Because I can’t figure out how to turn off the Netflix auto-preview feature, every time I log on, I am pummeled with the same trailers of the shows the company’s algorithm thinks I want to watch. One of these shows is the Emmy-nominated Chef’s Table, a docu-series that profiles various famous chefs around the world to the tune of a soaring Vivaldi soundtrack. The trailer for Chef’s Table opens with a voiceover from the chef Sean Brock, who rose to (food world) fame at the restaurant Husk in Charleston, South Carolina. As the trailer opens, you hear Sean saying: “I was representing a cuisine and a culture. That’s an enormous amount of pressure. It nearly killed me. It literally almost killed me.”
This is a lot! I don’t doubt Sean’s conviction here, but I’m not sure he’s looking at all of this the right way. For starters, the American South is a really big place with over 114 million people–all of who eat food. So while I’m sure Sean’s food is very good, I think even if it weren’t, Southern cuisine would be OK. People in the South would continue to enjoy Southern food without him and I’m sure people outside would, too. I think if Sean took a step back and realized the big picture here, things might not be so stressful for him.
American food media is weird in that it not only permits, but glorifies these warped perspectives. (If you watch the episode like I had the misfortune of doing, Sean goes on to explain to us how much he has sacrificed to bear his weighty burden: “I nearly broke myself trying to save Southern food.”) This is probably because as essential as food is, it’s also mundane–and so media coverage is thirsty for a point of view and welcomes any and all chefs who are willing to advance one through some foodstuff, no matter how contrived.
The thing is, though, most people in this life are just trying to feed themselves three times a day. Most people will never taste Sean’s food, nor will they notice whenever it is that he has saved Southern cuisine. So it is strange to me why the media amplifies these purported torchbearers–when it could be more focused on what everyday people actually eat. I get that an ordinary ingredient like, say, a pork chop, is not particularly newsworthy in and of itself. But it seems there is a lot of room to explore ordinary ingredients and introduce ordinary people to how other ordinary people eat them.
I know none of this matters because nothing matters these days, let alone food journalism (I have no idea who reads this stuff and don’t understand why I still do). But in conclusion, I think we need more coverage like the North Dakota journalist who reviewed her local Olive Garden. That was at least an honest take.
For the sauce. Charsiu sauce is traditionally applied first as a marinade and re-applied during cooking as a glaze. I’ve found that I never have the foresight to marinate meat hours in advance, and that using the charsiu sauce strictly as a glaze still gives great results. This sauce is loosely adapted from chef Melissa King’s recipe for charsiu octopus, which was a genius idea in its own right.
- 2 tbsp hoisin sauce (Lee Kum Kee is a reputable and available brand)
- 2 tbsp oyster sauce (same)
- 1 tbsp dark soy sauce
- 1 tbsp light soy sauce (2 tbsp regular soy sauce is fine if you don’t have different soy sauces)
- 1 tbsp honey
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 2 tbsp shaoxing wine
- 2 tsp five-spice
- 1 shallot, minced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tbsp ginger, minced
For the pork. Sidenote, charsiu sauce is really versatile and goes well with any protein/main that has meatiness and takes to searing/grilling/broiling. I’ve had great results with eggplant, chicken, monkfish, and scallops.
- Pork shoulder, cut into strips about 1″-1.5″ thick. (For convenience, I’ve had good luck with “country style pork ribs,” which are not ribs but pre-sliced pork shoulder cuts. Look for well-marbled meat that is dark red in color rather than the pale pink you often see in grocery store pork chops).
Make the sauce:
- In a neutral oil (I like peanut), sweat the shallots over medium-low until translucent, about 2-3 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and sweat until fragrant, about another minute. Add the five spice and pinch of salt and stir for just a few seconds. It should smell great.
- Add the shaoxing wine quickly to prevent the spices from burning. It should sizzle and bubble. Reduce at a brisk simmer to cook out the alcohol, about 4-5 minutes.
- Add everything else and bring to a very gentle simmer–you want it gentle so the soy sauce does not burn and turn bitter. Simmer until the sauce is thickened a bit and looks like a glaze. Taste–it should be delicious, very savory and just a bit sweet. If it needs more sweetness, add a bit more honey.
Make the pork:
- Brush the pork with a light coat of oil and season with salt and pepper. Preheat an oven to 425 F. Put the pork on a baking sheet (a wire rack is nice, but not necessary) and put it in the oven.
- Roast for about 20-25 minutes until you see the edges start turning golden brown. It will be more or less done around now. Don’t worry so much about the internal temperature–so long as the pork is fatty enough, there is a lot of give and you actually want a higher internal temperature to render a lot of the fat.
- Switch the oven to broil. Brush the pork with the sauce and broil for about 1-2 minutes until the sauce caramelizes. Flip, brush, and repeat for the other side.
- Rest the pork until cool enough to handle, and slice. Serve with rice. A bit of cilantro is nice too.