Friday, October 17, 2014

Top Chef Boston - Episode 1 - Sudden Death

I have watched every season of Top Chef since it began airing in 2006, and what's most amazing to me is that after 12 seasons, I still love this show. They've managed to keep it fresh (no pun intended) with new locations, some new recurring judges, and lots of fun guest judges. But I think the show's basic format and the fact that the judges aren't there to scream at or ridicule the competing chefs are what has given the show it's longevity. Plus I find host Padme Lakshmi and head judge Tom Colicchio to be appealing. Over the years, I've also watched some of the spin-offs: Top Chef: Just Desserts (2 seasons); Top Chef Masters (5 seasons); and Top Chef Duels (1 season). That's a lot of Top Chef!

This season, I plan to blog each episode, starting with this past Wednesday's episode titled "Sudden Death." First, let me say that Richard Blais is a nice addition. I liked him during Season 4 and I liked him even more when he won Top Chef All Stars. He just seems like a nice guy, and as a former competitor, I hope he'll be a little more sympathetic to what the contestants go through. Second: wow, the playing field is getting ... incestuous these days. One of Michael Voltaggio's sous chefs, Mei Lin, is competing. Another chef, George Pagonis, is business partners with Mike Isabella. Several of the contestants already own their own restaurants (one of them, Ron Eyester, owns three). I remember the days when the main reason they came on the show was so that someday, they might eventually own their own restaurant.

The QuickFire

Third, while I'm not sure I'm a huge fan of the "it's the first episode, let's send someone home right now" mentality, there's no way the chefs can be surprised by it at this point in the show's history. I definitely would rather this kind of quick elimination happen based on the chefs making what they think is a suitable dish to present on the show, rather than a mise en place challenge, and definitely rather than anything to do with a team challenge or relay. I just think the viewers lose out when someone goes home because his team was slow and he didn't do great shucking clams.

So here's how the challenge ran: the chefs were divided into four teams of four and had to decide among themselves who would prepare lobsters, mackerel, oysters, and clams. There were a couple of disagreements, of course. I always wonder why the chefs never insist on rock-paper-scissors in a case where they both really want to do the same thing, but there you have it. Padme explained that the slowest chef on the slowest team would face sudden elimination, which I took to mean would not be sent home just on that basis. Different teams held the lead at different points, but George Pagonis ended up on bottom. His task then became to pick any other chef in the room for a head-to-head showdown; if George lost he would go home, and if he won they would both stay. Here, I would have rather had the slowest person on the slowest team go head-to-head with the slowest person overall in an individual leg of the relay, since they wouldn't necessarily be the same person. The way this was constructed, the absolute slowest person in the room may have gone completely under the radar because they had a superstar on their team, and in fact I suspect that may have happened. Another option would have been to have the four slowest in their given tasks (slowest on lobster, slowest on clams, etc.) all compete in a sudden death challenge and have the worst go home. This would have ensured that someone relatively weak on prep and on competing in actual cooking challenges would be eliminated. As it is, George challenged Gregory Gourdet and lost, and now we don't get to know what kind of a chef George is. Boo.

Onwards to the elimination challenge, but first a short PSA: enough with the "Coming Up" snippets, already! Maybe they do lose a few viewers at each commercial break, but I find it insulting that they assume my attention span is so short that I need a commercial for the show I'm already watching while I'm watching it!

Elimination Challenge

The elimination challenge was pretty exciting, I thought: Top Chef put on its own food festival, and the contestants had to create a dish, for 250 people, based on the first dish they ever remember cooking. Personally I thought that was too limiting, since likely the first things a lot of kids cook is maybe eggs and toast; I have to imagine that many of the chefs didn't go quite as far back down memory lane as they could have. I also thought 250 servings was a little daunting, but maybe that was the right way to go, since the contestants these days generally are more experienced. The chefs had three hours to cook, and then each served at their own table at the festival, alongside booths with other Top Chef alums and celebrity chefs.

