Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Private Snafu Flies to the Moon!


[NOTE: click text images to enlarge.]

Private Snafu Flies to the Moon!

by Amy Sisson

"How is this possible?" General Hanson demanded. "The troops I've been getting up here are a goddamned disaster! We've had three casualties in a month, and we're just lucky that last one didn't take the rest of his unit with him." He snorted. "Taking a smoke break in an airlock, for chrissakes!"

"Yes, sir," the general's assistant replied. "Um, sir," he continued, gesturing to one of the people who had just entered the tiny office behind him, "this is Colonel Harrison Parker, the education and training expert you requested."

The general looked Parker up and down as the younger man saluted. Parker was a slender man of African descent, with intelligent eyes and smooth skin that could put him anywhere between thirty and forty years old. A woman who looked to be in her early thirties stood next to him; she had expressive brown eyes and short curly blond hair tucked neatly beneath a regulation cap. The General noticed that both of the new arrivals were trying hard not to gape at the moonscape visible through the triple-paned window behind him. It was the one luxury he'd insisted upon in his spartan office, and he always enjoyed the effect it had on first-time visitors to the base.

"And this is?" the General said, jerking his chin towards the woman.

"Captain Margaret March," Hanson's assistant said. March dragged her attention away from the window and saluted smartly. "She's also a doctor -- not medical, sir," he said. "She's a military historian, working with Colonel Parker on analyzing the success and failures of past training initiatives."

"Ah. Well, welcome to Armstrong Base, Colonel, Captain," said the General. He turned back towards Parker. "So, Colonel, as a training expert, maybe you can tell me why our newest recruits are such a sorry bunch that I'm embarrassed to have them on my base. It's almost the 1990s, for chrissakes, and instead of that 'No Citizen Left Behind' bullshit that was supposed to be working by now, our own Electronic Internet Communication page says that to join the Army, a high school diploma is, and I quote, 'most desirable.' It's not even required!"

Captain March spoke up for the first time. "Actually, sir, that level of minimum qualifications goes all the way back to 1966, when the military officially lowered the literacy standards. There were a lot of objections at first, but in 1971," she paused to consult her Portable Access Device, "Study SFHRL-TR-71-13 concluded that 'men who were successful and unsuccessful in reaching the fifth-grade level of literacy in remedial training did not differ greatly on most indices of military status and performance.'"

"I don't care what that report says," the General shot back. "It was one thing back in Vietnam. Sure, there were hundreds of ways to get yourself killed, but pushing a button because you couldn't read the words 'Airlock: Do Not Open' wasn't one of them."

"That didn't actually happen," Hanson's assistant said quickly to Parker and March. "We have safeguards in place...." His voice trailed off as he noticed the General's glare.

"Parker!" General Hanson barked. "You're the training expert. How the hell is the Army Space Wing supposed to train a bunch of recruits who can't read?"

"Actually, sir, we do have an idea," Parker said.

"I'm all ears, Colonel."

"Feelies, General Hanson."

"What?"

"Feelies, sir. Interactive three-dimensional films with extra physical effects added in, like fans when the wind is supposed to be blowing, water droplets when it's raining, even specific smells that go with the story. So far only a few experimental films have been developed, but the test audiences have gone crazy for them."

"And how does that help us?"

"Training films, sir. Any military psychologist worth his salt will tell you that lessons backed up with tangible physical effects are much more likely to be retained. Just think, if a GI gets a mild electrical shock--"

"What!"

"--right when the soldier in the film pushes the airlock button--"

"No," said the General. "It'll never go over. Those human rights fanatics...."

"We're talking about extremely weak shocks, sir, mildly uncomfortable at most and over so quickly they'll wonder if it really happened. It'll affect their retention of information, but a lot of them won't even consciously note that it's happening. And even if the GIs notice, I don't think they'll complain as long as we make the films entertaining enough. Hell -- sorry, sir -- heck, I wouldn't be surprised if they consider it all part of the fun."

"How are we supposed to make getting zapped fun?" Hanson asked, still skeptical.

Captain March spoke up. "We bring Private Snafu back to life, sir."

"Who the hell--?"

"Private Snafu, sir. He's a character that was used in cartoon training films back in World War II. He basically does everything wrong: tells classified secrets to a sexy blonde, doesn't take his malaria meds, doesn't clean his gun properly. So he ends up dead or shot in each cartoon, in a way that's ridiculous but still gets the point across. There's even one where he literally ends up in Hell, sitting in a cauldron while Hitler stands over him -- we can use fans to blast heat through the training room," she said, stopping to make a notation on her PAD. "Anyway, sir, the cartoons, they were a little racy for the times, but the trainees loved them. And they were specifically created for soldiers with low literacy skills."

General Hanson groaned. "But if the press gets hold of this.... Even the name -- how do we get away with having a training role model whose name stands for 'Situation Normal, All F---"

"All Fouled Up, sir," March said brightly. "That's even part of the gag. Everyone knows what it really means, but the cartoons always substituted the word 'fouled' at the last possible second. And he's not really a role model, sir, he's an anti-role model. But a loveable one."

The General was silent for a moment as he chewed the idea over. Then he looked at Parker. "And you're on board with this?"

