Last night on Top Chef: New Orleans, the beleaguered cheftestants, many of them self-proclaimed fans of Vietnamese food, were put in the awkward position of actually meeting real Vietnamese people for the first time ever. Worse, they had to cook authentic Vietnamese dishes that would pass muster not only for the judges, but also for an entire restaurant full of Real Vietnamese People. (You think you could dump Sriracha on it and leave? Ha! We see through your white person tricks.)
As a person whose parents constantly remind her that they escaped Communism so I could have a better life (and suggesting that I should be in law school instead of this food business), I feel as if I am well qualified to judge this episode of Top Chef, from my couch, in my pajamas. (If you have any doubts about my credentials, observe my last name, which designates me as part of
that Borglike cult taking over the world an authentic Vietnamese person.) Follow me as I critique each dish with my handy-dandy Viet-O-Meter!
1: Travis’s Grilled Pork Sausage Lettuce Wraps with a Pineapple Shrimp Paste Sauce
Let’s start out with the controversial lemongrass-less pork sausage thing that got both Travis and one Mr. Eddie Huang in trouble. After last night’s episode, it’s evident that Eddie seems to be the victim of a bum editing job that exaggerated his scolding of Travis for forgetting the lemongrass in a shopping cart. But Travis. Sweet Travis. Dearest, darling Travis, dating a Real Life Vietnamese Gaysian. I, too, have some words for you:
If you accuse Eddie Huang of Not Knowing Enough About Vietnamese Food, and thereby imply that you then know A Lot About Vietnamese Food, you’d have known how to save that pork sausage.
You probably would have made nem nuong. It’s a pork sausage made by throwing ground pork, handfuls of garlic, sugar, fish sauce, and baking powder into a food processor and blitzing the hell out of it. once grilled, it has a strong flavor and smooth texture, almost like a wholesome hot dog. And Emeril Lagasse, who’s made nem nuong before, would have known what you were trying to accomplish.
Alas, your sausage looks like fish-flavored particle board.
And also what is that pineapple shrimp paste sauce, and why are you even pairing a pork sausage with that? I thought you, as an expert, would have known to go for nuoc cham, the lime juice/fish sauce/sugar/chili paste dipping sauce that always goes with pork sausage, lemongrass or no. Am I missing something here? Have I gone to too many prep schools and dated too many Jewish guys to Get It? Pray tell, what is wrong with me?
(Don’t even get me started on the snack crackers.)
Viet-o-Meter: 2 out of 10, for Frankensteining all of the flavors of Vietnam into this monstrosity.
2: Carrie’s Lemon Custard with Carmelized Bahn Mi
Weird weird weird weird weird. Okay, yes, technically we use lemons AND sweetened milk AND banh mi, but there is never a Venn diagram recipe where all of these things overlap at once. I’m sure it tasted good, but it looks like something a bored American diplomat’s wife decided to whip up in lieu of having an affair with a war photographer.
Viet-O-Meter: 4 out of 10
3: Carlos’s Fish Head Soup with Pineapple, Tomato, and Tamarind
Oddly enough, I suggested this dish yesterday when I’d heard about the challenge. Canh chua, as it’s technically called, seems like a dish perfectly tailor-made for the challenge: seafoods! Bright flavors! Weird Asian ingredients (tamarind)!
But maybe Bravo.com whitewashed the ingredients, or maybe Carlos didn’t get the memo that canh chua really, really needs a specific plant known as “rice paddy herb” to achieve maximum sourness. But I get it, it’s hard to find in a Vietnamese supermarket. You tried, and that’s all that matters.
Viet-o-Meter: 7 out of 10, for effort.
4: Sara and Stephanie’s Oxtail Rice Wrap with a Pork and Shrimp Rice Wrap
1) Nope. Dim sum is Chinese. Now, that doesn’t prevent Vietnamese people from loving the hell out of dim sum, but we can’t take credit for it. Otherwise, the Chinese are gonna invade us and snatch it back.