I have to say, I wish I had been there, because there were a lot of dishes I would have liked to taste. On the other hand, I'm a spice wimp, and a single sliver of hot pepper can wipe out my tastebuds for an entire day. The dishes that excited me included Joy Crump's grits, greens, and chicken skin; Mei Lin's congee (new word for me); Adam Harvey's fish and chips with tri-color salad and mustard mayo; and Stacy Cogswell's pulled chicken salad. The judges also liked Gregory Gourdet's Haitian stewed chicken with bananas and scotch bonnet peppers. I'll have to take their word for that, because I certainly couldn't have handled it. There were some disasters (and Padme and Richard especially weren't shy with the criticism): Katsuji Tanabe's "petroleum shrimp", which was a mess; Aaron Grissom's pork belly, which was so fatty that Padme spit it out; and Michael Patlazhan's chilled corn soup with sriracha caviar, which the judges found overly fishy and texturely off-putting. I have to say, if Katsuji has ever watched the show before, he should have known that any dish with that many ingredients is going to get reamed. He put everything but the kitchen sink in there.

When it came time, the judges called in the entire group; I wonder if they plan to do that every episode. It's not a bad idea, because then everyone gets the chance to learn from all the critiques. The top three picks, which made good sense to me, were Mei Lin, Gregory Gourdet, and Doug Adams, with Mei Lin taking the top spot. She's very accomplished, and there's a danger that she may absolutely dominate the show from beginning to end.

Then came time for the bad news, which is the part I hate. It's necessary, but I feel terrible for them. The bottom three were Michael, Katsuji, and Katie Weinner, who had served a broccoli salad with bacon powder. Richard had dinged Katie for the dish not being terribly appropriate for the event, and for using bacon snow, which he called one of his least favorite modern cooking techniques. While I agreed with the judges that Katie's execution of the dish lacked refinement, I don't particularly agree that a side dish is inappropriate for a food festival. It just has to be a really good side dish. The comments about Michael and Katsuji's dishes echoed what we'd already heard earlier from the judges, and I definitely agreed in those cases.

In the end, Michael was eliminated. I already disliked him, due to a couple of things he'd said. The first was "I got the personality, I have the look, I have the style. I think I will definitely win this competition." Yeah, but can you cook? Get over yourself. The second was in reference to Tom and Gail saying, at the festival, that the salmon eggs in his dish were too fishy, and they didn't get the sriracha heat. Michael said (not in their hearing) that he was "not sure what went wrong with their palettes." Yes, I'm sure both of them had a simultaneous, complete breakdown of their very experienced palettes! Then, when he was eliminated, Michael showed a moment of graciousness, when he said that sometimes you have to fail. And I thought maybe I was too hard on him.

But then he blew it, saying that maybe Tom should be more open-minded, and "sometimes you gotta grow with age, or you maybe get left behind." I'm sure Tom would be interested to learn that he, with his wildly successful career, is completely behind the times. Jeez Louise, I hate that kind of arrogance.

Chefs I Particularly Liked This Week: Mei Lin, for her confidence and competence, Joy Crump for her ability to put together a great-looking down home dish and for her humility.

My Pick for the Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: Stacy Cogswell's pulled chicken salad with sweet pea "green goddess" and cranberry on a homemade potato chip. I really want to see what those flavors taste like together.

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Friday, September 26, 2014

Authors Anonymous

When I heard about Authors Anonymous starring Kaley Cuoco, I suspected it might be a surprise little charmer of a movie, and it was. The premise is that a writers group becomes the subject of a documentary that begins filming just as one of its members, Hannah (Cuoco), lands first an agent, then a book deal, and then a big movie deal in quick succession. Not surprisingly, the other writers in the group have no idea how to handle Hannah's success, even as she remains down to earth and interested in their honest opinions of her work.

Hannah's fellow writers include the earnest, talented Henry (Chris Klein), who was already infatuated with Hannah but had not yet quite worked up his nerve to ask her out; Tom Clancy-wannabee "John K. Butzen" (Dennis Farina), who refers to himself in the third person at every opportunity; young pretender William, who walks the walk but doesn't actually write anything; Colette Mooney (Teri Polo), who's as highstrung as a racehorse and about as good a writer; and Colette's doting but clueless husband Alan Mooney (Dylan Walsh). Also sneaking in with an adorable cameo role is Tricia Helfer as John K. Butzen's German mail-order fiancee, who eventually hopes to become Mrs. John K. Butzen the Fourth.