"Yes, sir," said Parker. "Captain March came to me a few months ago and we've been poring over the archives. This stuff worked back then, sir, and when we add the feelie tech to it, well, I think it may just change the face of military training."

The General sighed. "I'm going to regret this, aren't I," he said to nobody in particular.

"If you say so, sir," his assistant said obediently.

"Oh, shut up, McClure," said the General.

"Yes, sir," the hapless assistant said, standing up even straighter than before.

Parker and March glanced at each other and tried not to look triumphant. Without words, they agreed that now was not the ideal time to bring up Private Snafu's brothers, Tarfu and Fubar.

Two weeks later, having regained their Earth legs, Parker and March were ushered into a living room that in spite of its opulence had clearly seen better days. The secretary or housekeeper or whoever she was left them sitting on a faded but comfortable sofa and stalked out of the room without a word, clearly resentful of their intrusive presence in her employer's home.

Parker nudged March and jutted his chin towards a series of framed animation cels occupying the spot of honor over the fireplace. All of the biggies were there: the duck, the pig, the cat, the canary, the skunk, and that ridiculous rooster. And, of course, the rabbit. Parker and March grinned at each other like a couple of schoolchildren playing hooky at a matinee.

"Yes?" said a voice from the doorway. No, not a voice. The voice. And like the housekeeper, the owner of this voice did not seem altogether pleased at this disturbance to his routine.

Parker and March stood quickly. "Mr. Blanc, sir," said Parker. "I'm Colonel Harrison Parker and this is Captain Margaret March. We're here to tell you that your country needs you, sir."

Blanc snorted. "That's rubbish, son."

"Sir -- oh, and I'm obligated to notify you that this conversation falls under the Official Secrets Act of 1957; you may not repeat anything said here today to anyone outside of this room." A glare that could have stopped the countdown timer on a bomb made Parker decide to skip the rest of the formalities. He cleared his throat. "Mr. Blanc, the United States is in the process of sending several General Infantry units to the Moon for the first time in history. We have reason to believe that China and the Soviet Union are planning a surprise attack on our base up there from a secret installation they've been constructing on the far side of the Moon."

Blanc remained standing, thereby forcing Parker and March to do the same. Parker couldn't help noticing that the older man looked distinctly unimpressed.

"Even if I believe that load of nonsense, son, what could that possibly have to do with me?"

"Private Snafu, sir."

"Private Snafu -- what? You must be joking; hardly anyone has even heard of him."

March jumped in. "That doesn't mean he wasn't effective, Mr. Blanc, just that we have short memories in peacetime. I'm a military historian, and a bit of a popular culture buff. Colonel Parker and I have seen every Private Snafu cartoon that we could find -- they're available at the Library of Congress, you know. More importantly, I've read dozens of old reports that tell us that units exposed to the Snafu cartoons improved in adherence to safety regulations, weapons handling skills, combat readiness...."

"I still don't see what Snafu has to do with sending troops to the Moon."

Parker took over once again. "Mr. Blanc, because space-based operations require such intensive training, up until now almost all of our troops stationed on the Moon have been Special Ops, the best of the best. But we don't have nearly enough of them. We have to start sending regular GIs, we have to train them quickly, and we have to reinforce certain safety regulations for a population that does not always learn effectively from lectures and traditional training methods. We need to give them critical information in a way that's quick, entertaining, and as memorable as possible."

Blanc remained skeptical. "If you two know as much about cartoons as you say you do, you must know that I haven't done any serious voice work since my car accident in 1961. I'm out of the game now. And besides, I didn't write that material."

"We understand, Mr. Blanc, but you were Private Snafu. Surely you can be him again," March said.

"Surely someone else can do it," Blanc countered.

"I've heard some of the successors who took over your other characters," March said, gesturing towards the portrait gallery over the fireplace. "They're good, sir, but they're not you. You could make memorizing the multiplication tables hilarious. And memorable, sir."

Blanc sat at last, in a faded chintz wingback chair, which Parker and March interpreted as a minor victory. They both sat back down on the sofa and tried to hide their relief.

"Just out of curiosity," Blanc said, "what types of 'lessons' do you have in mind? I hope by now we're beyond all that 'loose lips sink ships' and venereal disease nonsense."

"Of course, sir," said Parker. "We're talking about spacesuit safety checklists, airlock procedures, weapons training -- everything works differently in the space environment, Mr. Blanc. It's the new frontier and we have to defend it, but unfortunately the number of ways you can accidentally kill yourself in space is, well, difficult to believe if you haven't been there."

Blanc was silent as he contemplated the worn Oriental rug underneath the heavy coffee table. Parker and March counted every second of that silence as one tick closer to their goal.

"I'll think about it," the older man finally said. Parker opened his mouth to thank him, but Blanc cut him off before he could get a word out. "I said I'll think about it, son. No promises."

"Yes, sir," said Parker. "Um, Mr. Blanc, there's one more thing you should know. Are you familiar with the term 'feelies?'"

Three hours later, the housekeeper, whose name turned out to be Mrs. Johnson, brought yet another fresh pot of coffee. She shook her head at the crumpled pieces of paper strewn about the coffee table, and rearranged the remaining chocolate chip cookies on the now somewhat depleted platter. But Parker thought he detected an approving gleam in her eyes; maybe seeing her employer so obviously engaged was enough to make up for their intrusion after all.

