Saturday, December 20, 2014

A New Christmas Carol

Photo by Lynn Lane from the Houstonia Magazine website; Jay Hunter Morris as the narrator in Houston Grand Opera's A Christmas Carol.

You wouldn't think there were any new ways to present A Christmas Carol, but of course there are. I've been aware of a one-man version performed by Patrick Stewart in New York and London upon occasion (what I wouldn't give to see that!), but I hadn't been aware until recently that Dickens himself used to present the tale in one-man performances. And it certainly wouldn't have occurred to me that someone adapt it as a one-man chamber opera. But Houston Grand Opera is doing all kinds of new things these days, so on Friday night we saw the world premiere production of A Christmas Carol by composer Iain Bell and librettist Simon Callow. The role of the narrator was sung by tenor Jay Hunter Morris; he is singing the part for eight performances in all, and will be spelled in two additional performances by Kevin Ray. What a feat of stamina to do this role even once, singing alone for ninety straight minutes!

One aspect of this production I loved was the set, which consisted primarily of a staircase with a door (and occasionally a window) at the top, and a white-canopied bed that appeared during the scenes that took place in Scrooge's bedchamber. The staircase was made of segments that could be moved together or alone by the crew of actors/stagehands who were dressed entirely in black so that they remained almost completely unobtrusive. Geometrically minimalist chairs, constructed and placed in ways to deliberately exaggerate perspective, were very effective, and when the Ghost of Christmas Present points out the starving children who are Want and Ignorance, two almost-invisible figures write those words graffiti-style in dripping white paint on the side of the black staircase. The set pieces were moved just often enough to keep the show dynamic without going overboard. In fact, the only visual elements I would have changed were Marley-as-doorknocker, which looked odd, and Scrooge's costume itself. He wore a suit and suspenders of (to me) indeterminate period, when I would have liked just a hint of the Victorian there, which I think would have worked even with the stark set.

In terms of the music itself, I thought the use of bells and chimes in the right places was extremely evocative, but there were more times when the music didn't make sense to me than times it did. I enjoyed Morris's overall performance, however. His face and hands were particularly expressive, and his diction was amazing -- I don't think there's ever been a time when I've needed the surtitles less. But I did have trouble understanding whether and how the vocal thread was connected to the orchestral music. I asked my husband if he thought some formal education is required to appreciate atonal work; he said he thought it was more a matter of taste, but I do still think the majority of listeners find atonal music difficult to parse compared to melodious work. I would like to hear the orchestral music alone to see how I feel about it without being distracted by the vocal thread, which just seemed random to me at times.

I also have to admit that A Christmas Carol is also a story I've always struggled with a bit. I enjoy Scrooge's transformation as much as anyone, but I often wonder how genuine it is when it often seems that the simple sight of his own gravestone scares him into being nice. Since he's still going to die, I'm sure the point is the difference between dying alone and unmourned versus loved and missed, but that does not always come across completely, and it can be argued that he is buying that future posthumous love. However, in this production I felt like his transformation was a little more gradual over the visits of all three ghosts versus the flip-a-switch version we see in some portrayals of the story, and hence a little more believable. In many ways, though, I don't think that this particular method of portraying the story is necessarily as effective as straight dramatic interpretation.

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Top Chef - Episode 9 - Big Sausage

Two people got lucky this episode: George and Gregory. George because he got immunity I'm not sure he deserved and that probably kept him from going home, and Gregory because he probably should have gone home instead of Katsuji. Gregory is by far the better chef, but Tom is always saying that they judge on only one challenge at a time, and Gregory's dish in the elimination challenge was very uninspiring.

The Quickfire

But I'm getting ahead of myself, so rewind to the Quickfire challenge. New England Patriots football player Rob Gronkowski, who is Polish, showed up to judge how well the chefs could make sausage from scratch. We've seen chefs on Top Chef make homemade sausage a number of times, but always part of a different challenge: I'm fairly sure someone, possible Lee Anne Wong, made sausage once in a Quickfire in season 1 when they had to reinterpret classic foods and she chose hot dogs. Then she wowed everyone with her from-scratch seafood sausage.

What surprised me in this challenge is that I thought George was one of the Culinary Institute of America alums (yes, he was -- I just looked up his bio). I really would have thought, then, that he would know how to use the machine to make his own sausage. I know they can never learn everything, but George really struggled with this, whereas Doug popped out these gorgeous looking sausages without blinking. So George instead went with a sausage patty that was so thick that it looked far more like a hamburger. I guess it was delicious, though, because Rob Gronkowski picked it as his favorite, thus giving George immunity. I do think George was wise to go the breakfast route, which set him apart from everyone else, and I do note this is the second time we've seen him go with a "plan B" partway through a challenge and come out victorious, so he can definitely think on his feet. But I do think it a little inconsistent that Melissa was named one of the bottom contestants in the Quickfire because her sausages were "too small," when George produced something that the judge himself said might or might not have been a sausage and still won anyway.

Poor Doug -- he's wonderfully good-natured, but boy, was he unhappy to lose this one to a sausage patty. And I don't blame him. Gregory was also identified as one of the bottom choices due to too much spice in his sausage.

Elimination Challenge

This was a fun one, the kind of challenge that lets the chefs get really creative. Guest judge Tony Maws wheeled in a bookcase holding books by iconic American authors: Henry David Thoreau, Stephen King, Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Dr. Seuss, and Edgar Allen Poe. The chefs were then chosen in order by Padme to pick their authors, and had to come up with a dish inspired by one of that author's works. I have to ask: why did Padme get to decide who chose in what order? Why not draw knives with author names or at least with numbers to choose in that order? If memory serves, Gregory got to go first. Doesn't that mean that Padme gave him a huge advantage?

In any case, it was clear that the chefs were expected to really try to interpret a literary work on a plate, not just come up with something vaguely related. The chefs had 45 minutes and $450 to shop, and then three hours to cook for a room full of authors and literary folks (whatever that means -- I was disappointed that I didn't see any contemporary authors among the diners hose work I'm familiar with.).

As Tom Colicchio pointed out, this was a pretty difficult challenge. I especially felt sorry for Doug, because Emily Dickinson's poems are so brief and a lot are not reminiscent of food in any way. The only poem I could think of without looking her up was "Because I could not stop for death, it kindly stopped for me." Yeah, no. That's not going to work as food! But the judges were allowed a bit of time to glance through the books, and Doug came up with the phrase "sunset in a cup," which he was determined to reproduce as carrot soup. And as he put it, if you're only going to give Tom Colicchio carrot soup, it better be just about the best carrot soup he's ever tasted. So Doug used carrots, grilled carrots, carrot juice -- by God, that soup was going to be carroty! He did an absolutely beautiful job, and it was not a stretch to see his dish as "sunset in a bowl." (I wish the photo had been the other way around, though.)