What's fun about this movie is that it takes writerly cliches that really are based in reality and exaggerates them to a ridiculously funny degree. But there is still poignancy. Hannah is sweet and we want her to succeed, but it actually is sad that she's hardly read a book in her life. Henry, the one with the real talent, is unsure of himself and stuck in a rut that Hannah helps him out of, even though it's painful for him and not necessarily the path that he's hoping for. And even the obnoxious John K. Butzen, who quickly rushes his crappy Vietnam novel to a Chinese vanity publisher in order to have it come out before Hannah's book, is worthy of pity when he's sitting alone in a hardware store at his first so-called book signing. (One can picture him twenty years later, still insisting that the corrupt publishing industry is why he hasn't made the riches he deserves.) And for me, one of the most touching characters is Sigrid (Tricia Helfer); she really, truly believes in and tries to support John, until she finally has to face reality because he's incapable of doing the same.

The movie's not perfect; it tends to forget the documentary format for long stretches and then clumsily reintroduces it every once in a while. It doesn't have the brilliant biting wit of the black comedy faux documentary Drop Dead Gorgeous, for instance, and there's simply no way anyone would want to make a documentary about such an unproven group of writers anyway. But at the same time, I'm not sure if another format would have worked as well for this movie, because having the characters speak directly to the camera really adds a lot of humor. For instance, Hannah can't remember the word "metaphor" when she's trying to explain that her novel, Sleeping on the Moon, isn't really about people sleeping on the moon, and her mother has to prompt her to remember the name Jane Austen as someone who is doing really well and should "keep it up." Teri Polo is the real comedic standout as Colette, who unsuccessfully pretends to be happy for Hannah while desperately trying to draw attention back to her own presumed brilliance. She has one of the movie's funniest lines; when asked about her favorite writers, she shares that "Joyce Carol Oates has been known to bring me to actual orgasm." Dennis Farina and Dylan Walsh are also spot-on. In fact, there's not a single false note in the acting as far as I'm concerned.

Ultimately, this movie isn't at all realistic, but I didn't care one bit. The over-the-top exaggeration of "those writer types" mixed with just the right amount of sweetness made this movie a lot of fun. This probably went direct to DVD (which I note doesn't even have subtitles in English), but it's absolutely worth seeking out. And it's also worth mentioning that this is the only thing I've seen Kaley Cuoco in other than The Big Bang Theory, which I adore, and at no time did I see her as Penny instead of Hannah. She's also the executive producer on this film, so kudos to her on both counts.

Edited to add: I'm mortified that I'm a writer, this is a movie about writers, and I forgot to mention the person who wrote the movie! His name is David Congalton.
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Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Midsummer Night's Week

This week I immersed myself in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, starting with the Houston Ballet performance on Saturday, September 6. It was an amazing ballet, about which I'll write much more below. It was so wonderful, in fact, that I immediately wanted to see it again (and not just because I'd had a coughing spell that made me miss fifteen minutes of the first act -- that was just a convenient excuse to go again!). So I went to see it again on Friday, September 12, choosing that night because I wanted to see the same cast. In between the two performances, I also watched the 1999 movie version of this work (starring, among others, Christian Bale, Rupert Everett, Calista Flockhart, Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Stanley Tucci). I also listened to the story contained in the audiobook Shakespeare for Children by Charles and Mary Lamb.

And I have to say, knowing the story as well as I did by the time I saw the second performance really made a difference for me. By the time the two pairs of lovers get to the woods, there is no mistaking what is going on, but during the opening scenes of the ballet, it can be difficult to understand who loves whom, who is indifferent to whom, and who is outright annoyed by whom. This is through no fault of the dancers or choreography, but simply because it's not possible to watch all of them at once, especially when different things are happening on opposite ends of the stage. When I saw it the second time, I caught many things I'd missed the first time around, in large part because I had a better idea what to look for.

In my mind, the ballet was beautifully cast. I was thrilled to see all three female prinicpals in the leading roles, and thought they each had the right one. Melody Mennite is particularly good at comedic roles (although also a beautiful, romantic dancer), and so made a wonderful Helena. Sara Webb was the lovely Hermia, and Karina Gonzalez transitioned perfectly between Hippolyta and the otherworldly (almost alien) Titania. The ballet underplays Hippolyta's role as Queen of the Amazons, making Hippolyta instead a girlish and reluctant bride-to-be without the overtones of conquest, but considering how much the ballet has to convey in such a short time, I thought this was a wise choice.