"I don't think we should tell the soldiers about Snafu up front," Blanc was saying. "Make them think it's an ordinary, boring training vid, then have Snafu appear in the middle of them and start doing his thing. Better yet, have Technical Fairy First Class pop in. You remember him?" He chuckled. "And the whole thing's going to be three dimensional, right? So it'll be like Snafu's really come to life right there with them?"

"Yes," Parker said. "And we can use Snafu on signs around the base. You know, a reminder by the airlock to follow proper suit procedures, that kind of thing."

"Or a ten or twenty-second vid that's activated when someone comes into the area or initiates a certain procedure or computer command," March said. "We can put small monitors all over the base, change up the content often enough that it becomes a game to watch for new material."

"Do you think we should incorporate the Russians and the Chinese?" Parker asked. "The way the German and Japanese were portrayed in the originals was a little...."

"No, it was a lot," said Blanc. "Different times, son."

"Yes, we'll have to work on that," March said. "But really, most of the material will be about safety procedures -- we may not need to put the enemy in there at all."

"Should we stick with the rhyming schemes?" asked Parker. "Or is that too dorky?"

"It's pretty dorky," March admitted. "But the cartoons got good results. Why not test it both ways and see what works?"

Three GIs, two male and one female, stood in the mock airlock room. In addition to their everyday work uniforms, they wore large, clumsy-looking gloves and lightweight visors that resembled welder's masks with multicolored wires sticking out of them. Parker stood with them, similarly suited up, although with certain wires discreetly disconnected. He gave the signal, and March, on the other side of a large two-way mirror, hit the switch.

A door on the opposite wall slid open, or seemed to as far as the trainees were concerned. March, watching a large screen in the observation room, was able to see everything as Parker saw it, thanks to the POV camera hooked up to Parker's apparatus.

"A-ten-HUT! " said the virtual drill sergeant who walked into the room. The men, even Parker, automatically snapped to attention. "Private Snafu, I said a-ten-HUT! Front and center, Private!"

A funny little man appeared from behind the group, shuffling his way to the front of the room. He stood at exaggerated attention before the sergeant, who then ordered him to turn and face the company. Unlike the sergeant, who looked completely real to life, the private was a three-dimensional animated cartoon caricature, with a bulbous nose, huge ears, and an old-fashioned uniform, right down to the cap perched on his mostly bald head. On his back he carried a ridiculously stuffed pack, with random straps holding all sorts of odds and ends, including a bow and arrow and a tin tea cup. He turned his goofy grin on the trainees, one of whom snickered.

The sergeant turned to that trainee. "Did I say something funny, Private?"

The GI was startled. "Uh, no, sir," he said, and stood up straighter. The sergeant glared at him and then turned back to Snafu.

In the next room, March grinned. The programming was masterful; within limits, the video-generated characters could interact with the soldiers, bringing training vids to a level never before seen.

"Private Snafu and Private Upright," the sergeant barked. Yet another generated character, this one seemingly human like the sergeant, stepped through the ranks from behind to join Snafu. "Kindly demonstrate for this bunch of useless grunts the proper way to put on a spacesuit."

"Yessir," Snafu and Upright said in unison. Upright walked over to where a virtual bank of suit lockers lay superimposed over the empty wall that was really there. Snafu busied himself wiggling out of his pack, which suddenly burst under the strain. The GI trainees jumped in response to the mild -- extremely mild, March reminded herself -- electrical shocks that they received at the exact moment the pack burst, then laughed as Snafu's equipment appeared to bounce and clatter every which way before fading out of existence at the edge of the scene.

"Snafu!" roared the sergeant. The trainees laughed again. Snafu rushed over and opened the locker next to the one from which Upright had pulled a spacesuit. March noticed that the trainees were still watching Snafu, and made a note on her PAD. The script should be altered to have the sergeant order Snafu back to stand with the other grunts at this point, so the trainees would keep their attention on Private Upright during the actual suit-up procedure. Then Snafu could get it as comically wrong as he liked. Right way, wrong way, right way, March noted on her PAD.

General Hanson skimmed over the latest hardcopy report from March and Parker. He grudgingly admitted to himself that the dynamic duo, as he had privately dubbed them, seemed to know their stuff. The Snafu initiative was technically still in pre-deployment testing, but average scores during safety regulation drills were noticeably improving among the early test subjects.

Attached to a report was an approval form for Snafu-related expenses. Hanson sighed. Apparently there was no end to a base commander’s paperwork, and even if he finally let McClure talk him into using a PAD, it would still be paperwork as far as the general was concerned. He initialed each line item automatically, pausing only when he saw the cost for the Artificial Intelligence consultant that Parker and March had requested for heightened program interactivity or some such. A vein in Hanson’s temple throbbed but he initialed the line anyway. He was already in for far more than a penny, after all.

McClure poked his head in the door. "Anything else before I call it a night, sir?" he asked.

Hanson grunted a negative and McClure turned to go. The General dealt wearily with the last few items in his inbox and then heaved himself to his feet to see what grub he might find in the mess hall at this hour.