2) Oxtail doesn’t go in any of those rice wrapping things. Put that back in the pho where it belongs.
3) Rice paper is not the tortilla of Vietnamese food. You can’t just wrap whatever you want in it and expect it to be fine. IT’S NOT OKAY. (I’m breaking out in hives just thinking about it.)
Viet-o-Meter: 7, for visualizing a beautiful dish but then putting all the wrong things in it.
5: Bene and Janine’s Fresh Gulf Shrimp with Ginger Vietnamese Tomato Sauce
No. Tomato sauce is not A Thing. End of discussion.
6: Brian’s Gulf Shrimp and Pork Belly Spring Roll
Needs more rice vermicelli noodles in the pork/shrimp mixture, but otherwise you seem to be Doing It Right. Vietnamese food: where deep-frying a roll filled with noodles is A-OK!
7: Louis’s Beef Broth Pho with Raw Eye Round and Oxtail
Duuuuuuuude, that was a terrible idea. You know how many actual, real-life Vietnamese people can’t make pho? I have one aunt that can make a passable pho, and that’s one out of nine aunts. We secretly use pre-made spice packets at home (shhhh, ethnic secret!) and it still doesn’t come out right. Ever wonder why we’re always crowding pho restaurants?
Viet-o-Meter: 9, for proving that pho is Serious Business best left to the professionals — a fact that every Vietnamese person knows.
8: Justin’s Beef Soup w/ Rice Noodle and Lettuce
[PHOTO NOT AVAILABLE, THANKS BRAVO]
Probably better due to the fact that he threw a pork trotter in this one.
Viet-o-Meter: 9, for reminding the world that Vietnamese food is not kosher.
9: Nicholas’s Black Pepper Squid with Cabbage and Peanuts
This is the first dish that instantly brought me back to the New Year celebrations of my childhood: cabbage salads, ill-fitting Outfits of Cultural Heritage, everyone praying to dead ancestors, and monks gleefully telling tales of what happens to bad children in Buddhist hell.
Viet-o-Meter: 2, for doing the opposite of a Proustian memory.
10: Stephanie’s Coconut Macaroon with Vietnamese Coffee Flavors
I’m sure that the young, Millennial hipsters of Vietnamese descent living in Brooklyn would love these macaroons! Unfortunately, I’m the only young, Millennial hipster of Vietnamese descent that lives in Brooklyn. So, uh, yeah.
Viet-o-Meter: Hipster. (I’ll take a box of those, though.)
11: Nina and Carrie’s Raw Beef Salad with Pickled Vegetables
As Tom Colicchio noted, it should have been thinly sliced beef for authenticity (tartar is a terrible idea in subtropical climates), but it’s close enough. Look at those pickled vegetables! Look at that gratuitous cilantro! It would be better if it were deep-fried in butter and then put in a spring roll. No, it’s not a Paula Deen thing, it’s an actual cooking technique.
Viet-o-Meter: 8 for the flavor profile, 0 for lack of butter.
12: Shirley’s Vietnamese Barbecue Shrimp with Creole Spice Butter
Back in a previous life, I read the work of a political theorist who claimed that the reason that Vietnam had been able to survive thousands of years of invasions and colonization was due to their innate ability to adapt the characteristics of their invaders and integrate it into their own culture. Vietnamese food is a clear example of that principle. (Please, we didn’t have bread before the French came around.)
In homage to the fact that both the French and the Chinese have invaded Vietnam in the past, Shirley infused French and Chinese flavors into a Vietnamese shrimp dish, which automatically makes this the most Vietnamese dish of the night.
Viet-o-Meter: 10, for historical accuracy.
Tina Nguyen is a writer with mad issues surrounding her cultural identity. You can tweet your displeasure about her equivocation to her at @tina_nguyen.
All photos are from bravotv.com.
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