Not enough can be said about Connor Walsh as Puck. I sat in the Loge Boxes in the first performance and the balcony the second; I could have kicked myself for forgetting to bring opera glasses both times, but I could see Connor Walsh's comic facial expressions even from the balcony. My husband and I always hope to see him in the lead the nights we attend, because we think he is easily the best male actor in the company, and that doesn't come at the expense of athletic and dancing ability. He is incredibly powerful.

In the other leads roles, Aaron Robison played Theseus and Oberon. Like Karina Gonzalez, he made the transition well, looking alien and freakishly angular as Oberon, but romantic and dreamy by the time he reappears as Theseus in Act II. Linnar Looris conveyed Demetrius' arrogance and self-importance well, and was a great counter to Helena's ludicrous attempts to hang on to him. Ian Casady was appealing as Lysander. James Gotesky, one of my favorite dancers in the company, played Botton, and Christopher Coomer also stood out as Flute, who in turn must play the female role of Thisbe in the play presented by the Mechanicals at the wedding.

The comedic elements of this ballet are terrific. Instead of having to listen to Helena in the play as she literally tells Demetrius that she will be his spaniel, and he can kick and beat her without changing her love for him, we can watch the more lighthearted interpretation in which Helena hangs on Demetrius in a pathetic manner that yet manages to be more funny than sad. By the time Demetrius and Lysander are both fighting for Helena's affections, and poor Hermia is trying to figure out what's going on, it's hysterical. And when Puck finally has to unravel the disaster he's created, his clumsy attempts to physically put the right couples together are laugh-out-loud funny. I don't think this ballet misses a single opportunity for physical comedy.

There were only a few minor things about the production I would have changed. I loved the fairy costumes, but would have liked to see the primary fairy roles (Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, and Moth) just slightly distinguished in their dress. I'm not sure how they could have done this precisely, because the usual trick of a sash or a ribbon or a slightly different color would not quite have worked with their flesh-colored, slightly metallic skin-tight leotards. There was one point when I could tell that two of these four characters were dancing, but only because I recognized the dancer, Katherine Precourt, and knew her to be in that particular role. (It says something in itself that I could recognize her without opera glasses, from that far away, while in identical costumes with her hair completely covered, but I believe I would recognize her shape and her dancing even if she had a paper bag over her head. She's intense and powerful.)

Similarly, I would have liked to see a tiny bit more to Puck's costume. I wanted something just slightly twiggy or leafy. Puck is a lot different than the fairies, and I wanted that represented a bit more.

I had one moment of disconnect when Demetrius and Helena have their spotlight dance at the wedding, in this case because of the music. I could not tell from the program what piece of music they danced to, and it's possible it was still the main composer (Mendelssohn), but out of nowhere the music for this couple because almost Asian or eastern, and slightly exotic, and somehow completely out of keeping with the comedy of Helena and with the pageantry of the rest of the scene. I have a vague idea that this music was supposed to represent Demetrius' culture or something -- in ballet, you get a lot of prospective grooms, or fathers presenting their daughters as prospective brides, with exhibition dances that clearly represent their particular ethnicity or culture. But I didn't get any hint early in the ballet that this was meant to be the case with either Demetrius or Helena.

I wish I could have also seen the alternate cast, in particular Jessica Collado as Hermia and Emily Bowen as Helena. I'd also love to see how Aaron Robison danced Bottom the Weaver, quite a different role than Thesius/Oberon.

Later this season, Houston Ballet will perform The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet. I'll be brushing up on both works in other media before seeing the ballet performances. The more you put in to Shakespeare, and to ballet, the more you get out of it.

[Top and bottom photos are Aaron Robison as Oberson and Katrina Gonzalez as Titania; middle photo is Linnar Looris as Demetrius and Melody Mennite as Helena. Photos are property of the Houston Ballet].
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Saturday, September 6, 2014

A Tale of Two Art Forms: Houston Grand Opera and the Houston Ballet

Yesterday my husband and I had a great experience, or two great experiences, really, in an amazing juxtaposition. Over lunchtime, we attended a workshop by HGOco, which is “Houston Grand Opera’s unique initiative that connects HGO to the community through meaningful collaboration." A lot of what HGOco does consists of workshops, opera camps, student-only performances, etc., but they also commission works particularly relevant to the local community. Along those lines, in the fall of 2015, HGO will premiere O Columbia, a chamber opera telling the story of the exploring spirit in general and the Columbia shuttle tragedy in particular.

