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Paying the Price for Anthony Bourdain's Mistake

People cried when Tarik Abdullah was cut from ABC cooking show The Taste. Not Abdullah himself, who'd made it to the sixth-episode semi-finals of the competition as part of Anthony Bourdain's team; he handled the disappointment with his usual big-hearted dignity and grace. But his competitors were crushed: "Not a lot of times there's that much class..." said one of the remaining cooks, choking up. "And he's so supportive." The Taste aired its Season 3 finale last week. 

Abdullah, the DJ and cook I wrote about in October, before The Taste began airing, has been back in Seattle hosting twice-monthly pop-up brunches at La Isla del Mojito in Columbia City. A week after the episode aired, I met up with him at the Collaboratory, the Columbia City complex not far from his home where he'll begin his first series of cooking classes for kids on Feb. 8. He walked me upstairs to the second-floor retail space and workshop he uses for producing leather bicycle accessories and upcycled bags. As always, he was dressed in casual-formal hepcat style and wore an enormous smile.

How bad did Bourdain want to win? He made a strategic mistake by cutting you. He should've cut Vanessa.

Tarik Abdullah: They all wanna win, bro. They all wanna win. I mean, [as a contestant], you can play it to where you know what your mentor likes or you play it where you know your own food and trust your instincts. Vanessa really knew what Anthony likes to eat and she stuck with that. And that's fine. I just wanna go with what I'm good at. I feel like I'm good at what my background is. I'm gonna do that to get me through each round. I'm not gonna do anything toward anybody else's liking. I'm gonna use my food toward their liking.

He even said said he blew it: "I failed you. You're paying the price for my mistake."

My friends ask me how I really feel about it. I'm not really angry about it at all. For one, the opportunity I had to do this was awesome. Two, my competitive spirit came out—finally—around that pork taste off [in episode four]. I'm really not a competitive kind of guy. I just wanted to honestly come down there and do what I'm good at and represent myself and other chefs out there—who we should be, no matter where we're at, even if we're on TV. I'm not here to dilute my own image or make a hoopla on screen. This is a food competition last time I checked! So I'm gonna cook food. I'm gonna keep a clean station, I'm gonna go with what I think tastes good.

There were differences with a lot of the contestants, between home cooks and professional cooks. The idea of putting a home cook, even an experienced home cook, in a competition like this with an hour to cook—that could backfire. It's a lot of pressure. You really do have an hour to come up with whatever you're gonna do. That takes knowlege, experience, confidence. The idea of mixing up experience with home cooks made the competition better.

People were weeping after you left!

That was trippy, man.

I think the reason why everyone was so upset was that they realized you were the one guy who wasn't trying to play a character because he was on TV. You were just being yourself. You weren't trying to hijack the show with drama or histrionics.

There was no need for it. When you lose you lose fair and square and if you win it's the same.

We had a choice of where we want to be on the set, up front or in back. I chose to be in the back! There were perfect reasons for being in the back. For one, directly behind me, I got an immersion circulator. I got pots, I got pans. I got the spice rack right to the left of me. I can go like this, this and this [motions quickly around himself] and in less than 40 seconds I can have four pots of boiling water in front of me. And also right around the corner is where everything else—refrigerator, inredients—all within walking distance. So I can just pace myself. And the cameras come by and they have an interviewer and they ask what you're making and I tell them and keep going. I had a little bit of strategy. But overall I did what I was taught: You come in, come to work, keep quiet, communicate when you have to and you make good food. That's it.

No way Vanessa is going all the way to the finals. She was constantly battling with Eric, your other teammate.

We're all good friends. We talk everyday. [Abdullah's phone buzzes; he checks it.] Sure enough! We all talk. They're all doing good.

Seems like Bourdain favored you the whole season. 

I had no clue how he felt about my food. Aside from the occasional walking by going, "Mmm... that's good." Outside that, I had no idea he thought my food was that good. Eric could cook his tail off man! That core group—Eric, Gabe, Tristen, Ben—that group was incredibly talented. They all are. If we were all in the finals and our food was on point, the one thing that would have to separate us would be a fleck of salt or knife cuts. 

I was surprised that it really did come down to salt so much of the time. Just a pinch of salt. That's so much pressure!

Yeah. The audition episode was interesting because you try to decide what you wanna make before you come down there. You gotta really be crafty about what you know how to make in an hour. I did a kofta meatball with chermoula, pickled vegetables. Something that didn't take too long. Someone tried to do oxtail. Like, really?

You have an hour to cook. Doesn't some of that stuff actually take longer? Braises and whatnot?

You could do short ribs in an hour depending on size. Do them in a pressure cooker. But understand the pressure cooker, get the heat right, and it's all about the timing. You can braise lamb, deep fry pork belly... For that deep-fried pork belly, I did a quick brine, dried it off, seared in the pressure cooker, a little oil, seared and deglazed and put the belly back in and simmered it in the liquid with the lid on, let the pressure build and walk away and focus on everything else. I knew I wanted a total of 10 minutes left on the clock when I pulled it. And sure enough! You gotta be so crafty! You can cook octopus in an hour in a pressure cooker! Just make sure you have some acid in there to break down the muscle fiber and yeah you're good.