Mei got Henry David Thoreau, and chose to reproduce Walden Pond on a plate. I had known about his "back to nature" tendencies but had not realized he was vegetarian -- I would have assumed that the "living off the land" philosophy would have included hunting or trapping game. But as a not-quite-vegetarian who has strong vegetarian leanings, I was more than happy to see Mei not even blink an eye at producing a world-class vegetarian dish. I was enchanted with her onion "soil" -- charred onions that she ground and mixed with a few other things, which really did look exactly like soil. I hadn't realized she was also going to sprinkle "snow" on the plaste, and at first I was disappointed because it seemed to mitigate the effect of the soil, but it turned out to be stunning. It really looked like a plate of just-harvested vegetables after a light dusting on snow.

Melissa too went the vegetarian route; her author was Nathanial Hawthorne. I would have struggled with that, knowing little about him except that he wrote The Scarlet Letter, but somehow I escaped having to read that in high school (for which I'm grateful). The easiest route would have been to create a dish suggesting sin and putting the color scarlet somewhere on the plate -- probably beets -- but Melissa dug deeper and remembered another Hawthorne work (I had trouble catching the title from the way she said it, even after rewinding a few times) about farming and seasons. Her idea, then, was to start with spring vegetables, and then have autumn take over via a tableside pour of mushroom broth. The dish certainly looked lovely, but I didn't think it had quite the genius that Mei's dish had. (Edited to add: Apparently it was The Blithedale Romance. I kept hearing The Black Hills Romance, so no wonder I had trouble figuring it out!).

George chose Dr. Seuss as his author, and thank goodness Padme warned him away from green eggs and ham -- which I think we've already seen represented on Top Chef at least once. George immediately went for One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, serving three kinds of sea food with purple potatoes. Apparently everything was cooked nicely, but as the judges pointed out, they really didn't see Dr. Seuss on a plate. Actually, it seems to me that Dr. Seuss was a tough choice: the only titles I can think of off the top of my head are The Cat in the Hat, Hop on Pop, Horton Hears a Who!, and, of course, Green Eggs and Ham.

Although now that I think of it .... considering that this episode aired on December 17 (not that George would have known that), it would have been fun to see the Grinch's "roast beast." But while I haven't the slightest idea how to portray the craziness of Seuss on a gourmet plate, I think there have been lots of contestants over the years that would have done Dr. Suess proud. (Remember the creativity we saw in the "Snow White"/Charlize Theron episode a few years back?) I don't mean to rag on George, but I do think without immunity, he would have been the obvious choice to go home. Not for bad-tasting food, but for lack of imagination.

Then came Gregory, who chose Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven as his inspiration. This too showed a slight lack of imagination, although in looking back at the food photos on the Top Chef website, the piece of nori really did suggest a wing to me. But the grilled hen no longer resembled a bird in any fashion. Would it have been too literal to somehow do a blackened/charred skin on a whole bird? Again, the food was apparently quite tasty, except for one judge's overdone tenderloin -- which honestly, was the reason I thought he was in real danger of going home. Gregory's explanation of how this plate was The Raven was a stretch for me, and any little mistake in execution can make the difference.

Katsuji chose Stephen King and focused on Carrie for his dish. He went all out on the presentation of his fabada, which I thought was bold and fitting. Since his dish did, in my opinion, tell his story, I was ultimately a little surprised that he went home for this. Tom's comment about how his beet sauce was really a puree seemed like a reach for a reason to send him home over Gregory. Trust me, I'd much rather see Katsuji go home over Gregory any day of the week ... but this one time, I don't feel it was fully justified.

I have to quibble a little with how many times we heard the judges, and even a chef or two, say that diners should be able to look at the plate and know the exact work the chef is representing. In my mind, it would be impossible to literally depict the exact identity/title of a work on a plate (except maybe for One Fish, Two Fish...). Instead, I would say that the dish, once explained by the chef, needs to make sense. Doug's did. Mei's did. Melissa's did. Katsuji's did. George's ... almost did, and Gregory's did not. But as perfect as Mei's dish looked to me, if someone set that plate down in front of me without explanation, I wouldn't know it was Walden Pond over any other vegetable/nature related work in literature. And I certainly could not have figured out, without the explanation, that Doug's dish was Emily Dickinson. Let's be a little realistic here.

Overall, the show is getting to be more fun and it's certainly getting easier to write about -- fewer competitors mean that the judges can discuss the dishes more fully right up front, so there are fewer surprises at judges' table, and it's simply easier to remember individual dishes. This episode was also one of the nice ones in which the chefs did really well. I wouldn't mind them losing the bad puns, such as when Tom says "Unfortunately, for one of you this is the last chapter." If I were Tom I'd refuse to say dorky lines like that. Since he's a producer of the show, and possibly the top producer (with another show about to launch), it seems likely that he actually wants the puns. They make me groan Every Single Time.

Chefs I Particularly Liked This Week: Mei. There are times to showcase technique, and this was it.

The Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: Sorry to be predictable here, but ... Mei. It takes true talent to win a competition with a vegetarian dish. To see vegetables so beautifully prepared is a real treat. This past summer, I sailed from New York to England on the Queen Mary II; of the eight dinners I had abroad, I chose the vegetarian option six times, because the vegetarian food was so good that I did not miss the meat. They served reasonable portions instead of super-sizing everything, so you had just enough of each course to make you happy but not stuffed at the end. I'd love to find an upscale vegetarian restaurant with this kind of finesse. If you know of one in Houston, please let me know!

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Top Chef - Episode 8 - Clean-up on Aisle 2

Aaaannnnd here's where I get a little ticked off.

Although it may not seem like it, shows like Top Chef have rules. Remember the second season, when Cliff got kicked off the show for physically pinning down Marcel and threatening to shave his head? So we know that any unwelcome physical contact between contestants is not allowed.

Surely there is also a rule about stealing ingredients from another chef's workstation.

We've seen incidents before in which a chef grabs all of a choice ingredient and just parks it at his or her station simply to prevent other people from using it. That is completely obnoxious, but never before has it been suggested that another chef can just take what they want from someone else's station. So in this case, during a Sudden Death Quickfire requiring that the chefs make a chowder, Mei was not out of line to take all the littleneck clams -- in fact, I would think she would have to grab the basket, because if she tried to grab handfuls of clams she likely would have dropped a bunch of them. And more importantly, Mei then immediately shared the clams with Adam when he asked her to.

So unless we had some very creative editing here and we're missing part of what happened, Melissa was completely out of line to snatch the clams from Mei's station when Mei was in the pantry. Here is what I want to know: 1) why didn't Mei protest immediately? 2) why didn't Mei tell Padme and guest judge Jasper White that she intended to use littleneck clams but they were stolen from her station while she was in the pantry? and 3) and why didn't someone from the Top Chef staff intervene? Obviously the camera crew is just there to film, but I'm fairly certain that there are one or more assistant producers in the kitchen at all times during these challenges. Remember Lee Anne Wong from Season 1? After her season, she became a producer on the show and blogged about it; she was usually in the kitchen the entire time challenges were ongoing.