At yesterday’s workshop, we listened to a libretto reading given by professional actors for the material as it exists to date. The entire creative team was in attendance, including librettist Royce Vavrek, composer Gregory Spears, HGOco Music Advisor David Hanlon, and director Kevin Newbury. The purpose of the workshop was for the creative team to get feedback from several opera enthusiasts as well as current and former NASA employees, including at least one astronaut. This allows them to assess whether the piece is moving in the right direction before the work goes further, particularly the musical composition.

For us, it offered an extremely rare opportunity to see the early stages of the creative process in action. I didn't know that the libretto comes before the music, and now that I know, I still can’t imagine the complexities of having to write words that will be sung when you don’t yet know the melody (although of course they have been collaborating throughout the process, so they’re on the same page in that regard), or the difficulty of fitting the music around words while also carrying certain melodic themes throughout the entire work. We've had season tickets to the opera for a few years now, and I know that I will look at productions differently after having seen some of what goes into them.

Without going into further details, I have to say that if you live anywhere in Texas, when the time comes you should make every effort to get to Houston to see O Columbia. (Although you don't have to live in Texas -- there are lots of flights to Houston every day!) It’s going to be an amazing opera, one that’s incredibly personal to anyone even remotely affiliated with NASA or simply interested in human spaceflight. It will be even more personal to those of us who live in Houston, but it’s not limited to that. So remember: Fall 2015. This is going to be really special, and shouldn’t be missed.

By complete coincidence, yesterday evening we also attended a talk presented by the Houston Ballet. Every season, the company puts on three full-length ballets and three mixed repertoire performances. This year, all three full-lengths will be Shakespeare (how fun is that?!), so last night’s Ballet Talk was about interpreting Shakespeare through dance. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but it’s a fascinating topic, because Shakespeare is all about the language, none of which is available in dance. Houston Ballet will be performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and The Taming of the Shrew over the 2014-15 season, and now I can't wait to compare them to the plays. (Tangent: a fun coincidence is that the first opera I ever saw was HGO’s performance of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s really interesting to see the same story as both opera and ballet; I believe the only other story I’ve seen in both forms is Madame Butterfly.)

For this Ballet Talk, the panel of experts consisted of Artistic Director (and choreographer) Stanton Welch, Managing Director Emeritus and ballet historian Cecil C. Conner, Jr., and University of Houston-Clear Lake literature professor Dr. Elizabeth Klett. The talk began with some interesting literary context from Dr. Klett. For instance, who knew that the story was not original to Shakespeare, but came instead from what Dr. Klett said was a "frankly terrible" 1562 poem by Arthur Brooke titled "The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet"? Dr. Klett gave us lots of other interesting tidbits, and was followed by Mr. Conner's overview of various Shakespearean ballets over the years, accompanied by some lovely photographs of famous performances.

My favorite part of the talk, though, was when Stanton Welch spoke about the new Romeo and Juliet he’s creating that will premiere in the spring. He said that while you might expect the artistic process for a new production to begin with the choreography, it’s actually the opposite: you start with the sets (built with models down to opening doors and cloth backdrops) and the costumes and don’t get down to the characters and the choreography until much later. This production's scenery and costumes have been designed by Roberta Guidi di Bagno (go here for a great blog post by Laura Lynch, Houston Ballet Wardrobe Manager, on working with the designer and shopping for fabrics in Rome).

Another thing Mr. Welch discussed was his intention to reestablish many of the play’s minor characters that have been eliminated from most dance productions. Another part of the process is settling on intentions and motivation; he said that in watching several versions of the play, he’s noticed that Mercutio’s famous speech has been played as slightly mad, as humorous, as angry…. Which of those will ultimately fit the version he wants to tell, and how to portray that in dance?

As with the opera workshop, I felt we were getting a look at the creative process in action. Especially when re-creating one of the most performed stories in recent history, how do you keep all that in mind and manage to make it all come together in the end, into a work that has its own personality?

And to think all this time I've thought that simply writing a short story was difficult. It is difficult, to be fair, but I have to admit that I'm amazed at what goes in to these other, extremely complex forms of storytelling. I’m glad there are such talented people out there who are so devoted to these two art forms.

[Costume design sketch by Roberta Guidi di Bagno.]
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