Last night at the Omni `Shoreham, Tom Colicchio may have faced the toughest critic of his well-decorated career: a shy, cherubic boy from Toledo, Ohio, named Austin Jackson, who is likely the first person ever to spit out the celebrity chef’s food in front of a packed auditorium.
Colicchio was not alone in getting flayed by a 6-year-old kindergartner. All four celebrated chefs who took part in the Great American Family Dinner Challenge — a stunt in which two teams attempted to prepare a multi-course dinner based on a SNAP or food stamp budget of $10 per family — felt the sting of Austin’s criticism. The boy didn’t even require words to express his displeasure.
Austin coughed up at least two dishes, apparently the opening courses (a shredded carrot, apple and raisin salad, and a beef stir-fry) prepared by the team of Colicchio and chef Maria Hines of Tilth in Seattle. Minutes earlier, the boy tried to choke down two plates (frisee and avocado salad, and chicken thighs with a vegetable quinoa) prepared by the opposing team of chefs Ming Tsai of Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Mass., and Holly Smith of Cafe Juanita of Kirkland, Wash. The young critic spared no one’s feelings: He circled numerous unhappy faces on his judge’s scorecard.
“This is what parents got to deal with,” noted Sam Kass, the assistant White House chef and senior policy adviser for healthy food initiatives, who served as host and emcee of the challenge.
Austin’s fussy palate upstaged what was supposed to be the focus of the cook-off, namely that a healthy and delicious meal could be prepared for a family with only $10 in your pocket. (You can review the teams’ menus here and here and decide for yourself whether they fudged the numbers, which were based on cooking for two families.) The cooking challenge itself was part of the larger two-day Building a Healthier Future Summit, organized by Partnership for a Healthy America , a non-profit designed to find solutions to childhood obesity through public-private partnerships and the like.
The judges for the challenge were two families: Austin and his mom, Kim Mrkva from Toledo as well as Antonio Ferro and Laura Castillo and their 6-year-old daughter, Jeshua Ferro from Silver Spring. The families earned their spots after winning contests from Parents and Ser Padres magazines.
For better or for worse, chefs, audience members and Kass focused mostly on one judge, young Austin, whose obvious distaste for chef-driven cuisine quickly developed into a running joke among the participants. After Austin tasted one of Tsai and Smith’s dishes, Kass explained the numerical rating system that was also part of the scorecard.
“So what do you think between a 10 and a 1?” Kass asked the boy.
“1,” he replied, as pointed as a shiv.
“I think he must be confused,” Tsai retorted. “He’s using No. 1 [to mean] gold medal.”
“Except,” Kass noted, “we just said, ‘10 being great and 1 being horrible.’”
The audience roared.
Tsai and Smith got their revenge when Austin tasted Colicchio and Hines’s salad and promptly coughed his bite into what looked like his score sheet. Said Tsai: “Mr. Colicchio, you may pack your knives...”
At this point, Kass took a moment to salute the person who has to deal with this troublesome tongue on a daily basis: “Let’s give it up for Kim, this boy’s mother,” Kass said to loud applause. “She clearly has her hands full.”
The only apparent dish — and I say that because it wasn’t always clear what the boy was eating at any one moment — that Austin liked was Colicchio and Hines’s panna cotta with orange segments. The audience quickly learned why the dessert appealed to the kindergartner: It included orange Jell-O, which Colicchio was quick to defend.
“I got two young kids at home,” the “Top Chef” judge said. “I don’t know about you out there, but when you got a half hour to cook, you got to do what you can. Those kids are hungry when they want to eat. Maybe somebody has two hours to cook out there. I’ll stand behind the instant Jell-O and buttermilk panna cotta anyday, thank you very much.”
In the end, the team of Colicchio and Hines won over Tsai and Smith by a score of 94 to 85., despite Austin’s spit-backs. Tsai took the loss hard.
“Hey, I’ll celebrate with a juice box,” he said right before the winner was announced, expecting the bad news. “Maybe I should give that to [Austin] as dessert — a juice box.”