So either Top Chef doesn't have a rule against stealing ingredients, in which case it's odd that it doesn't happen more often, or it does have a rule and it is not being enforced. It drives me insane when an otherwise good episode is marred by some kind of injustice like this, or by some kind of ridiculous physical challenge that is unrelated to cooking (such as who can harvest cranberries the fastest).

The Quickfire

Now that my rant is over, on to the results.... The top chowders included Gregory's razor clam and sweet potato chowder with coconut milk broth; Adam's red wine poached littleneck clams with tomato water; and Melissa's cioppino chowder with littleneck clams and shrimp. Jasper White chose Gregory's dish, granting him immunity yet again. Gregory seemed to regain both his confidence and his ambition, the latter of which had apparently been missing during Restaurant Wars. All four of the other chowders came in for negative comments: Katie's sourdough base for her clams in lobster stock was overpowering and gummy; Mei's clam and lobster chowder was deemed the prettiest but was underseasoned; the poblano and jalepeno in Katsuji's green chowder completely overpowered the oysters; and Doug's grilled oyster chowder was too salty.

Katie's was deemed the least favorite and so she had to compete to stay on the show. Instead of getting to choose her competitor as has been the practice in this season's other Sudden Death Quickfires, Katie instead had to face one of the already-eliminated contestants: George, who got the most votes when the eliminated chefs each had to name one other person in the group as their choice to compete. (As a random aside, if memory serves, this is how Alan Shepard was chosen to be the first American in space: each of the Mercury astronauts had to name who they would want to go besides themselves.)

The challenge was rabbit, and it quite looked like George was not going to plate in time, but he pulled it off, presenting the judges with roasted rabbit loin with barley risotto and mustard rabbit jus. Katie made a braised rabbit leg with moroccan tomato sauce. With three judges, the first to get two votes would win, and both Jasper and Tom chose George, who thus cooked his way back on to the show and sent Katie home. I like Katie, I think she's a nice person and a talented chef, and I admire that she tended to try and stretch herself a bit during challenges, but I admit that at no point did I ever think she would win this competition. She just wasn't consistent enough.

As for George, I'd forgotten that in the very first episode, he'd come in at the bottom of a mise en place relay, after which he picked Gregory as his competitor in the Sudden Death challenge. Boy oh boy, would he ever had picked someone else if only he'd known how great Gregory would be cooking for most of the season! So it's kind of nice that George got to come back and actually cook.

Elimination Challenge

This week's elimination challenge was fun: the seven contestants drew knives to see which judge would be doing their shopping at Whole Foods so they could provide a tasting menu for 75 Top Chef fans. Adam and Doug got Richard, who bought them lots of proteins and vegetables and a couple of things suitable for molecular gastronomy. Gail shopped for Katsuji and Melissa and got them shrimp and lots of fresh veggies and herbs. Tom supplied Mei with lamb and eggplant. Last but not least, Gregory and George had Padme shopping for them. I have to admit I had no idea what the jackfruit were when Padme picked them up!

The dishes did look tasty. Katsuji made harissa-poached shrimp with Tunisian potato salad; I don't get excited by shrimp, but I would have loved to taste the potato salad and the white sangria he made to go along with it. Gregory made a coconut milk and chicken madras curry with jackfruit relish that Tom and Padme coudn't say enough good things about. Adam made a flash marinated shrimp with peppadew peppers, which Gail in particular found a bit "squeaky." Melissa produced a sauteed-to-order shrimp with harissa yogurt, fig, fennel, dill, mint, and artichoke salad. Mei did a rack of lamb with charred eggplant puree, scallion-ginger relish, and jus. Doug made chorizo-marinated mussels with sweet pepper and cauliflower relish, and George made a beef-lamb kebob with lentils and cucumber-mint yogurt. Overall the judges seemed pretty pleased with the evening's output, and the fans seemed to have fun too. (I was filled with envy for the fans who got to go, and slight annoyance that the judges kept referring to them as superfans. Please!)

At judges table, Gregory, Doug, and George were singled out as the three favorites, and Doug took home the win for the second week in a row. Personally, I would have given it to Gregory for a more creative dish due to stepping up to Padme's jackfruit challenge, but Gail actually remarked in her blog that they felt Gregory's offering was awfully similar to some of his earlier dishes. In any case, I was happy enough for Doug, and also glad for George -- stepping into that situation had to be really intimidating.

On the bottom: Mei, Adam, and Melissa. (I noticed that Katsuji looked none-too-pleased to be smack in the middle of the pack this week. I still don't like him.) I can see where the elimination decision would be a close one. We had two chefs with tasty dishes but with protein that was a little unappealing the way they prepared it (Mei's undercooked lamb and Adam's strange not-really-cooked shrimp). And we had Melissa, who all the judges felt played it safe and boring, with easy-to-cook seafood atop a little salad, which was similar to what she made in Restaurant Wars.

In the end, Adam went home, and looked completely stunned. I haven't really been admiring his attitude and personality lately, but he is talented and there is no mistaking his passion for cooking. I would rather have seen Melissa go home than Adam after what happened in the Quickfire, but I'm glad it wasn't Mei. I suspect this competition has shaken her confidence a little bit. I still tend to think she's the strongest overall chef after Gregory.

Chefs I Particularly Liked This Week: Doug, for simply cooking good food and getting it done, and Mei, who is always willing to compliment her fellow chefs when they deserve it.

The Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: Hands down, Gregory's chicken curry with jackfruit. I've never had jackfruit, and it looked exotic and delicious. Doug's flavor combinations also sounded terrific.

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Thursday, December 4, 2014

Top Chef - Episode 7 - Restaurant Wars

It's almost tempting to limit this post to just the following: It was Restaurant Wars, and Keriann went home for front of the house.

Yep, that pretty much covers it. I can't say I was overly excited about the food this week, and there wasn't even a Quickfire, which is just as well because Restaurant Wars are difficult enough without one team being given a distinct advantage up front. I have to say, I was happy that they didn't just say "choose up your teams" but rather let drawn knives determine which two chefs would take turns selecting their teammates.

Melissa went first and wisely chose Doug; I think by this point people realize that he may not be loud or showy, but he generally knows what he's doing. Katie chose Gregory -- no surprise there as he's usually so strong -- and Melissa went with Mei next. Katie took Katsuji, Melissa took Adam, and that left Keriann for Katie's team. I would have been hard pressed whether to make Katsuji or Keriann my last choice; he's a more creative chef but can be more difficult, and she has come across as unfocused and a little distracted in several of the past challenges.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the episode for me was that neither Gregory nor Katsuji seemed very interested in being Executive Chef, leaving it to Katie to do so. I felt like they both decided early on that their only goal was to get through Restaurant Wars without being eliminated. That's not to say they didn't work their butts off, but I was surprised that none of the judges, particularly Tom, called them on their obvious "play it safe" modus operandi. On the other hand, I can understand that there are two terrifying roles in Restaurant Wars: executive chef and front-of-the-house. Maybe someone should compile stats on how many times the eliminated contestant was in one of those two roles. I would also note that even though we've had plenty of episodes over the years where the overall winner got a car or $10,000, the overall winner of this episode got nothing. Heck, they often come up with great extra prizes for Quickfires, so why not do it in Restaurant Wars, which is the one challenge where chefs may really need a little extra incentive to step up and take a risk?