So then you have your taste ready, set there on the spoon on the counter, and they bring it in the back and put it on a tray and then bring the tray to the judges. That's a lot of time between plating and eating. Seems like the judges don't get the food in peak form.

They don't. It's not cold, it's not hot. They get it in-between. 

But you kinda cook to that, knowing that?

There's ways of playing the game, bro. Just knowing.

So walk me through a day of filming the show. 

You wake up at 4:30 AM, you're at the lobby at 5, out the door 5:30. You're in an all-white room with some chairs. Not on set, in the waiting room. For the first couple days we were like, "What the fuck we gonna do? We're gonna look like we're in the psych ward!" We started bringing pillows and mats, cards, started playing games, dominoes. People started bringing cookbooks. Food discussions. This is where we ate. We spent a majority of our time together in that room. Home anywhere between 4 and 6. Long day. In our downtime we'd go back to our rooms at a hotel. By the time we were done I'd go to the gym or hop on the bus and go visit the homies. I used to live in LA and I have a lot of friends there. 

That must've been nice. 

It was hot too! One week, the full week it was in the 90s. I was loving it. Shorts and tank top.

So the audience never sees this white room, the waiting room. 

Yeah. Hanging out in the waiting room, our hangout room. This is in the studio but not on set. The producers wanna come talk to us about rules, ingredients we need for the next competition—we did everything in that room. And that's where we ended up becoming really good friends, in this room for a month.

With no cameras. 

No cameras. I mean, everyone plays their funky little parts. Two people would go by themselves in their own corner, one person would go by themself in their own corner but for the most part we ended up hanging out. Some days we'd have to get into focus mode, break off into teams and strategize. A lot of people just wanted to take naps, like man, I'll be glad when this day is done. Home by 6. Long days. 

And then filming? They call you out from this waiting room...

Then they call us out and we go on set and they place us where they want, 80 million cameras everywhere. "And go!" Boom. One hour. Something doesn't look right, stop, do it over, then action! You got an hour to get it done, a straight continuous hour. Or 45 mintues for the taste-off.

Tell me about the taste off. The producers must've known that you're Muslim and that you don't eat pork. And that's why they made you cook pork chops!

Of course they did. That's totally fine.

Your competitor was freaking out.

She wasn't happy with it. But I even said on camera, I didn't get into this business thinking I wasn't gonna cook with pork. I've been cooking 20-some-odd years. I've probably cooked a couple hundred pigs in my time. It wasn't a big deal. 

You guys filmed in September. It's now January. Have your feelings changed about the experience from then to now?

Definitely not. I feel like I did my part. I represented for myself, for my family, for Seattle, for my fellow chefs. I think I did pretty good. I made it to the semis on a national broadcast television show.

They played the short bio about you growing up with your mom on the last episode. The episode where they cut you, like, of course! Build up the drama. 

I didn't even see that, man! I gotta watch that one. Was I sitting in a Black Weirdo shirt?

I dont think so.

They did an interview where it looks like I'm in Seattle, they found a location. I'm on my bike and I pull up and I got on beads, I got the Black Weirdo tank and they interview me. I wonder what they're gonna use it for. They asked me where I'm from I tell them, "Seattle! I love Seattle, Black Weirdo represent!" I'm like, this is gonna be so fresh when they put this on. I wanna rep my town!

All in all I have no regrets. I feel good about what I did. There's other stuff coming.

What kind of stuff?

Cool stuff [laughs].

I learned a little more about myself being in the TV world. I don't even own a TV man! TV competition, would I do it again? Possibly. But after that? No.

Must've been awesome to have Anthony Bourdain as your mentor. 

He's awesome. Really. My buddy hit me up the night when I got on Anthony Bourdain's team and he texts me, "I rememeber when you told me you're gonna meet Anothony Bourdain, bro—that was five years ago!" Yeah. I was like damn, that's crazy. It's pretty cool. Dude's awesome.

I'm gonna work with Ludo Lefebvre next month for a few days, I'm gonna work at Red Rooster [celebrity chef and The Taste mentor Marcus Samuelsson's restaurant in Harlem] hopefully in March. Eric will be up here in a week and a half. Just to hang. I have no idea what we're gonna do. We'll proably do a brunch. Tristen and Gabe are coming up in March. Tom who was on our team is doing a raffle for a children's hospital in Jackson, Miss. where his restarurant is, so we're all donating stuff. I'm sending an apron. All proceeds go to children's hospital. So we're all doing stuff.

If friendships and charity come out of this TV show, that's a wonderful thing. 

It's like I said on the show, they're not contestants. they're my friends. Yes someone won and someone lost but that doesnt mean it's done and over. That would be weird, man. We're definitely gonna form relationships so it makes sense we should be friends. It's a good sign for a lot of things. I told Marcus, "Don't worry, I'll see you man."

Keep up with Tarik Abdullah's pop-ups—including a Super Bowl gameday takeout and his ongoing Morning Star Cafe brunch at La Isla Mojito on Feb. 8, via adjandacook.wordpress.com.

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