Unsurprisingly, the mess was almost empty, with the exception of four soldiers sitting in a back corner over their now-empty coffee cups. New arrivals by the looks of them, thought Hanson. One by one they noticed him and fell silent, exchanging nervous glances.

"As you were," muttered Hanson. One of the fresh-faced GIs tried to re-establish the group’s relaxed camaraderie, with only limited success. Internally Hanson sighed. This was why he avoided the mess hall during regular meal times; his presence was always a wet blanket. The chow line had already been cleaned up, so he ducked into the kitchen and filled his tray from the fridge without bothering to reheat anything.

Halfway through his cold mashed potatoes, Hanson looked up at the sound of the door sliding open. It was Parker and March, deep in conversation. Hanson waved them over, happy to see two people who either weren’t afraid of him or didn’t know enough to be afraid of him. March sat down, and Parker followed after grabbing two cups of coffee from the auto-dispenser. The group of GIs looked relieved at this interruption, and took the opportunity to leave the mess hall as quickly and unobtrusively as possible.

"How goes it?" said Hanson.

"Terrific, sir," said March. "We’ve been tweaking the program’s response matrix, and it gives an appropriate answer about seven times out of ten."

"Yeah, it’s those other three times we have to worry about," Parker said. "We gave the program access to all of the original Snafu material to give it the right 'flavor,' and now every once in a while Snafu tells a GI to keep his pants zipped when he should be telling him how to zip his spacesuit or something."

"Oh, come on, you’re exaggerating," said March. "He's exaggerating, sir," she added to Hanson.

"Not by much," Parker said, but conceded the point with a smile.

"Here, General, I’ll show you," March said. "Do you mind if I use the wall screen?" The General nodded his assent and March activated her PAD. A few additional clicks brought the nearest wall screen to life, just in time to show Private Snafu snoozing face down on top of a pile of blankets. His lips sputtered in perfect sync with his loud snores.

"Snafu!" March said, clearly embarrassed. "Wake up!"

Parker looked sheepish as well. "Sorry, sir," he said to the general. "He does that when he’s in inactive mode."

"He?" the General said, raising an eyebrow.

"It," amended Parker. "The program."

Hanson opened his mouth to ask a question, but closed it again with a funny expression. "That's odd," he muttered.

"Sir?" said March.

"What? Oh, nothing," said Hanson. "My ears just popped."

"Mine too," said March and Parker together. They started to laugh, but stopped when they saw the look on the General's face.

"Damn!" said the General, getting up. Parker and March also started to rise as the General strode towards the door. "Loss of air pressure," he said over his shoulder. "Human ears are more sensitive to it than any detector we've been able to come up with--"

Just as he reached the door, a klaxon sounded three long and two short blasts, followed by the dispassionate voice of the Central Computing System. "Warning. Minor loss of pressure indicates possible hull breach. Implementing isolation procedures. Warning. Minor loss of pressure indicates possible hull breach. Implementing isolation procedures." A red light went on over the mess hall door, indicating that it would no longer open without explicit override authority.

"Sir?" said Parker.

"Don't panic, son," said Hanson. "Either a seal has developed a minor crack somewhere or there’s been a micrometeorite impact. That's not good, but if it were immediately catastrophic, we'd already be unpleasantly aware of that fact." He pressed a comm channel button on the wall panel by the door. "Base," he said, addressing the CCS. "Where is the breach?"

The length of time before the CCS responded was disconcerting. "Breach is located somewhere in crew areas," it finally said in its detached voice. Hanson frowned; that didn't rule out much beyond the cargo bays.

"Ultrasonic background noise detectors are offline. Unable to determine the exact location of breach."

March and Parker exchanged worried glances. They were still new to the space environment and were unsure how serious the situation would get and how quickly.

Hanson remained calm, at any rate. He opened a base-wide channel. "This is General Hanson. I’m in the mess hall at the moment. Senior staff, report in rank order with your current position and status. Does anyone have a fix on where the breach happened?"

One by one, the senior officers reported back with negatives on the breach location. Hanson then requested that any personnel with additional information report in, but no answers were forthcoming. He ordered the Tech Chief to work on getting the UBND system online, but the Chief was stuck in a bathroom and didn’t have access to anything beyond the simple comm system. Hanson could order the CCS to override the doors, but doing so before pinpointing the breach was not an appealing option.

Hanson sighed, and glanced up at Parker and March. "We’re still okay," he said. "If it were a large breach, believe me, we’d know exactly where it is, so I don’t think there’s much immediate danger. It would be good to patch it sooner rather than later, though."

Suddenly they heard a faint nasal humming behind them, and a huge, noisy yawn. All three of them looked around, momentarily confused, then noticed the wall screen, on which a still-sleepy Snafu stretched and sniffed the air. "Sorry, sir," March said to the General. "Snafu woke up."

"So I see," said the General.

Snafu piped up in his characteristic sing-song voice. "I might-a slept a little late, but for my grub I cannot wait; a gutsy soldier I can't be, unless I have some food in meeeeeeeee." He stretched once more and began shuffling his feet. In typical cartoon fashion, he appeared to be walking in place while a background, consisting of an improbably long row of kitchen cabinets, moved along behind him.

"Turn that thing off," snapped the General.

