Sunday, March 29, 2020

Top Chef: All-Stars L.A. - Episode 2 - "The Jonathan Gold Standard"

[The Top Chef contestants arrive at L.A.'s Union Station]

This week's episode had a little change-up in format; instead of competing in a Quickfire Challenge, the chefs spent a day exploring a handful of L.A. restaurants listed in the late food critic Jonathan Gold's guidebook. The first 17 minutes of the episode consisted of the chefs sampling some of Gold's favorite dishes, looking for inspiration for the dish they would each individually serve to 200 guests gathering to honor Gold, who passed away in 2018.

Elimination Challenge

After stuffing themselves silly (no judgment here; I'm just envious!), the chefs were given 30 minutes and $700 to shop at Whole Foods. That seems like a lot of money, but of course they want the best ingredients and they'll be serving 200 people apiece.

A little foreshadowing occurred during prep: Eric Adjepong said of his African-inspired scallops and braised red cabbage that it was a "kind of funky pairing" so it would be hard to pull off. Just as Tom Colicchio told Joe Sasto in the first episode that "glue" isn't a word you want to have associated with your food, so I would tell Eric the same about the word "funky." In the meantime, Stephanie Cmar realized mid-service that offering Indian food to Padma without having any experience cooking it might not have been the best strategy.

At the event, the two guest judges were food writer Ruth Reichl and Laurie Ochoa, an arts and entertainment editor and Jonathan Gold's wife. I enjoyed seeing director and actor Jon Favreau as one of the guests, especially because I recently watched his movie Chef, in which he plays a high-level chef who finds himself again by running a food truck.

The dishes were varied and interesting! I was drawn to Melissa King's mala beef tartare served on a little spiced potato chip, but sadly would have found it too spicy. I truly wish I wasn't a spice wimp. Same goes for Karen Akunowicz's pan-roasted cumin lamb dumpling. I'm a sucker for dumplings, but when describing it she used the word "chili" twice.... I was puzzled by Brian Malarkey's dish, which was (deep breath) a fried rice beef tartare with kimchi vinaigrette, cracked peanuts, and a fish-sauce cured fermented egg yolk.


Lee Anne's dish... I'm with Tom; you could see by his expression that he wasn't won over by the cheese and fish combination. And assuming the order of service aired is the same that actually happened, you could tell Lee Anne's confidence in it was shaken when she self-consciously greeted Padma and Gail with "Hello, ladies, I'm braving the fish and cheese boat."

One thing that puzzled me show-wise is that we heard chefs describing their dishes during prep, we heard again when the first set of judges tasted them, and yet again when the other set of judges tasted them. It seems to me that in years past, we would hear one set of judges' reactions or the other, but not usually both, unless there was something unusual going on. So this episode felt a little repetitious to me by the end. Is it because they had more time to fill due to the lack of a Quickfire Challenge? Meanwhile, the silhouette of Jonathan Gold projected high on the wall made me think that Alfred Hitchcock was there waiting for a murder mystery on the Top Chef show.

Judges' Table

Overall the judges thought the group did a good job honoring Jonathan Gold's legacy. Their three favorite dishes were by Nini, Kevin, and Brian Voltaggio. Tom loved Nini's broth from her "masa" ball soup so much that he told her he'd had someone bottle up what was left since he was feeling under the weather. Ruth Reichl said that she was expecting the worst from Kevin's "clunky ball" but that it turned out to be delicious, and she said twice during the show that he needs to bottle the apple butter that he used, which turned out to be his grandmother's recipe. Gail told Brian V. that his short ribs felt like a departure from anything she'd eaten before from him, which made me think: if someone asked me to describe Brian V's food overall, I couldn't do it. I don't have a feeling for who he is as a cook, but at the same time, I would have confidence in anything he put down in front of me. Of the three, the judges picked Kevin's dish as their favorite.

Next came the three least favorite dishes, and there were really no surprises based on the comments made during the event. Angelo, Stephanie, and Eric were called up to have their dishes picked apart. Stephanie accepted the criticism gracefully; she was obviously unhappy with herself, but she didn't disagree with anything the judges said. Of Eric's dish, Gail said that the two pieces (the scallops and the cabbage) were not talking to each other. When asked about his dish, Angelo talked again about being inspired by tumeric. Tom called the dish too sweet, Padma said that the tuna, while beautifully seasoned, didn't make sense in the dish, and Ruth had the severest criticism of the night when she said, not unkindly, that the tuna had died in vain because the dish was just a piece of flesh in broth. She also said that she felt like the three bottom chefs forgot that food is supposed to be delicious, and the cutest moment of the episode is Padma's expression when she says, "YESSSSS!!!" to indicate that Ruth expressed Padma's own feelings perfectly.