On the other team, which eventually named its restaurant "Four Pigs," everyone including Adam seemed determined that Adam should be front-of-the-house, and although I'm not always sure how to feel about him these days, I was glad to see him handle it so well. I hate to see the service go badly; the best Restaurant Wars episodes are the ones in which both teams do great. In any case, Adam clearly knew what he was doing. I thought some of his "patter" was a little strained, but people seemed to be having a good time and the right food got out to the right places. And this was all on top of his 150 cleaned clam shells going missing and having to take the time to re-do that portion of his dish. That's fairly impressive, and I wouldn't have quibbled if he had won the challenge overall, but I think I do agree with the judges' decision to give it to Doug, since he expedited so well and turned out a dish that the judges were quite enthusiastic about.

Another nice aspect was that Mei, who's usually pretty strong-willed, was willing to relinquish the chance to be Executive Chef because she felt she would be of more use as a line chef. Well, the way she actually put it was that "women are better line chefs." I don't know if that's true, but she and Melissa pretty much rocked the food out together, so it was obviously the way to go. In fact, the only real misstep for the entire team seemed to be Melissa's oversalted and possibly overcooked scallops, but her other dish, a mixed fruit cobbler with cardamom cream, helped make up for that a bit.

The other team was just a nightmare. Instead of choosing any kind of actual theme for their restaurant, they all decided what dishes they felt like making and then simply named their restaurant after the explorer Magellan and called it an international menu. Bad idea for Restaurant Wars, because even if both teams had done equally well in service and execution, "Four Pigs" would likely have won simply for having a cohesive menu. Keriann seemed to make every possible bad choice: agreeing to run the front when she doesn't have much experience with that, choosing a fairly run-of-the-mill dessert (crepes and mousse), and making the crepes the day before. While I understand why she wouldn't want to ask one of the other chefs to make them to order, which likely would have been a disaster, she should have picked a more exotic yet lower maintenance dish to make. Look at Adam's clams: once they were done, they were done. In fact, Keriann might have used that as a bargaining chip: I'll do front of the house as long as I don't have to do dessert. Aside from Exec Chef and front-of-house, dessert is another common pitfall that sends chefs home.

Judges Table

As mentioned, there were no surprises at judges' table. The judges asked why Katie didn't tell Keriann that she felt the dessert needed changing. I do feel Katie should have communicated better, although I also understand her reluctance to do so. If she had said to Keriann "your dessert isn't working; how do you want to handle it?" and Keriann insisted it was fine, the judges might then have blamed Keriann with a clear conscience, but they also might have chastised Katie for not acting like an Executive Chef and simply insisting. I also wonder why service was so bad. Surely the two sets of wait staff weren't that different from each other in experience and ability. Why did they struggle so much on Magellan's side? On the whole, because Katie has pleasantly surprised me once or twice, I'm glad she was not the one to go home, but it was a really close call.

Chefs I Particularly Liked This Week: I'll have to go with Doug this week. He got it done.

The Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: I have the feeling that Doug's pork and beans was probably the dish to taste, but I don't particularly care for pork (it's partly psychological for me, since pigs are quite intelligent). So I think my first choice would have been Mei's chicken liver toast with plum puree. I've never tried chicken liver, and I've become more interested in unusual taste combinations, so I think this would have been quite interesting and likely very tasty.

Overall, not my favorite Restaurant Wars episode, but probably not my least favorite.

One last note: Katsuji, STFU about Doug's height. You wouldn't make remarks about him being fat or disabled or African-American or any of twenty other things. Why do you think it's OK to constantly comment on his height? That would be like them making fun of your English. It's just not necessary, and continually calling him short is a sign of your weakness.
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Saturday, November 29, 2014

Let It Snow: Three Holiday Romances

I’ve had this book since 2010 and have been meaning to read it since then, but somehow every time I came across it again in my messy piles of books, it was never the right season.

Well, now it is the right season, and this book perfectly suited my holiday mood. Titled Let It Snow, this book contains three short novels, or three quite long stories, billed as “holiday romances,” respectively written by Maureen Johnson, John Green, and Lauren Myracle, all accomplished young adult authors. What I didn’t realize, and what really made this fun, is that the three romances are linked, all taking place from December 24 to 26 in the same small town during the same big blizzard. (Some spoilers ahead.)

The first story is Maureen Johnson’s “The Jubilee Express.” Jubilee, who goes by Julie, cannot believe it when her parents get arrested during the annual Christmas Eve line-up for the coveted Flobie Christmas Village limited edition building. Their neighbor and lawyer bundles an unwilling Jubilee onto a train to go to her grandparents, which means that Jubilee will miss her boyfriend’s family’s Christmas Eve smorgasbord. Matters get worse when Jubilee’s train not only gets stuck in a blizzard near Gracetown, it’s inhabited by a team of perky cheerleaders who seem to tumble everywhere like a bunch of good-natured puppies. Jubilee makes a break for the Waffle House across the railroad tracks only to be followed by said cheerleaders; her boyfriend will barely give her a minute on the phone; and she finally accepts an offer from a local boy, Stuart, to spend the night with his family.

This was by far my favorite of the three stories. The Flobie Christmas Village stuff is just funny, and Jubilee’s romance story was, to me, the most moving of the three. I liked Jubilee’s voice, I liked Stuart’s slightly wacky mother, and I felt that this story also embraced the Christmas spirit the most. In addition, I felt like this story had the greatest consequences, if that makes sense -- what happened really matter, and not just in the characters’ imaginations.

I’ll have to admit that I didn’t much care for John Green’s story, “A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle,” which surprised the heck out of me. I actually bought this book on the strength of John Green’s name, having absolutely loved his Looking for Alaska (and much later, his The Fault in Our Stars), and I was tempted to read his story first, but thankfully I didn't, because the way the links between the stories are constructed, you really do want to read them in the order presented.

In this story, a boy named Tobin is spending Christmas Eve watching James Bond movies with his two best friends, JP and the Duke, the latter of whom is actually a girl named Angie. Tobin’s parents are conveniently stuck in Boston due to the same storm that landed Jubilee’s train in Gracetown, where Tobin lives. While Tobin’s parents’ absence is actually less contrived than Jubilee’s, the fact that JP and the Duke’s parents don’t seem to care that their teenagers aren’t spending Christmas Eve at home strikes me as a little odd and a little too convenient. In any case, the threesome get a phone call from another friend who is working at the Waffle House and wants to share his good fortune: the place has been invaded by a group of stranded cheerleaders and so they should get down there right away! The Duke has little interest in cheerleaders, but knowing Tobin and JP think of her as one of the guys (you know where this is going, right?), she tags along.

