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Chef Wanted Review: Puerto Rican Paradise

This week on Chef Wanted, Anne Burrell has traveled to the beautiful island of Puerto Rico, where she is helping Oceano, a high-end restaurant and lounge, find a new executive chef.

Owner Todd (who looks suspiciously like the brother-in-law on Breaking Bad) has invested millions of dollars making Oceano the hottest night spot in Puerto Rico, so you know he isn’t playing around when he says he wants the best executive chef he can find. That’s what millions of dollars will buy you.

Chef Wanted Pic

The candidates
We meet Robert Pagan, unemployed executive chef; Carolyn Rivera, unemployed executive chef; Christian Alejandro, (you guessed it) unemployed executive chef; and Austin Henry, (surprise!) executive sous chef. All of these chefs have experience working in Latin America, but have most recently worked in the U.S. Of course, they make sure to mention in their videos that Puerto Rico is exactly where they want to be – this is a job interview, after all.

Test One: Transform and elevate mofongo, a traditional plantain-based dish, into something eye-catching and modern. Chef Anne describes mofongo as “the sister with personality." meaning that it has good flavor, but is not very pretty. Given the usual challenges candidates tend to show with the time limit, this is proving to turn into an interesting test.

And, of course, Chef Anne’s predictions concerning time turn out to be correct. Chef Robert over-complicates the ingredients in his dish, Austin almost fails to get his pork cooked through in time, and Carolyn fails to even complete one of the elements for her dish. Christian appears to be the only one without major time issues.

Chef Robert turns out what he calls Pio-fongo with Seared Foie Gras, a dish that has great flavors, but proves to be too large of a portion size for the owner. We don’t want to give people too much food for their money, now!

Chef Carolyn (who, remember, did not even finish her dish) serves a Tri-fongo with Seared Shrimp, a dish that proves ordinary in both presentation and flavor. Her all-brown food is not much jazzier than the original mofongo – not exactly promising.

Chef Christian presents a Double-fried Mofongo with Lemon-Butter Poached Lobster, which would have proven excellent had he not over-cooked his lobster and ruined the texture.

After his struggles with cooking his pork, Chef Austin ends up serving a perfectly cooked Stuffed Pork Loin with Grilled Pineapple Salad, though his presentation left a lot to be desired.

Who else called that Chef Carolyn’s drab dish would send her home? I saw that one coming from a mile away.

Test Two: Create a “sexy” dish (to match the restaurant’s sexy clientele – because I always want my food to match me) that incorporates one of the least “sexy” traditional Puerto Rican ingredients, pigeon peas.

While time does not prove to be as much of a challenge in this test, manners apparently become one. While receiving (admittedly loud) feedback from Chef Anne, Chef Christian responds by patronizingly calling her “baby”.

Sir, were you not aware that this is a job interview, and she is one of your interviewers?

Chef Robert creates a Fried Red Snapper with Pigeon Pea Fritters, which turns out to be an all-around success.

Chef Christian serves Mango-Ginger Glazed Pork with Pigeon Pea Succotash, which looks visually similar to Chef Carolyn’s dish from test one, and ends up being a mediocre dish.

Chef Austin presents Jerk-Spiced Seared Shrimp with Pigeon Pea Salad, after originally planning to serve scallops that would not sear properly. While the owner felt the dish was not as “sexy” as it could be, no one could deny that his shrimp were cooked perfectly.

Again, the chef going home is obvious – and was clear to me the minute the word “baby” left his lips. Christian, here’s a lesson for you: don’t patronize someone trying to help you get a job.

Dinner Service
Chef Austin is up first for his dinner service. During his prep time, he throws a pork shoulder when he discovers it to be frozen. Quite a déjà vu moment, since he threw his failed scallops earlier. Stay out of this guy’s way when he’s annoyed.

Pre-service goes well and Chef Austin goes into dinner service extremely confident – which often proves to be a downfall. Tickets start rolling in like crazy, details start getting missed…and Chef Austin angrily states that he didn’t realize he had to worry about what his kitchen staff was doing. Clearly someone failed to read the job description of “executive chef”.

After an explosion from the owner resulting from a missing ticket for a table of regular, VIP customers, Chef Austin steps up and switches expediters; flow comes back to the evening, and things finish well.

Chef Robert steps up for his dinner service on night two. During pre-service he shows some promise, demonstrating to his staff how he wants things prepped. Once dinner service begins, however, things quickly unravel; we have gone from reluctance to manage in Austin’s kitchen to extreme micro-management in Robert’s. Frustrated because Chef Robert won’t let them do their jobs, the sous chefs actually walk out of the kitchen at one point, resulting in Chef Robert having to search the 3-story restaurant for them. After a pep-talk from Chef Anne (which, surprisingly, does not involve any yelling, probably because Chef Robert has already done plenty of that), he takes a step back, allows everyone to do their jobs, and things finish smoothly.

Ultimately, both guys seem to know their food, but, in my mind, it comes down to which chef can more effectively manage a kitchen staff. Despite his initial reluctance to lead, Chef Austin did not have any staff walk out of his kitchen. This seems like a no-brainer to me.

And, indeed, Chef Austin ends up with the job.

In the long run, this was an episode with surprisingly little yelling on the part of Chef Anne (with the exception of the “baby” incident, which would have had my blood boiling as well) and a string of fairly obvious hiring decisions. Seeing leadership in a restaurant kitchen come to the forefront was interesting, but did not make this episode anything more than generally enjoyable.

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