Ultimately, Angelo was asked to pack his knives. I'm sad to see him go, but I felt like his focus wasn't there as I remembered it from his previous season. I did watch "Last Chance Kitchen", by the way, and debated blogging about that too, but I've decided I'll just let that unfold as it may.

Elimination Challenge Winner: Kevin Gillespie

Packed Their Knives: Angelo Sosa

Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: Kevin's roasted pork, mushroom, and black currant terrine with apple butter, because I'm a sucker for hot little dumpling-type foods, especially with unexpected ingredients (as long as they're not too spicy!)

Question of the Week: When did everyone on Top Chef decide that saying "in broth" was too passe, and we must now refer to it as "en brodo" as much as possible?

Who I'm Most Rooting for After this Episode: Kevin Gillepsie, because who wouldn't be moved by his humble statement upon winning this week, and Melissa King. I can't put my finger on what it is, but there's something about her that I really like. I also liked Nini's sweet and apparently calm disposition. She thought of a dish, she made it, she served it with confidence -- no drama there at all.

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Monday, March 23, 2020

Top Chef: All-Stars L.A. - Episode 1 - "It's Like They Never Left"

[Left to right: Jeremiah Tower, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons]

Although this season of Top Chef is called "Top Chef All Stars L.A.", I'm tempted to rename it "Top Chef 2020 - The Social Distancing Edition". The enforced isolation is giving me the time to blog the episodes again, something I haven't been able to do in a couple of years. And heaven knows I want and need the distraction from the news right now!

Before I get started ... It occurred to me to think about whether I prefer this, an all-star season, to a regular season with a completely new crop of chefs. And I think I prefer this right now, because it's the TV version of "comfort food," giving me a lot of familiar faces, most of whom I like. And I'm all about comfort food at the moment! I'm most excited to see Gregory Gourdet, Angelo Sosa, Lee Anne Wong, and Bryan Voltaggio back -- although I think it's a bit weird for Bryan to be back after having been on Top Chef Masters. And as always, it's terrific to see Tom, Padma, and Gail again!

QuickFire Challenge

I liked this version of the familiar mis-en-place, which took place at L.A.'s Griffith Observatory, presumably because it's both iconic and scenic. All 15 chefs started by "turning" artichokes, which I think means removing the leaves and the choke to get to the heart. The first five chefs to finish to Tom's satisfaction formed the first team, and got to immediately speed away and begin on the remainder of the Quickfire challenge, which was to use the prepped ingredients to create two dishes. The remaining 10 chefs began to "supreme" California oranges, a term I've never heard used as a verb before! According to, supreming "is a technique that removes the membrane from citrus fruit so it can be served in slices" with "no rind, no pith, no mess." The five chefs who finished this task first formed the second team, and also got to leave for the kitchen, but the remaining chefs had to shell 20 perfect almonds, which apparently is a lot harder than it sounds. The last team couldn't leave for the kitchen until all five had completed the task, and once they arrived, the 15-minute clock started for all teams, giving the first two teams a significant time advantage over the third.

Rather than list the many variations of artichoke dishes that were prepared and given Really Long Names, I'll summarize by saying that the first team, wearing red aprons, won the challenge, even though Joe Sasto's pasta was one of the judges' least favorite elements (and Joe making pasta was the source of the episode title "It's Like They Never Left", because apparently he made it a few too many times during his original season). Each member of this team became a team captain for the Elimination Challenge, and were given the option of choosing their team members. So the competition went from 3 teams of 5 preparing 2 dishes to 5 teams of 3 preparing 3 dishes. (Got that?)

Elimination Challenge

This was a fun challenge, and one that folks who've competed on the show before, and watched other seasons, might have seen coming: cooking seafood on the beach using only a fire pit. Each chef was meant to prepare an individual dish, but the judges were also looking for cohesiveness among each team.

The Green team went first, consisting of Melissa King, Karen Akunowicz, and Angelo Sosa. I remember Melissa and Angelo from prior seasons, but I think I must have missed Karen's season. I remember Melissa having this sort-of understated super-competence, if that makes sense, and she showed it here by impressing the judges with her grilled swordfish and radicchio. Karen's grilled scallops also went over well, but Angelo's oysters were, according to Tom, off-putting because there were neither hot nor cold. In fact, Tom compared the oysters to eating phlegm.

