punch” (hibiscus soju, passionfruit and guava) to my mouth waiting for dinner in the always-a-bit-too-small room just off the kitchen at the James Beard House. As the crowd finished their drinks they carefully tried to mill about, patiently plucking pork-shrimp lumpia (Filipino egg rolls) and cured pork belly from trays as they waited to walk up to the dining room, which, incidentally was the one-time bedroom of American culinary legend James Beard.
Dinner was being prepared this evening by an impressive lineup that included April Bloomfield, Tony Maws, JJ Johnson and Carla Hall amongst others. But based on the chatter in the room and the overwhelming knowledge of Padma Lakshmi one-liners, the majority of people seemed to have come to see and eat from Sheldon Simeon—a two-time Top Chef finalist and one of the show’s all-time fan favorites.
Sheldon was in New York ahead of the Top Chef finale (where he was sadly eliminated on Thursday night) to claim his prize from an earlier episode—cooking a meal at the revered Beard House, which hosts dinners from stellar chefs most nights of the year. As part of the night’s menu he prepared the dish that won him the challenge on the show, chow fun made from pulverized Carolina gold rice along with pork belly, a pea shoot salad, annatto jus and okra. Fans of the show likely know what a brave addition okra was as Top Chef head judge Tom Colicchio has been proclaiming his hatred of the Southern staple for years. But okra be damned, Sheldon won over Colicchio and the rest of the judges to earn his spot in the Beard House kitchen.
I, along with a packed house, got the rare opportunity to eat a winning Top Chef dish. And it was easy to see why Sheldon took the victory. Not to get all Top Chef judge-y but the thick rice noodles pushed back just a bit with chewy texture that matched well with the slightly charred pork. And I don’t care what anyone says, I could eat half my bodyweight in okra. And as Top Chef judge Gail Simmons pointed out to my table, Sheldon had clearly taken the months since taping to work on his plating a bit as well.
Sheldon’s other dish—a riff on a traditional Hawaiian plate lunch with mochiko chicken, poke, ulu mac and ho’I’o salads topped with a “dime bag” of powdered broccoli (which was a pretty convincing pot doppelganger)—also killed it. So did Chef Johnson’s salmon crudo with grilled pineapple, Chef Maws’ Beet and turnip in pork blood and dashi sauce and Chef Hall’s coconut mousse.
But setting aside the actual dishes for a moment, it was just nice to see a chef most of us have only watched through a television screen working under the pressure of a ticking clock, in his element. As Maws said at the end of dinner “It’s fantastic to actually see someone in the kitchen cooking with a smile.”
And while Sheldon’s Maui restaurant Tin Roof isn’t exactly around the corner for most people, mainlanders will get a chance to sample his work, albeit briefly, this weekend as he said he’d be joining his Top Chef compatriot Silvia Barban at her restaurant in Brooklyn for a pop-up Saturday February 25. If you swing by you’ll almost certainly catch him having a good time.
The crew from the evening's dinner service