Unfortunately, here’s where the story gets silly. While yes, I absolutely believe that a trio of teenagers would risk driving in a blizzard for an adventure, they almost crash the car -- and then they try it again anyway. The author tries to give the story false urgency by making us believe that the Waffle House friend said they will only be allowed in the restaurant if they get there more quickly than his co-workers’ friends, as though the cheerleaders are the prize in a macho death match competition.

To be fair, various characters point out that the myths surrounding cheerleaders are silly, not to mention offensive to the cheerleaders themselves. But seriously, I really don’t think that their friend would lock them out of the Waffle House (aren’t those places open 24 hours, anyway?) during a possibly life-threatening blizzard just to make sure the cheerleader-to-guy ratio remains more in his favor. Even worse, when Tobin’s car ends up in a ditch and they start walking to the restaurant, they've gone quite a ways when their friend calls to say he won’t let them in because they accidentally left their Twister game in the car. So they go back for it, even though Tobin’s feet are so cold that he actually starts having difficulty walking. Sure, risk having your toes cut off for frostbite damage so you can get a Twister game so you can see the cheerleaders!

It gets even sillier than that (no, really) but I won’t burden you with any more details. Suffice it to say that yes, I know that to young people, things that really aren’t life and death sometimes seem that they are. And so I believed that Jubilee’s Christmas was absolutely ruined (or so she thought) by missing her boyfriend’s family gathering. I believed that Stuart had been devastated when his girlfriend publicly humiliated him. But I did not believe that Tobin and his two friends had to get to that Waffle House no matter what the consequences might be, and I was annoyed that ultimately there were no consequences. No bad ones, anyway.

The third story, “The Patron Saint of Pigs” by Lauren Myracle, is narrated by Addie, a girl consumed with guilt and sorrow after fighting with her boyfriend, getting drunk, and kissing someone else. She made a plea for her boyfriend to meet her at Starbucks, but any hopes raised by his noncommittal “We’ll see” were dashed when he didn't show without explanation. The reader knows who this boy is -- remember that train that got stuck? -- and at first it’s a little hard to care too much when Addie is so self-absorbed, but actually, that’s the point of the story. Addie vows to turn over a new leaf, and starts by volunteering to pick up her friend Tegan’s teacup pig at the pet store. A series of comedic mishaps result in a wild goose (pig) chase, but hey, it’s Christmas, so the reader can't be blamed for expecting a happy ending at this point, both pig- and boyfriend-wise.

This story was also a bit contrived in the way the pig “emergency” was set up, and it is difficult to like Addie for a fair bit of the story, but in the end I enjoyed it, in part because it tied in so well to the other two pieces. Those stories didn’t have loose ends, per se, but it was nice to see the aftermath of their respective plots. Also, Addie’s transformation was a little abrupt, but still pleasant to witness. She really is a good egg who cares about her friends; she just needed to get past the drama of having drama all the time.

Overall, this was a nice, feel-good little book that’s a quick read. I'm glad I finally read it, and I’m sure I’ll be picking it back up in future years when I want to get into the Christmas spirit. I note it's also been re-issued a couple of times with new covers -- and I just noticed that the latest cover says "New York Times bestseller" on it, so people must like it. If you can get past the silliness of the middle part, it's pretty good stuff.
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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Top Chef - Episode 6 - The First Thanksgiving

Ahhh, the Thanksgiving episode. I'm sure it must be weird for the chefs and the judges to be cooking/tasting this kind of food weeks or months before the holidays, but I'm glad they do it because my mood is gearing up for the holidays.

The Quickfire

We started out strong here: with guest judge Tiffani Faison (of Top Chef Season 1, Top Chef All Stars, and Top Chef Duels) taking the chefs out to a cranberry bog to harvest cranberries. I'm definitely a city slicker; I had no idea cranberries were grown/harvested that way, even though I'm sure I've been hearing the phrase "cranberry bog" all my life.... it's so easy to forget to ask where food comes from!

BUT we quickly went downhill: it's fine that the chefs harvested the cranberries, but why did it have to be a physical competition to see who could do it the fastest? Enough with these physical contests that are completely unrelated to cooking! To add insult to injury, the winners were the four who "filled" their baskets first, which to me seems a fairly subjective thing. If they really felt they had to do this, each basket should have been on a scale, and the contest should have been for which baskets reached a specified weight first. Sigh....

Back at the kitchen, Padme and Tiffani announced that the chefs would have 30 minutes to cook a dish highlighting cranberries, and hopefully not resorting to Thanksgiving standby dishes. The four fastest harvesters, who were Adam, Doug, Gregory, and Katie, would have access to better ingredients, while everyone else had to make due with an obviously inferior pantry table.

There were lots of fun dishes here that I would liked to have tasted, which I found amusing because I've never tasted cranberries -- I never eat them at Thanksgiving. Of particular interest to me were Gregory's arctic char with sweet and sour cranberry sauce, mushrooms, and pears (if anyone is going to get me to try a wider variety of seafood, it would be Gregory); Melissa's fried turkey bite with apple butter, cranberry compote, pecans, and fried sage (I'm a sucker for small bites); and Mei's sweet and sour pork with pickled mustard seeds and apple salad.

Tiffani singled out Mei's dish along with Katie's borscht and Doug's glazed pork tenderloin as the best three dishes, having noted that Doug's dish tasted "like fall in New England" and she would eat Mei's dish every day. In the end, though, Tiffani found Katie's borscht to be the boldest and most unique, and gave her the immunity. The bottom three contenders were Katsuji, who used skirt steak to make a tartare without cutting it finely enough; Adam for having a non-cohesive dish with his glazed New York strip steak (he had burned some element he'd wanted to put on it); and Stacy's curried cauliflower soup for a lack of seasoning and an overall "clunkiness." Padme had also noted that the cranberries in Stacy's dish had the least amount of sugar. I was actually surprised that the dish didn't get a "not enough cranberries" comment since it looked as though they weren't very prominent in the dish.

Elimination Challenge

For the elimination, the chefs were told they would be making a traditional -- a really traditional -- Thanksgiving meal to be served family style at the Plimoth Planation to descendents of both the Mayflower and the Wampanoag tribe. They would only be allowed to use ingredients and cooking utensils/methods available at that time.

This challenge can be summed up by something that Adam said after they'd finished cooking: "Us nine absolutely nailed it as a team." And they did. No fighting, no drama, no bad dishes, and people helped each other with the final plating. It was lovely.