Next came the Red team: Brian Malarkey, who served sea urchin and spot prawns with hibiscus ponzu; Joe Sasto, who offered a flatbread with clams, sea urchin, peppers, and aioli; and Lee Anne Wong, who prepared a glazed halibut and sea urchin. It immediately became clear that this team was likely to be on the bottom, because Brian and Lee Anne's dishes both had sauces that made the flatbread soggy (the food was served family-style). Lee Anne also accidentally burned the edges of her fish.

The Yellow team was led by Jamie Lynch, who served steamed muscles that Tom ultimately found a little dry, although the judges liked the taste. Gregory Gourdet made a charred salmon with grilled peaches (yum) and a roasted chili dressing, which I'm sure would have been too spicy for me, but the judges loved it. Stephanie Cmar served a brined prawn with tomato sauce and roasted corn dressing, which Gail loved. Guest judge Nancy Silverton said she liked everything from this team.

Next up: the Dark Blue team (they were just called the Blue team, but the last team looked to be Light Blue to me!). Kevin Gillepsie made an eye of swordfish dish that Tom said was overcooked, although all of the judges practically gasped at how beautiful the presentation was. Jennifer Carroll made a spiced tuna loin with grilled kale, which multiple judges said they would gladly eat every day. Nini Nguyen, another chef I don't recognize (so I probably missed her season), served a grilled scallop with a variety of vegetables. The judges commented on the "herb line" that went through all three dishes, drawing them together as a cohesive meal.

Last but not least was the Light Blue team, with Bryan Voltaggio serving a sablefish over corn porridge and charred leeks. The judges liked the taste but the fish was somewhat overcooked. Eric Adjepong, who I don't recognize, made a "Chesapeake boil" with prawns -- I'm not sure what that means. Lisa Fernandes made a ceviche that Tom praised for being simple and ice cold.

Judges' Table

So there were no real surprises at the Judges' Table. The Yellow team won, with Gregory taking home top honors, and the Red team was on the bottom. The only bit of suspense was whether Lee Anne or Joe would go home, and in the end it was Joe. I always feel for that first chef to go home.

What actually surprised me in this episode was how much Lee Anne struggled during every phase. She was on the last team in the mis-en-place contest, her tempura artichoke was thick and doughy, ostensibly because she couldn't get a fryer quickly enough or for long enough, and she burned her fish by pouring olive oil directly on top of her grilling fish instead of rubbing the oil on the grill itself. I like Lee Anne, so I don't want to pick on her, but I wonder if her difficulties stem from the fact that after competing during Season 1 of Top Chef, she then went on to work as a behind-the-scenes producer of the show for several years, which may have kept her from doing as much cooking as she otherwise would have done. Anyway, hopefully she'll go far in the season, and she did go far in Season 1. [Edited to add: ack! I didn't realize Lee Anne was also on Season 15, which I missed. So much for my theory!]

So, to wrap up.....

Quick Fire Winner: Red team - Brian V., Jamie, Joe, Melissa, and Kevin

Elimination Challenge Winner: Gregory Gourdet

Packed Their Knives: Joe Sasto

Dish I Most Wanted to Taste The Blue team's artichoke tempura with citrus aioli, from the Quickfire Challenge

Who I'm Most Rooting for After this Episode: Gregory, Kevin, Melissa, and Angelo

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Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Noël Coward's "Private Lives" at Main Street Theater

Left to right: Skyler Sinclair as Sibyl, Alan Brincks as Elyot, Elizabeth Marshall Black as Amanda, and Joel Grothe as Victor. Photo credit: Main Street Theater.

Last Saturday I saw "Private Lives" at Main Street Theater in Rice Village. By necessity, this will be a short review that doesn't do the play justice, but I have to post it now because there are only four more performances left: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (August 8, 9, 10) at 7:30 pm, and a matinee on Sunday August 11 at 3 pm. I highly recommend it!

As far as I know, I'd never seen a Noël Coward play before this, but I had a vague idea that "Private Lives" would be something akin to a Neil Simon/Tom Stoppard-esque romantic comedy set in the 1930s. And that did turn out to be pretty close, which means it was right up my alley. The premise, as described by the MST website, is that "Elyot and Amanda, once married and now divorced, meet again while honeymooning with new spouses at the same hotel and discover the old flame still burns hotly." You can probably imagine what might ensue from that.