"Yes, sir," March said, manipulating her PAD. She stopped, flummoxed, and jabbed a control key a couple of times. "Um, sir?" she said. "The wall screen isn't responding to my commands. I don't know why -- maybe the CCS is diverting all its resources to other systems?"

"Oh, for chrissakes," said the General. "Try to keep it quiet, at least."

"Yes, sir," March said, and threw Parker a "do something" look. Parker shrugged, helpless, as Snafu got down on all fours and poked his head into a kitchen cabinet, his large backside sticking out and momentarily filling most of the screen. Snafu began tossing out clanging pots and pans, followed by some dubious items: a hammer, an oversized piggy bank, an alarm clock, and three large eggs that broke on the floor behind Snafu before floating back up around him as zero-gee blobs. Snafu extracted himself from the cabinet and began trying to catch the bobbing yolks with a butterfly net.

"Snafu!" March said, in an urgent whisper.

Giving no sign of hearing her, Snafu continued trying to catch and make his breakfast. Once he had finally corralled the eggs, he went to a refrigerator that had conveniently materialized behind him, from which he collected a carton of milk, a frying pan, a long-handled saw, and a canister of flour. He stacked them in a precariously tall tower and carried them one-handed back towards a newly appeared stove.

Suddenly a claxon, sounding suspiciously like a braying donkey, sounded from the screen in the same three-long-two-short pattern that the CCS had used to signal the breach. Startled, Snafu leapt into the air, causing his tower to teeter and collapse. Everything went flying. The eggs, suddenly controlled by gravity once again, dropped one by one onto Snafu's head, and the lid of the flour canister bounced away as the container hit the floor. A swirling cloud of flour rose in the air and began adhering to the egg that were now dripping down Snafu's face.

"Snafu!" roared the General. "Can it!"

"Yessir, will do, sir, yessireeeeee--"

"Snafu!" shouted Parker and March together. Snafu finally fell silent, and his dripping face now had the grace to look a little abashed. But his nose started twitching from the flour, and although he valiantly tried to hold it in, he sneezed violently, sending the cloud of flour into the air once again. It slowly resolved into a pattern of little white birds flying in a circle around Snafu's head.

The General stared at the screen. Seconds ticked by, during which Parker and March clearly wished they could melt into the floor.

Suddenly the General grinned. "I'll be damned," he said. He stomped back to the door and activated the comm system once again. "This is General Hanson. All personnel note that the UBND system is offline and has not been able to locate the breach. Look around your immediate area for any materials you may have at hand, like flour, dust from the airvac system, experimental materials for those of you in the lab areas. Anything fine-particled should do. Toss a few handfuls in the air -- be careful not to breathe it in and make sure there's no static electricity -- and watch how it moves on the air currents. If the breach is in your area, you should be able to detect it. Report back anything unusual ASAP. Hanson out."

He turned back to March and Parker. "Basic low-gee physics," he said. "I should have remembered that right away."

"Yes, sir," March and Parker replied.

"And uh, thank you, Snafu," said the General.

Snafu grew wide-eyed, then saluted. "YESSIR!" he shouted with great enthusiasm.

"Carry on, Snafu," said Hanson.

Miraculously, the kitchen behind Snafu vanished and was replaced by a canteen. Snafu swaggered up to the bar and ordered a root beer. He quaffed it in one gulp, and addressed the cartoon barkeep, who was polishing a mug.

"Hey there, fella, wait and see; I’ll be a corporal, one two three!"

"I thought you said you'd decided against those damn rhymes," Hanson said weakly.

"Yes, sir, we did," said March. "But the program reacts more spontaneously now due to the AI enhancements, and, well, I guess he, um, it still likes to rhyme. I can try to make him stop doing that if you like, sir."

"Oh hell, we’ll worry about that later," the General said, and laughed in spite of himself.

This story ©2020 by Amy Sisson. The original material for the video, and the Technical Fairy First Class/"The End" images, are in the public domain; this adapted video was edited for this story by Heidi Berthiaume. The NASSAU and rocket ship graphics were created by John Eckelkamp for this story. Read more!

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Retro-Review: Season One of Top Chef


I'm doing a Hulu free trial for a month, and lo and behold, I saw that they have several past seasons of Top Chef. So I decided to take a fresh look at Season One from 2006. I watched it back then, and remembered a lot of the contestants, including Harold, Dave, Tiffani, and Lee Anne. But there was something I'd forgotten: the judges were mean. Outright mean. Yes, I'm talking about Tom Collichio and Gail Simmons (who, by the way, haven't changed a bit in terms of appearance -- they still look as fantastic now as they did back then).

In the current Season 17, Top Chef All Stars in L.A., the judges tell the chefs who had their "least favorite dish." Back in Season 1, it was "You three had the worst dishes" and "I'd get rid of all three of you if I could." At multiple points, Tom deliberately tries to stoke arguments between chefs. Instead of saying, "Some of your teammates felt your performance was weak", Tom says "Dave, Tiffani says you should go home." During the deliberations, the judges also take past performance into consideration when judging on a current challenge, which they never do now. But mainly, it's the judges' tone that bothers me.