The chefs had been instructed to split themselves into two courses, and Doug, Katsuji, Stacy, and Melissa ended up going first. Doug served a spit-roasted rabbit with garlic, ramps, hazelnuts, chestnuts, and radish. I was a bit worried for him when one of the Wamponoag guests noted that they would have served the rabbit whole, whereas Doug had served it in chunks, knowing that the diners would not have forks available to them. Fortunately, the judges' later dicussion indicated that they really liked his dish. Katsuji served a roasted butternut squash with poached lobster, chestnuts, and an ancho chili butter, which was well received. Melissa served roasted vegetables: parsnips, green beans, and zucchini with a ramp and onion vinaigrette. Tom said there was a lot of flavor but that the zucchini could have been cooked a little more. Stacy produced ramp-smoked clams with butternut squash, lobster, and ramps. Tom seemed to like it, but Gail noted that there was a flavor she couldn't identify. Overall, Tom said it was a great course.

The second group consisted of Adam, Katie, Mei, Gregory, and Keriann. The diners seemed to love Adam's succotash with beans, corn, summer squash, wilted spinach, and spiced goat milk. They were sort of perplexed, but in a good way, by Katie's blueberry stuffing with blue cornmeal cornbread and lobster; Gail couldn't get over how "wacky" it was but admitted that she kept eating it. I have to admit that on appearance alone, it looked somewhat unappetizing to me, but there was a certain sameness in color and texture to most of the dishes that I know was because of the ingredients and techniques available.

Mei served a duckfat-roasted cabbage with trout vinaigrette that was well received. Poor Gregory, who had trouble controlling the heat levels and was worried about overcooking his goose, ended up with a dish that somewhat undercooked, which I have to imagine I would have found pretty unappetizing. Tom was gentler in his criticism that I've seen him be at other times; it's very obvious that he really respects Gregory, and I'm sure he would hate to see Gregory go down for something like this. Keriann initially intended to serve blueberry pie but saw that it wasn't going to work, and switched to venison with a blueberry compote. She assured Tom she hadn't sweetened the blueberries yet so it would be savory, but although the table complimented Keriann's dish in her presence, they later indicated that the blueberries were too sweet. Before the judges left the table, they noted that their least favorites were Melissa's (not as flavorful as other dishes); Greg's (not as powerful, and undercooked); Keriann's (blueberries too sweet), and Stacy's (that unidentified flavor, which by now had become "offputting" to Gail).

Judges Table

Good news comes first: the judges called forward Katsuji, Doug, and Mei as their favorites. Tom said that Katsuji produced great flavors with simple ingredients, while Gail said that Mei's cabbage was brilliant and unusual with a lovely texture. They also felt Doug's rabbit had just the right amount of smokiness. Guest judge Ken Oringer then named Katsuji as the winner.

For the least favorite dishes, the judges named Stacy, Melissa, and Gregory. Not for one minute did I think Gregory would go home (and I'm glad he didn't; it would have been a real loss to the competition), but I didn't know if they would eliminate Stacy or Melissa, the latter of whose dish they said sort of blended into the background. In the end, Padme asked Stacy to pack her knives, although Tom made a point of saying that it was a tasty dish, just the least favorite among all of the tasty dishes. Stacy said she was sad and a little relieved, and that the stress of being the "home" contestant from Boston had been keeping her from sleeping. While I can sympathize, I'm not sure if it makes much sense in the context of this challenge, because contemporary Boston chefs wouldn't be expected to know how to cook in dirt over a fire pit any better than anyone else.

Chefs I Particularly Liked This Week: Katie has been stepping it up lately, and she seems like such a nice person, so I really like her. Mei is consistent and determined, so that I find it hard not to root for her in some ways. Doug is a nice guy and has a lot of talent. And although Gregory had a bad week, I think he's still the most talented one there. I am finding the show more enjoyable as we get down to more manageable numbers and I feel like I know the chefs' strengths and weaknesses better.

The Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: Once again I was more interested in the Quickfire dishes than the elimination challenge dishes. My first choice would be Melissa's fried turkey bite. If I had to choose from the elimination challenge, I would probably go with Katie's stuffing or Mei's cabbage.

Coming Up: There's no show next week on the Eve of our actual Thanksgiving, but the show returns on December 3 with the infamous Restaurant Wars. I always cringe, because I get scared that the person who takes the front of the house is going to get screwed -- they're in a bad spot if the kitchen can't get food out, and they have to trust the other chefs to oversee their final food plating, which I think would be terrifying. Once in a while, though, a chef really manages to nail the front of the house role to perfection.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
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Monday, November 17, 2014

Opera Times Three

Photo by Lynn Lane from the Houstonia Magazine website; Ailyn Pérez as Desdemona and Simon O'Neill as the title character in Houston Grand Opera's Otello.

Opera Times Three

By chance, my husband and I happened to see three different operas in nine days: Houston Grand Opera’s Otello on Friday November 7 and their Così fan tutti on Saturday November 15, and Arizona Opera’s Rigoletto in Phoenix on Friday November 14. In the days between, we were attending the Division of Planetary Sciences conference in Tucson, and had found out that one of my husband’s planetary science colleagues would be performing in the chorus of Rigoletto. Naturally we didn’t want to miss the chance to see him, and had a wonderful time meeting some of the chorus members afterwards in our hotel bar.

Needless to say, this was all a bit frenetic, especially Saturday, when we had to drive from Phoenix to the Tucson airport, then fly to Houston, then drive straight from the airport to HGO. (I literally changed into a dress in the 50-degree rainy weather in the Park N Fly parking lot. Hey, I’m not proud!) Miraculously, especially considering that United managed to put another flight’s luggage onto our plane and then needed forty minutes to correct the error, we made it just in time for curtain.

But starting back at the beginning... The first opera of HGO’s 2014-15 season was Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello (libretto by Arrigo Boito). I have to admit that I was not overly excited to see this, mainly because my husband and I were both exhausted from trying to finish the draft of a planetary science textbook chapter that day, after several late nights working on it. Also, back when I was a bratty college student and didn’t appreciate Shakespeare as much as I do now, I took a seminar class in his tragedies, and remembered our professor telling us that the plot of Othello could be described as “someone drops a handkerchief and all hell breaks loose.” So much of opera and theater is based on misunderstandings and misapprehensions, and I just didn’t anticipate that I could take this story seriously and be invested in it.

I was completely wrong.

I don’t know exactly what it was about this production, but I was completely engrossed in the story and I truly bought into its tragic nature. I was convinced that Otello (Simon O’Neill) and Desdemona (Ailyn Pérez) were very much in love, and that they were the victims of a manipulative, evil bastard (Marco Vratogna as Iago) who sows chaos for the sake of chaos. Of course, Otello is an idiot for believing Iago, but it still rang true rather than feeling contrived, in contrast to the plot of (for instance) Rigoletto. Otello’s sets and chorus scenes were impressive, and I absolutely loved the scene in Act II with the children’s chorus. Although I don’t believe in gods or saints, or in the idea that beauty is inherently virtuous, when the ethereally beautiful Desdemona greets a crowd of children while they sing in their lovely high voices, well, that’s as close as I get to a feeling of religious awe. I will definitely be buying a recording of Otello, and also have plans to explore the play further in both audio and visual forms. (A note of interest: Wikipedia tells me that Shakespeare’s Othello, written in approximately 1603, was based on an Italian short story “Un Capitano Moro” ("A Moorish Captain") by Cinthio, first published in 1565.)

