Whispers, quiet gasps and emphatic nods of agreement rippled down the family-style table inside Echo Park's the Park restaurant one recent Saturday, as a panel of judges took turns critiquing the dishes of three young cooks. The ceviche starter was too warm, one judge said. Another critiqued the method in which Parmesan had been grated on what he determined to be undercooked pasta.
“You’re doing a disservice to that grain,” one judge said, regarding a chef’s distribution of farro.
In this recurring event that bears similarities to Food Network's wildly popular Chopped, this live-action cooking competition is intended to showcase the talents of L.A.’s unsung kitchen heroes: the line cooks. While head chefs typically reap the credit or the criticism for their restaurant’s food, it is the line cooks putting in the day-to-day dirty work behind the scenes. The Top of the Line Cooking Competition at the Park gives three line cooks the chance to create both a starter and an entree of their own devising, which are then judged by chefs and food writers from the L.A. area.
“This is an opportunity for people who are working for other chefs, who are talented, to put themselves forward. And see what happens,” said Josh Siegel, owner of the Park and creator of the competition.
Now in its second season, Top of the Line unfolds once a month when Siegel — with the help of the Park's part-owner Ruth Kim — shuts down the restaurant to regular traffic. Diners purchase a $62 ticket that secures them entry to the event, essentially a six-course tasting menu of the dishes made by the competitors, with dessert compliments of the Park. And a little bit of dinner theater.
Siegel says he started the event last year as a way to market his side business, the Line Restaurant Talent Agency, with his business partner at the time, Jack van der Hidde. This particular talent group focused on placing back-of-house staff with restaurants in need. While there are plenty of headhunters and recruiters doing management-level recruiting, few are focused on hourly employees such as cooks, Siegel said.
The talent agency is now defunct, but the competition lives on in the midst of its second "season."
“This is basically the best thing that came out of that venture,” he said. “It is its own entity.”
Behind-the-scenes action starts in the afternoon of the big event, when competitors are given four hours to cook the two dishes they’ve designed. This portion is completed before guests arrive at the restaurant around 7 p.m. While the time constraints aren’t so much of a crunch, some of the chefs said that sharing a relatively small kitchen with two other cooks trying to prepare food for a few dozen can be trying.
“It’s a very difficult competition,” Siegel said. “There’s not that much time. To execute two dishes, for 50-ish people ... it’s maybe too challenging for a lot of cooks.”
Erika Jones, a former chef at the Park and now managing partner of Highland Park sandwich shop Monte 52, swung for the fences at the most recent competition with her “fat spaghetti” and tri-tip entree, as well as a crostini starter made from bread she baked herself.
“I’ve never done a timed competition,” she said. “I definitely did way too much.”
As an Italian with a culinary career that started at the Cheese Store of Silverlake, Jones decided to go with what she knows. The result was burrata and tomato relish, and a cheesy pasta with herbed garlic sauce.
Taking a slightly more buttoned-up approach to cooking was one of Jones’ competitors and the winner of the evening, Francisco J. Perez Ponce, who walked with the $250 cash prize. If he makes it through the semi-finals, he’ll have a chance at a $1,000 reward.
Currently a cook at Neuehouse in Hollywood, Ponce said he typically features fresh, vegetable-heavy dishes. His starter for the night of the competition was a Mediterranean kale salad — with a perfect chiffonade, as one of the judges pointed out — which included crispy pita, sunflower seeds and a yogurt dressing. It appeared to be a crowd favorite, based on the affirmative nodding taking place around the table. Then came his agave-marinated chicken breast atop cauliflower puree and farro; judges pointed out some flaws.
It’s nothing that Ponce couldn’t handle, though. He’s been in the industry for more than nine years.
“It started back in my mom’s kitchen, of course,” Ponce said.
He studied culinary arts at L.A. Trade Tech and, upon receiving his associate’s degree, worked his way up from dishwasher to line cook. Ponce was a last-minute fill-in for the competition after another cook dropped out, so he had less than a day to create his menu, he said. Once in the kitchen with the two other chefs, he focused on “trying to adapt to the environment.”
The third chef, Carl Yum, works at West Hollywood’s the Butcher, the Baker, the Cappuccino Maker, and rounded out the evening with a “Filipino version of ceviche” and a rice pilaf in broth with tiger prawns.
Although judges tend to rotate depending on scheduling and interest, the most recent event's included Patric Kuh, food critic at Los Angeles Magazine; Joel Miller, chef at the Wallace in Culver City; and Eduardo Ruiz of Corazon y Miel and now the chef and owner of downtown’s Chicas Tacos.
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This mix of food writers and professional chefs provides the audience with different perspectives on how to think about, make and consume food, Siegel said. Chefs share insight as to how they deconstruct food, the thought process that goes into flavor combinations and the importance of proper plating, he said. The food critic, he said, sheds light on why appearance matters, the art of proper proportions and the importance of the food item living up to its description on the menu.
“Honest and straightforward criticism, there’s no substitute for that,” Siegel said. “As a chef, I would benefit from that. Everyone would benefit from that. You just put your ego to the side and try to get better.”
While thorough and oftentimes right-on-the-money, the judges teetered on ruthless in a way that made a handful of guests a bit squeamish (many are more comfortable watching this type of criticism on TV, from the removed safety of our own homes). But most at the event not only seconded most of the judges’ observations — too much chili pepper seemed to be a unanimous one — but began to embrace their own inner food critic as well, discussing the elements of their meal with their spouses, friends and strangers at the table.
“Often the audience will disagree with a particular judge or the entire panel,” Siegel said in an email. “That is part of the fun, pitting your own personal critique against the pros.”