What I like about the more recent seasons of Top Chef is that there's a much more prevalent attitude of respect. Yes, the challenges are still tricky, with twists and last-minute curve balls, but they don't seem designed to make the chefs fail. In Season 1, there's an episode with Ted Allen from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as a guest judge. He's holding a dinner party for his cookbook launch, and tells the chefs that it's very important to him, so they better do well or he'll be a cranky judge. The seven chefs excitedly plan fantastic dishes -- this, after weeks of having to cook with microwaves and ingredients purchased at gas stations -- and then Tom walks into the kitchen and says they have to draw knives to trade courses, and cook each other's planned dishes. And then he tells them they can choose to help each other succeed in those dishes or not, it's up to them.

As far as I'm concerned, Ted and Company deserved a crappy dinner party at that point.

Most of the competitors were as I remembered them, except Stephen. I did remember that he was an arrogant sommelier who felt it was his civic chef duty to educates the masses, which apparently meant everybody other than himself, whether they wanted to be educated or not. There's an episode where he rants at Candace, the youngest and least experienced competitor who was only halfway through culinary school when she went on the show (which would never happen now!), because she wanted to serve children food that was appropriate for children. But in rewatching, I found Stephen to be so over the top that he was almost a caricature, and I have to wonder how much of that "performance" was contrived.

Another detail from Season 1 that surprises me is the bare-bones stew room, where everyone drinks bottled water. Nowadays they're always drinking wine, usually in a slightly nicer setting, while they wait to hear what the judges have to say. And most shocking of all: in one episode, Stephen uses a laptop at the house to look up recipes online for the next day's challenge!

And I'd almost forgotten that Season 1 was hosted by Katie Lee Joel! No wonder, because for me the name Padma Lakshmi is practically synonymous with Top Chef. Poor Katie's delivery was absolutely wooden, and she didn't even taste the food or have any input in the Quickfire challenge decisions.

Obviously I liked Season 1 well enough at the time, because I watched it through back then, and eagerly awaited every new season as it came out. But boy, it's hard to like it now in comparison to later seasons.

Read more!

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Top Chef: All-Stars L.A. - Playing "Ketchup" with Episodes 6 and 7

[The Walt Disney Concert Hall, where the Top Chef contestants cooked to celebrate the L.A. Philharmonic's 100th anniversary]


Episode 6: Get Your Phil

The Quickfire challenge this time around featured all kinds of flour, with the exception of all-purpose flour -- which of course threw the chefs for a loop. The guest judge was Chris Bianco, who looked to me like a nice version of the Heat Miser and Snow Miser's love child. Mr. Bianco is apparently famous as an artisan baker and pizza master, hence the flour challenge. And I had no idea there were so many types of flour! Quinoa flour, masa flour, blue corn flour, rice flour, rye flour....

So how did it go down? Bryan Voltaggio, having earlier remarked that he hasn't done well in the Quickfires, then makes a dish that he himself says "doesn't have much flour in it," whereas everyone else is featuring flour. Bryan did this before in the fried rice Quickfire challenge; if I recall correctly, he made something else (porridge? oatmeal?) with a little fried rice on top. I would think he'd know by now that the judges expect the highlighted ingredient to be a major component of the dish.

But he still did way better than Brian Malarkey, who envisioned making coconut ice cream and a coconut donut. Guess which half ended up on the plate? Not the part that uses flour! I really disliked his little "performance" apology to Padma and Chris Bianco, in which he asks them to envision a luscious donut, blah blah blah. I don't want to keep picking on him, but a little of his personality really goes a long way.

On the top end, we had Gregory, Nini, and Melissa, with Gregory taking home $5,000 for his nutty tapioca pancakes with blueberry maple syrup.

The Elimination challenge was certainly interesting. The chefs drew knives for the five flavor profiles: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Then, they had to divide themeselves into pairs, with the caveat that partners could not have the same profile. Karen and Nini (umami/sour) immediately chose to work together, and Gregory and Stephanie (salty/sour), Melissa and Kevin (sweet/salty), and Bryan and Erik (sweet/bitter) quickly sorted themselves. That left Lee Anne and Marlarkey (umami/bitter) to work together. Note to producers: do you realize how much you give away in the editing? The minute we see the pre-commercial teasers of Lee Anne and Marlarkey butting heads, we know that they actually won't be going home. You're telegraphing it all over the place.

At any rate, the task was to cook a dish highlighting the two flavor profiles, and serve it to the judges, the conductor of the L.A. Phil, and 60 orchestra members, all to celebrate the Phil's 100th anniversary. As an aside, I loved conductor Gustavo Dudamel's anecdote about becoming his conductor's assistant at age eleven -- it reminded me of the character Rodrigo De Souza in the fabulous Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle. Back to the cooking: Kevin and Melissa won handily with a cabbage dish, while Padma noted that Lee Anne and Malarkey came close to winning themselves. On the bottom were Bryan V. and Erik, for not getting enough sweetness into their pork dish, and Karen and Nini, for introducing too much sweetness into what was supposed to be an umami/sour dish. Ultimately, Karen and Nini were eliminated. I thought it was the right decision, because it seems a lesser evil to have too little of one flavor profile, versus introducing an intrusive third flavor profile into the dish. They're told, however, that they'll be cooking on Last Chance Kitchen that very night.

One final question about this episode: How is it possible that Nini and Karen were allowed to dig into bins of fish with their bare hands at Whole Foods? Did the store have to throw away any fish they didn't take, or did they sell it to other customers? Gross!