A final note on Otello: I heard more than one person mention they were back to see it a second time during the run. The night we attended was the last performance; if we had gone to an earlier one, I would have been very tempted to come back a second time as well.

Our second foray was a visit to the Arizona Opera in Phoenix for Rigoletto, also by Verdi. The libretto is by Francesco Maria Piave, based on Victor Hugo’s play Le rois’amuse, which Wikipedia translates as “The king amuses himself” or “The king has fun.” I quite liked this production; it had lovely costumes and sets, and, well, the music was Verdi.

Unlike Otello, however, in this case I really had to struggle to get past the plot. The title character is court jester to the Duke, a notorious womanizer. Rigoletto mocks a count, whose daughter the Duke had courted; the count curses Rigoletto, who shortly thereafter meets an assassin, Sparafucile, and ponders the idea of hiring him. Rigoletto then returns home where he meets his beloved daughter, Gilda, whom he essentially keeps locked up. It turns out that the Duke had spied Gilda at church and has followed her home. They profess their love for one another but Gilda is ignorant of the Duke’s true identity. The hostile men of court decide to kidnap Gilda, believing her to be Rigoletto’s mistress, and they trick Rigoletto into helping them by saying they’re kidnapping the count’s wife.

And all of this is just in the first act.

Confusion aside, it’s pretty hard not to be disgusted by almost everyone’s behavior. The courtiers think it’s fine to kidnap Rigoletto’s mistress, but it’s unclear to me if they would have taken Gilda if they’d known she was his daughter. I don't think they would have, because I think perhaps in their minds the difference is that a woman who is a mistress is already “ruined,” whereas kidnapping a virtuous young virgin would actually ruin her, since a woman who has been at the mercy of a group of men such as this will at least have her reputation devastated even if she is not actually despoiled. But while we dislike the men at court for deciding it's okay to kidnap a mistress (who are the very least will be terrified at the possibility of rape), how are we supposed to remain sympathetic to Rigoletto later when he too goes along with the kidnapping, believing the count's wife to be the victim? Just because the count was an ass to him, his wife must suffer?

I’m not suggesting that the storyline be changed at this late date, or that there aren’t other things to appreciate about this or any other opera with a less-than-stellar plot. But like I said, it can be hard to get past these things. Fortunately, I found the second and third acts a lot more palatable: Act II consists of Rigoletto trying to get Gilda back, Gilda defending the Duke, and Rigoletto swearing vengeance (remember the conveniently met assassin from Act I?). In Act III, Rigoletto proves to Gilda that the Duke is unfaithful, as he is currently trying to seduce the assassin’s sister, Maddalena. Gilda decides she loves the Duke anyway, and upon overhearing that the assassin plans to kill the Duke, she puts herself in the Duke’s place and dies to save him. Rigoletto, realizing that his own plans for vengeance are ultimately responsible for killing Gilda, believes that the count’s curse has come to terrible fruition.

Actually, in describing Acts II and III, I realize that the plot really doesn’t become any less ridiculous than it was in Act I, but somehow the music manages to better transcend the silliness. It’s really quite wonderful when Rigoletto, Gilda, the Duke, and Maddalena sing simultaneously, and it's easy to get swept up in the story for a short while, at least. But Gilda is the only truly sympathetic character (Maddalena is fine right up until she says that they should simply kill a beggar in place of the Duke). And it's hard to respect even Gilda when she’s willing to die for an unfaithful jerk that she just met -- here is where the motivation is a little hard for a modern audience to swallow. Dying for love isn't a problem in itself, storywise, but it’s a little more meaningful when the person deserves the sacrifice being made for him. So again, thank goodness for the music, and the overall production values of this performance.

Last but not quite least was HGO’s Così fan tutti, composed by Mozart with libretto, in Italian, by Lorenzo Da Ponte. (I’m beginning to think that the next language I should study after German and Japanese is Italian.) This is a comedy and actually very amusing, but it’s very, very long for the amount of story there is to be told. Two young soldiers named Guglielmo (Jacques Imbrailo) and Ferrando (Norman Reinhardt) are bragging about the virtues of their fiancées when their older and more experienced friend Don Alfonso (Alessandro Corbelli) makes a wager saying he can prove that the women, like all women, will be unfaithful when given the opportunity.

At Don Alfonso’s urging, Guglielmo and Ferrando tell their lovers they must go off to battle but they quickly return, ludicrously disguised as Albanians. Don Alfonso enlists Despina (Nuccia Focile), the ladies’ maid, to help things along as the two men each try to court the other’s fiancée. At first, the sisters Fiordilgi (Rachel Willis-Sørensen) and Dorabella (Melody Moore) resist, Fiordilgi with noticeably more vigor, but the “Albanians” perform increasingly silly antics, such as pretending to drink poison when the ladies will not return their affection. Eventually the men wear them down, even Fiordilgi, and they are on the verge of marrying when fanfare announces the “return” of the women’s original lovers and all is confessed and forgiven.

Good parts first: this performance was full of truly enjoyable comedic acting. The soldiers are laugh-out-loud funny as they twirl mustaches and capes; the sisters are amusing in their indignation and later their rationalization; and Despina, for me, sort of stole the show. The music is good, of course. Every one of the six main players has lengthy solos, each couple sings together (five couples in all, once you take the musical romance chairs into account), and the entire group sings together. The problem is that they do it several times, imparting the same sentiments over and over. If this opera were shorter by a third, I think it would make for a delightfully entertaining evening, but it is hard to sit still for so long with so little story as an anchor, no matter how pretty the music. I certainly can’t fault the performers, however; I thought they were well cast and I enjoyed their voices.

That said, I do think it would have been a lot more amusing if the two couples realized they were more suited to their new lovers than the original ones -- and physically, the new couples looked better together than the old.

There was one other thing that puzzled me: the costuming and actions of the small chorus. When Act I opens, the three male leads appear to be in a tavern, and Don Alfonso has a prettily dressed but bald woman sitting on his knee. In the background, additional chorus members do things -- another woman wearing a bald cap whose coloring is out-and-out yellow for some reason appears to be putting on make-up and then possibly sneezing. Was she supposed to be a performer? Was she sick? In addition to this performance, I had seen the dress rehearsal of Così a few weeks earlier, and both times I was equally distracted, trying to figure out who these people were and what they were doing. For a moment I had this strange conviction that they must be dying of consumption or jaundice or both while preparing backstage for a performance at the Moulin Rouge, but of course that wasn't the case, and in the end I never could make any sense of it. While I found this opera’s sets to be simple yet quite effective, I just could not figure out the use or purpose of the chorus other than to provide some of the means for Don Alfonso's manipulations. It's possible that I'm missing some historical context; I certainly don't fault the choral performers for this.

