Welcome to The Reheat, a space for Eater writers to explore landmark (and lukewarm) culinary moments of the recent and not-so-recent past.
Episode 14 of Top Chef: New Orleans is all about food trucks. It’s 2014, after all, and truckin’ is booming. For the contestants’ main challenge, they are to take inspiration from the Jon Favreau film Chef, and create a dish inspired by a turning point in their lives (sure). It’s an average episode from well into Top Chef’s reign, but for the past five years it’s stuck in my mind for one particularly weird and rude moment: the moment Roy Choi tries to school chef Carlos Gaytan over al pastor.
Gaytan, at the time, was the chef behind Chicago’s now closed but Michelin-starred Mexique (making Gaytan the first Mexico-born chef to have a Michelin-starred restaurant). But during this episode, he is perhaps off his game. Everyone is emotional going into the quickfire challenge. There had been an unfair elimination in the previous episode, it’s the middle of the season, and the chefs are stressed out, looking particularly miserable. They are met by Roy Choi, who is introduced as the man responsible for the current food truck boom. He asks the chefs to do with a New Orleans po’ boy what he did to tacos — make them your own.
Everyone quickly decides to make po’ boys based on the flavors they grew up with, which for Gaytan, whose mother ran a taqueria in Mexico, means al pastor. He attempts an al pastor that would make his mother proud, and says “I just hope 20 minutes was enough time to create what I want to create.” This is every chef’s downfall in a quickfire challenge, and Choi has every right to critique Gaytan for his short-sightedness. A typical al pastor can marinate for a few hours up to three days.
However, it is the manner in which Choi talks about Gaytan’s al pastor that’s cemented the moment in my memory, possibly forever. As he comes around to taste every chef’s creation, he says to Gaytan “I’m very particular about al pastor, because I’m from LA.” Gaytan is, understandably, taken aback that Choi would position himself as such an arbiter of al pastor. “I don’t know what exactly he means,” he says in a confessional. “He’s telling me he’s from LA. Great. I’m from Mexico.” It’s withering, the “I’m from Mexico” delivered with the same tone my Southern grandma would say “bless her heart” about someone she hated.
But it didn’t end there. Later, Choi reams the whole team out for their lackluster po’ boy attempts. Choi tells Korean-American chef Brian Huskey that his gochujang needed more flavor, but the tone felt like one of sympathy, as if to say you and I both know what this should taste like, do better. But no such understanding was afforded to Gaytan’s al pastor. “Al Pastor, that’s one of those sacred things,” said Choi, dripping in self-righteousness. “There was a lot of flavor lacking in that al pastor.” Gaytan, understandably, spends the rest of the episode fuming. “I grew up eating tacos al pastor since I was little. You don’t know what you’re talking about, tacos al pastor,” he says of Choi. Later that night, he sets up a dart board with a hastily drawn caricature of Choi in the middle.
Look, I am neither Mexican nor from LA. While I love al pastor, I have no expert opinions on how to make or serve it (though I assume that 20 minutes is not enough). I also have no doubt that Choi knows what good al pastor tastes like, in the way that anyone who grows up around a prevalent cuisine, whether or not it’s a food originally of their culture, comes to hold it as their own. As a New Yorker, I feel like I have a decent handle on whitefish salad and bagels, though I have merely married into a Jewish family. I live in a Greek neighborhood and now have pretty strong opinions about loukaniko! These foods have crossed the bridge from being things I just enjoy to being somehow personally meaningful to me. But though I certainly don’t doubt my own tastes, I’d gladly defer to, say, someone who grew up making sausage every day in a Greek restaurant. Perhaps this would make me a bad Top Chef judge.
Choi could have easily said that being from LA means he grew up eating al pastor, too. That he loves it as Gaytan does, and that they both know it was a mistake to try to take shortcuts with it. Instead, he goes for cultural superiority, which is the problem with so many conversations about food and who gets to make what. Maybe Gaytan’s al pastor was the worst Choi had ever had, or maybe it was authentic to Gaytan but different from what Choi is used to. If anything, this interaction just dates the show. In the five years since it aired, the way we talk about food as a whole has shifted, slowly, to being ever more conscious about authenticity, tradition, and who gets to claim authority.
Anyway, Gaytan is doing just fine now.