Episode 7: Pitch Perfect

Right at the beginning of the episode, we find Karen back on Top Chef, which I was glad to see. The best moment of that LCK episode was when Joe Sasto, over in the peanut gallery, calls the competitors "girls." Karen, without missing a beat, retorts "Chefs would be better. Where I'm from, they call me Chef too." Boom!

This Quickfire was a little on the silly side. The Chefs had to make tacos in honor of guest judge Danny Trejo, which makes sense because he owns a line of taco restaurants, but the only "knife" they could use was a machete. Yes, yes, I know why, but as far as I'm concerned, that little gimmick was a severed finger waiting to happen. Fortunately, nobody cut anything off. Gregory had a terrible time because he'd never made a tortilla, and being flustered led him to oversalt his rockfish. Stephanie got her first win, with the all-important immunity, and her happiness was great to see. Lee Anne and Karen also showed well.

Okay, this was a terrific idea for an Elimination challenge. The chefs had to pitch their restaurant concepts, including a menu, a mood board, and sample dishes, and the two winners would have their concepts brought to life in the following week's Restaurant Wars. I'll be honest, I didn't know what a mood board was before this episode; I guess now I would describe it was a sophisticated collage that uses colors and textures to elicit a mood that you're trying to convey. Guest judges for this challenge were Stephanie Izard, who won Top Chef: Chicago in 2008, and restauranteur Kevin Boehm.

The concept that appealed the most to me was Melissa's "Sabrina", which she described as modern Asian California that was also romantic. The judges liked it; Kevin Boehn said that Melissa has "Michelin-star chops." But they were more impressed with the tightness of Gregory and Kevin's concepts. Gregory came up with "Kann" (the Haitian word for cane, as in sugar cane), a restaurant serving Haitian wood-fired food, and Kevin presented "The Country Captain", based on the dish of the same name. It's a dish I've never heard of, but apparently it's the first truly American version of a curry dish, generally made with chicken. The judges also liked Malarkey's Baja Asian street food concept, but chose Gregory and Kevin's to compete in Restaurant Wars.

On the bottom: Erik, Stephanie, and Lee Anne. Stephanie had immunity, so that left Erik and Lee Anne. And while her concept was a little run-of-the-mill in the judges' mind, Erik's was also muddy, plus he didn't execute his dishes well, so he went home.


Where We're At Now

Next episode is Restaurant Wars! I don't have a prediction going in -- Restaurant Wars is probably the hardest challenge to predict, ever, because so many things can go wrong no matter how talented the chefs are. They have to depend on servers who don't know their food or the pop-up restaurants layouts, and on diners knowing that they shouldn't linger too long after dessert when there are crowds at the door. I like Kevin and Gregory equally, so I can't even say I have a preference for which restaurant wins.


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Thursday, April 23, 2020

Top Chef: All-Stars L.A. - Playing "Ketchup" with Episodes 3, 4, and 5

[L-R: Ludo LeFebvre, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons]

If I can't keep up with Top Chef blogging when I'm stuck at home 24/7, it's probably hopeless, but I'm going to try and catch up anyway with this summary of Episodes 3, 4, and 5.


Episode 3: Strokes of Genius

I was super excited to see Ali Wong and Randall Park as guest judges for the Quickfire Challenge! I adored them in the Netflix movie they co-wrote, co-produced, and co-starred in, Always Be My Maybe, and I recently read her book Dear Girls, a somewhat rated-R memoir written as short letters to her still-small daughters (to be read after they turn 21, she says). The Quickfire was to make a great fried rice dish, incorporating at least one of the odd ingredients that Randall and Ali had picked, including peanut butter, frog legs, jelly beans, Red Hots, watermelon, Fritos, and so on. Kevin won immunity with what he called "bachelor fried rice"; it contained wieners, cheetos, and bourbon. Ali called it a party in her mouth. (I will make no comments!)

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs went to the Getty Museum to find inspiration in art. I like these kinds of challenges, but sometimes they work better than others. In this case, many of the dishes were a reach when it came to connecting them with the art period that inspired them. But there were some truly beautiful plates. Melissa took top honors with a lobster wonton in broth; guest judge Ludo LeFebvre called it a Michelin-star dish, Gail said it was pretty close to perfection, and Tom called it stunning. I know I certainly wanted to try it!

On the bottom end, Jamie was asked to pack his knives and go, because although his plate was gorgeous, he failed to get the jus onto the chicken, so it ate dry. Lee Anne was also in the bottom, and it's worth noting (because a pattern will emerge) that she ran out of time plating. She still seemed to get everything on the plate, but she said it looked terrible. In my mind, the bigger problem was that it was a whole mess of ingredients. She described it to the judges as: duck breast, a duck egg, a duck confit, beet red wine puree, yellow golden beet puree, fermented black garlic sauce, bread and celery root puree, and poached apples. It seemed like the list would never end!


Episode 4: You're So Fresh

Another fun guest judge for the Quickfire Challenge: Kelly Clarkson! With great promotional timing, her appearance coincided with the upcoming animated Trolls film in which she voices a character. So the kitchen was decorated with Trolls and six bright colors, each one representing a group of trolls and their musical genre from the movie. The chefs had to make a dish with at least one ingredient from each color group. As you can imagine, this resulted in some fairly strange dishes. Gregory won the Quickfire with a butternut squash and plantain vegan soup.

