Emily Waldon Harris cooked me lunch the other day.
It wasn’t me personally. Though, for proximity we could have been in Waldon Harris’s front-room. I could see her in the kitchen, chopping tongue, stirring broth, weighing noodles. She was out of her usual environment, as a guest chef at The Edinburgh Food Studio.
Waldon Harris’s repertoire includes her training at the infamous NOMA, more recently working for ‘The Best Female Chef 2017’, Ana Ros. That title should have grated just a little. In fact, it threw off my whole plan to shout praise about Waldon Harris’s Pho.
The title of ‘Best Female Chef’ is laughably archaic. To suggest that the award was conceived ignorant of the coverage it would provoke, is to discredit the sycophantic media outlet which owns the rights to the awards. Earlier in June the ‘50 Best Restaurants awards’ were riddled with criticism for retaining such a bizarre category. It perfectly played into the hands of a ceremony which exists only as a promotional platform. All publicity is good publicity.
Farce became lunacy when it emerged that the winner of the 2018 award- Clare Smyth of ‘Core’ in Notting Hill- did not make the top 50 Best Restaurants. The Guardian labelled this as a problem of equal ‘opportunity and representation’ in a perfectly stale and sanitarily sound manner.
There are not fewer women in the kitchen, the rotating talent at Edinburgh’s Food Studio shows that. The late Anthony Bourdain’s support for women everywhere, as well as criticism for the ‘meat-head’ chef culture which he raised, exemplifies how a changing industry should no longer feel the need to separately represent talent.
The one article to which I took personal affront to, shunned Waldon Harris, exposing ’what it is like working for the world’s ‘‘Best Female Chef’’’. Waldon Harris is an unwitting victim of sexism and kitchen hierarchy. Not only segregated from competing with men, she was kept firmly in the shadow of her mistress. A kitchen is only as good as its worst Sous.
But this Sous really can cook! It initially seemed bizarre to pick Pho, aside from the tiring number of puns which were extruded by my dining partners. I will confess that I have yet to be convinced by South East Asian food. But when simple ingenuity is so obviously on show, then it is hard not to love.
I was sceptical of the bowl which arrived; as a pop-up it was all that was on the menu, we were not asked to order. Ignoring our waiter’s hints to add the chilli, beansprouts and basil, I gave the Pho a quick sip. The broth tasted as deep and rich as a good stock- it had also been clarified nicely- though still nothing pho-nomenal (apologies, last one, I promise).
As I added the recommended accoutrements the plate came to life, chillies playfully ricocheted off the richness of the tongue and tendon. The noodles which I had seen in Waldon Harris’s hands only moments previously, were a gamechanger.
I couldn’t think of a further contrast from my hungover bowls of instant ramen. Her Papaya salad and simple Satay Skewers were individually unexciting, but as asides from the chemistry of the Pho, they were invaluable.
The proof is always in the pudding. Or in this case the proof is in the Pho. When the food is this good, then it is to the detriment of the male chefs that they are not allowed to compete in the same league as women with the talents of Waldon Harris.