This is such a fun play! Elyot and Amanda, played beautifully by Alan Brincks and Elizabeth Marshall Black, are a ridiculous, overly dramatic pair, given to trading flowery declarations and hot-headed insults almost in the same breath. They share some terrific comedic moments that are enhanced by Main Street Theater's creative staging-in-the-round. And how challenging that must have been! When you have characters wrestling, tango-dancing, and throwing vases of water at each other only a few feet from the audience on all sides, well, you have to be pretty darn precise in your blocking. Kudos to director Claire Hart-Palumbo and the rest of the stage crew for that.

But back to the acting, I was seriously impressed by Alan Brincks as Elyot. His facial expressions were quick to change and spot-on, right down to popping veins in his forehead and neck when Elyot's temper gets the best of him. Skyler Sinclair and Joel Grothe, who portray the jilted newlyweds, have to play it fairly straight in Act 1 and appear only at the end of Act II, but it's worth the wait, because they really get to let loose in Act III with Sibyl's little-girl hysterics and Victor's pompous (and failing) determination to remain calm. And last but not least, Rebecca Greene Udden has a small part as a French housekeeper that may have elicited the loudest laughs of the evening.

I've said it before but it's worth repeating: Main Street Theater is a charming playhouse that puts on terrific productions. Go!

Elyot (Alan Brincks) and Amanda (Elizabeth Marshall Black).
Photo credit: Main Street Theater.

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Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Short fiction read in February 2019

Short Fiction read in February 2019

This blog post is dreadfully late; here it is April 2, and I'm just now posting about my February short fiction reading. I've kept up with the reading throughout March, but the posting, not so much. But I'm determined to keep with this project, even if I'm a little slow posting about it.

At any rate, my reading for February was a little unusual for me. As usual, I mostly read SF&F in February, but only one of the pieces I want to talk about falls in that category. The other two are a contemporary Japanese story in translation, and a British period piece published around 1927. I'll start with that last one.

"O Tempora! O Mores!" by E.M. Delafield

Length: 6,353 words (estimated based on word/page count)
Category: British period fiction (short story)
Where Published: The Entertainment and Other Stories (collection)
When Published: 1927 (anthology date)
Link: N/A

Years ago, I fell in love with E.M. Delafield's novel Thank Heaven Fasting -- long enough ago that I don't recall how I happened to stumble upon it. My copy is a Virago Modern Classic edition, and at one point I casually began acquiring those, but I can't remember if I started collecting them because I loved Delafield's novel and hoped to find more in the same vein, or if I was already collecting them and that's how I happened to come across Delafield's book.

No matter. I love that book. Love it. So much so that I can quote a great many lines from it. It's about a girl named Monica who makes her debut -- formally presented at court, to royalty, in London in the early 20th century. Monica's entire upbringing has been centered on making her attractive to eligible men, in a world where there aren't enough men to go around and girls often "get left."

It sounds so simple. But the story is beautifully complex.

In the intervening years, I've read additional Delafield novels; I'm even listed as "producing" the novel Consequences on Project Guternberg because I proofread the OCR text for the Girlebooks website several years ago. But it wasn't until last year that I learned she published at least two short story collections. Interlibrary Loan to the rescue! I read Love Has No Resurrections and Other Stories (1939) in September 2018, and I just finished The Entertainment and Other Stories (1927) a few days ago. Surprisingly to me, I found the earlier stories to be stronger. In both of these collections, most of the individual stories don't stand out in an obvious way, but all I have to do is read my one-line summary of each story and I can easily recall its characters and many of its details. This is in contrast to the fact that I often forget a genre story I've read within a day, if it doesn't truly grab me. In any case, Delafield writes of society girls, convent-raised girls, servants, and landladies, and makes them all come to life. She's realistic about class differences and rarely goes for the fairy tale ending. And I've only just begun to scratch the surface of her work.

As it happens, I only read three of the works in The Entertainment and Other Stories in time for February's reading round-up; the rest will be listed with my March short fiction reading. Of the three I read in February, I wanted to mention "O Tempora! O Mores!" in particular. In this story, Amabel Forrester is an upper-class young woman who does what such young women do; that is, she arranges flowers, does needlework, and waits for someone to propose. (This isn't far off from Austen's work in that regard.) By chance, she meets a young man while volunteering at an annual summer school day party for children that takes place at the vicarage. The young man, however, is the eldest son of a semi-local farming family; he had gone to Canada to seek his fortune and is back for a family visit. But upper class girls are not meant to mingle with farmers, so.... but I won't give away anything else on the off chance that someone wants to read up on Delafield. In the end, while I've come to love Jane Austen's work, I find Delafield's prose style much more accessible.