The Elimination Challenge was one I could get really excited about: two teams, each creating a six-course progressive vegetarian meal that would include dessert and feature produce they would be buying at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. The blue team's meal seemed almost perfect, and what I wouldn't give to have been in that restaurant sampling that menu! The red team made the mistake of starting with two raw dishes in a row, and neither were spectacular. Brian Malarkey made a tomato and mozzarella salad that, while beautiful, certainly wasn't very original. It was followed by Lee Anne's hummus with crudite.

Although this season has been fairly drama-free so far, this episode flirted with drama disaster when it came out at Judges' Table that Lee Anne's dish didn't have enough salt on it. Remember I said that pattern that was developing? In Lee Anne's own words, "I just don't have time to finish plating my dish" -- for which she has nobody to blame, especially when 1) it happened to her the previous episode, and 2) she was plating raw vegetables! So Lee Anne made a point at Judges' Table of saying she didn't finish off her plates, somebody else did, at which point a slightly guilt-stricken Marlarkey pointed out that the hummus was underseasoned too, i.e. that could not possibly have been his fault. He didn't need to say this -- the judges wouldn't have sent him home for how much salt he did or didn't put on someone else's dish -- but on the other hand, Lea Anne kind of started it by pointing out that it was supposedly someone else's mistake.

Sigh.... but I have to give Lee Anne credit for letting it go.

At any rate, Melissa won her second Elimination Challenge in a row with a coconut corn soup with pickled garlic chives and puffed rice grains. Again, I would have loved to tasted the entirety of that team's menu, but I also have to say, I was excited by both teams' desserts, which may never have happened before. Eric made a butternut squash and goat's milk pudding with chocolate hazelnut "soil" and a ginger granita. Nini made a delicious-looking "peaches and cream" creampuff with peach sorbet. I bet that tasted heavenly.

Before I move on to the next episode, my two favorite moments were Karen, Stephanie, and Nini chorusing "Good morning, Padma!" while striking a Charlie's Angels pose, and Karen's reaction to seeing Kelly Clarkson walk in through the door. My least favorite moment, however, was when the chefs stormed the table with the colored ingredients, almost knocking each other over and taking ridiculous quantities of food. I will keep saying this until I'm blue in the face: the chefs should not have to physically wrestle over ingredients. They should either draw knives to see who picks in what order, or there should be enough of every ingredient for every chef who wants it.

Episode 5: Bring Your Loved One to Work

Almost every season of Top Chef involves family members, and this season is no exception. For the Quickfire, the chefs had to imitate a restaurant dish as described over the phone by their family member. Padma called this a challenge of communication, and while that was true to an extent, you can be the best communicator in the world and not recognize a certain fish, or know that cilantro is cilantro. So it wasn't an entirely level playing field. Kevin won, assisted by his wife who is not only an attorney with a head for details, she also knows food and subtle tastes. Still, Kevin's reaction when he wins something is adorable, so I had to be happy for him.

I enjoyed this Elimination Challenge. The chefs had to create a signature product and then serve it at an outdoor shopping center with a dish showcasing that product. They had the evening before to prepare the product, then time to cook the dish the next day. During the evening session, Lee Anne's mother became faint and had to leave the kitchen. I was glad to see that Lee Anne behaved like a trouper, and the other chefs pitched in to give her a hand where they could.

Between the evening and the next day, we got one of those interludes where they show the chefs at the house, and we were treated (!) to Brian Malarkey's list of who he thought would go home next. I think the instinct to have those thoughts is entirely natural, and if writing it down helped him organize his thoughts, that's fine. But to share that on television? That was kind of a dick move. I knew the minute they showed it that he would end up in the bottom of the Elimination Challenge, and so he did. Honestly? I'm ready for him to go home. It wasn't him, however, but Jen, whose "sunny" ginger and lemon sauce turned Tom off with its grainy ginger bits. Joining Jen at the bottom were Stephanie, who seems to have a lot of stress-induced crankiness (I can relate), and the afore-mentioned Brian Malarkey.

At the other end of the spectrum, the three top contenders at Judges' Table were Gregory, Nini, and Eric. It's worth noting that all three made something related to their respective Haitian, Vietnamese, and African heritage, which often seems to delight the judges when it's done at this kind of elevated level. Gail said Nini's Nuoc Mam glaze was clearly made with love, the second time she's described Nini's food that way (the other time was the peach dessert). The judges also had a nice word to say to Melissa, who "sold" 31 bottles of her Korean-inspired kimchi-peach vinaigrette. But it was Gregory who took first place.


Where We're At Now

I like this season so far. My top three prediction, in order, is Melissa, Gregory, and Kevin, who all seem to be winning up a storm. Kevin has a lot of heart, but Melissa and Gregory seem to be extremely consistent so far. I'd be happy to see any of the three of them win. My favorite challenge so far has been the vegetarian progressive meal. I'm not a vegetarian myself, but I keep my meat consumption pretty low, and I'm always excited to see what really great chefs can do with vegetarian ingredients.

Until next time .... which is a few hours from now!

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