I'm so glad I was able to get this through Interlibrary Loan, because I truly enjoyed almost every story, which I can rarely say about any collection or anthology.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Length: 33,660 words (estimated based on word/page count)
Category: Contemporary Japanese fiction (novella)
Where Published: Grove Press (standalone work)
When Published: June 2018 (English language edition)
Link (Amazon book page)

This novella follows Keiko Furukawa, a Japanese woman in her thirties who is still working part-time at a convenience store instead of either getting married or pursuing a "real" job -- that is, "real" as defined by her parents and most of Japanese society. Even Keiko's managers, who value her absolute reliability and pride in her work, urge her to find something better. But while Keiko is not necessarily happy in the convenience store, she's comfortable there, and that's not nothing. The store's envirnoment supplies her with mechanisms for dealing with the social cues that she rarely understands. And the rules about engaging with customers are plain and simple, which is just what Keiko needs to fit in.

Nonetheless, the social pressure to find some ambition continues to grow, so Keiko tries an experiment: letting a man, whose employment at the convenience store is very short-lived, stay in her apartment so she can pretend she has a live-in boyfriend. If I have any complaints about this novella, it's that the man is such a jerk, but that is kind of the point. At any rate, this is a quick and compelling little read.

"Counting Days" by Patricia Lundy

Length: 989 words
Category: Science fiction (flash fiction)
Where Published: Daily Science Fiction
When Published: February 1, 2019
Link (free to readers)

Two young woman, one who cuts herself and one who hurts herself in a decidedly more science fictional way, learn to support each other in their efforts to cope with their self-harm compulsions.

In the past few years, I've gotten to know several people experiencing long-term, significant emotional pain, and I felt that this short piece captures that reality quite well. That's one of the things I love about speculative fiction -- it often examines very familiar topics in new ways.

Complete list of stories read in February 2019:

(alphabetical by author)
  1. "Bleed" by Brenda Joyce Anderson (2019)
  2. "Unraveling" by K.G. Anderson (2016)
  3. "Sonny Liston Takes the Fall" by Elizabeth Bear (2008)
  4. "Local Senior Celebrates Milestone" by Matthew Claxton (2019)
  5. "Taste" by Roald Dahl (1945)
  6. "The Entertainment" by E.M. Delafield (ca. 1927)
  7. "Incidental" by E.M. Delafield (ca. 1927)
  8. "O Tempora! O Mores!" by E.M. Delafield (ca. 1927)
  9. "Yona's Android" by Michelle Denham (2019)
  10. "The Debt" by Meg Elison (2018)
  11. "Childhood of a Famous Military Leader" by Jay Gershwin (2019)
  12. "Evening Star" By Paul Alex Gray (2017)
  13. "Give the Family My Love" by A.T. Greenblatt (2019)
  14. "Only in New York" by Libby Heily (2019)
  15. "Cherubim" by Julia Heslin (2019)
  16. "The Magician's Clown" by M.L. Kejera (2019)
  17. "Universal Print" by Fonda Lee (2015)
  18. "Counting Days" by Patricia Lundy (2019)
  19. "Convenience Store Woman" by Sayaka Murata (2016 Japanese; 2018 English)
  20. "Reach Out and Touch Someone" by Val Nolan (2019)
  21. "In September" by Aimee Ogden (2019)
  22. "A La Carte" by Joy Kennedy-O'Neill (2019)
  23. "Painwise" by Robert Reed (2019)
  24. "The Experiment" by Michael Adam Robson (2019)
  25. "How Much is Too Much?" by Paavo Saari (2019)
  26. "Gifts of Prometheus" by Alex Shvartsman (2019)
  27. "The Goblin" by Christina Sng (2019)
  28. "Ardent Clouds" by Lucy Sussex (2008)
  29. "3 Minutes" by Adam Walker (2019)
  30. "The Tentacle and You" by John Wiswell (2019)
  31. "Wet" by John Wiswell (2014)
  32. "Lullaby" by Lynden Xu (2019)

List of the sources from which these stories came: (alphabetical by anthology title, magazine title, website name, etc.)
  • Clarkesworld
  • Crossed Genres
  • Curious Fictions (fiction reprint website)
  • Daily Science Fiction
  • The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy (anthology, 2008)
  • Diabolical Plots
  • The Entertainment and Other Stories (collection by E.M. Delafield, 1927)
  • Every Day Fiction
  • Food Fictions (audio reprint anthology, 2007)
  • Ladies Home Journal
  • The London Reader
  • Nature

I'm going to hold off posting stats for February because I've messed up somewhere on my numbers, and I need to figure out where. (That's actually a big part of why this post is so late!)

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