On a side note, it was fun for me to see another opera company that operates quite differently from ours. At HGO, for instance, the six main operas of the season are grouped together into three “rep periods,” so that the company overlaps and alternates the performances. On the plus side, of course, this gives the performers the chance to rest their voices, but logistically, it also means that they have to switch out some very elaborate sets with not much turnaround time. I’ve begun to enjoy watching how the opera season -- and the ballet season, since they perform in the same venue -- falls into the same scheduling patterns year after year. (Don’t ask me why; I find comfort in patterns!) In Arizona, they alternate the main performers within a single opera rather than overlapping two different shows. They'll perform Rigoletto a total of five times; the Duke and Rigoletto roles were each given a 3-2 split between performers while the Gilda we saw, Sarah Coburn, will have been spelled once by a studio artist named Andrea Shokery.

To conclude, I do feel as though I learn something every time I go to the opera, but on the other hand I realize just how very little I know. I still feel awkward “reviewing” opera when I have so little knowledge of the history and culture behind it, and no real ability to discern between good singing and great singing. Because of that, my thoughts are based almost entirely on my response to the story, the sets, the costumes, the acting, and the appeal (or lack thereof) of the music to my personal taste. In other words, I’m the exact opposite of a sophisticated opera-goer. But I’m trying, and enjoying the experience.

Photo of Rigoletto by Tim Trumble Photography, from the Arizona Opera photo archive.

Photo of Così fan tutti by Lynn Lane, from the Houstonia Magazine website: Norman Reinhardt (Ferrando), Melody Moore (Dorabella), Rachel Willis-Sørensen (Fiordiligi), and Jacques Imbrailo (Guglielmo).
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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Top Chef - Episode 5 - It's War

I arrived home very late last night from a trip to Tucson, Arizona, where I visited museums, saw a little of the desert, made the acquaintance of some wild pigs (a group of seven javelinas climbed the stairs into the patio bar of the place we were staying, and snuffled around for food before politely departing), and went to bookstores. On Wednesday evening, some of my husband's colleagues graciously entertained us at their house, so I wasn't able to watch last week's Top Chef until just now. Because I'm in "catch-up" mode, this will be a list of quick observations rather than an in-depth review.

- Aaron was more gracious than I expected he would be upon being eliminated. If he had behaved more like this the entire time, I would have been much happier to have him around. I'm still glad he's gone, however; I didn't appreciate his comments about dessert being a cop-out. I think he just operates in bravado-mode all the time.

- I liked the set-up for both the Quickfire and the Elimination challenge, with one reservation: I still think they should name an overall winner instead of just the winning team in every challenge. I think it would have been Gregory yet again in this case. The idea of having each head-to-head "battle" named after an important battle from the Revolutionary War was cute. I like Gregory and he seems an amazing chef. I think his obvious skill is making Mei feel a bit more humble, which is probably good for her. I suspect she'll still take a few challenges in the future. I fully expect both of them to be in the finale barring some Restaurant Wars type disaster in which the wrong chef goes home.

- This was the first episode in which I started to actively dislike Adam a bit. Hey Adam, stop calling Doug "little man." So he's short. You're being a condescending jerk by referring to him that way, and I'm glad he beat you in the head-to-head Quickfire. I wish he'd beaten you in the Elimination challenge as well.

- I got slightly mixed signals from Tom Colicchio, who said "you only had to beat one other person on your team," and "someone should have told Aaron he was making unwise choices." Isn't that a contradiction? For instance, if Stacy or Keriann had convinced Aaron to make his dish better, one of them likely would have gone home instead. Yes, you want your team to win, but if I'd been on Aaron's team, I wouldn't have wasted my energy, especially knowing how he's behaved in the past, by trying to argue with him.

- The dishes that I would have most liked to try were Gregory and Mei's steamed dumplings from the Quickfire.

Looking forward to this Wednesday's episode. In the meantime, just for fun, here is a photo of a javelina. There were some young ones among the group that came to visit us in the patio bar, but I wish I could have seen a baby as small as the one in this photo!

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Due to an unusual confluence of events, I was unable to watch Top Chef last night and I don't have access to the DVR recording, so I will put up an abbreviated post of this episode later in the week. I miss my Top Chef! Read more!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Top Chef Boston - Episode 4 - "12 Chefs Walk Into a Bar ..."

The Quickfire

Norm! I knew I'd love this week's Quickfire when Padme had the chefs meet her at the real-life Cheers bar, accompanied by actor George Wendt. The parameters of the challenge were exactly as expected: make a creative, tasty bar snack in 30 minutes. This was great because 1) I love good bar food, and 2) I adored Cheers in my college and grad school years (although it wasn't Cheers but rather its spin-off, Frasier, that went on to become what is probably my all-time favorite sitcom, even beating out The Big Bang Theory, which is quite a feat).

The chefs were divided into two groups due to the size of the kitchen, and the show kind of raced through the challenge. In fact, the first group included Katie, Rebecca, Stacy, Keriann, Aaron, and Doug (I'm going to dispense with the last names from now on), but although I watched it through twice, I did not see Doug present any food. The offerings included Katie's beer-battered fried cheese curd; Rebecca's crispy chicken wings with spicy ponzu glaze; what Stacy called a take on a BLT, but which I gather was pesto, prosciutto, tomato jam, and burrata (a "semisoft white Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream," according to Google); Keriann's onion ring with crab salad and spicy hollandaise; and Aaron's hamburger with peanut butter (!), mayo, and a sunny-side-up egg. Almost all of George and Padme's comments were positive; the worse thing I heard was that Rebecca's wings didn't have enough glaze, and Padme would have liked it as a dipping sauce.

The second group came up with: James' pickled and grilled carrots with red bean puree; Adam's black bean chilaquiles (usually a fried corn tortilla dish) with a fried egg; Katsuji's mahi mahi and tuna ceviche with a tomato and jalapeño salsa; Mei's lime-chili chicken wings; and Gregory's mini burgers that unfortunately lost their top buns and, in Padme's case, all of the toppings when Gregory dropped them on the floor. And in writing that just now, I've realized they left Melissa out of the presentation this time. Yet we had time at the beginning of the episode to listen to how much Keriann misses her kids. Strange editing....

In any case, most of the second group's dishes were well received, particularly Katsuji's and Mei's. Padme wanted a little heat on Adam's chilaquiles, which he pointed out was difficult to achieve with dried spices instead of fresh ingredients. George identified Katsuji and Keriann's dishes as his favorites, and awarded immunity to Katsuji, who at this point really seems to run hot and cold. The bottom dishes were Gregory's naked burgers and James' veggies. I actually liked the idea of a veggie and hummus bar snack, but I quite dislike generic grilled veggies, so I can see why this wasn't a big hit.

Elimination Challenge

There were two aspects of this week's elimination challenge that bothered me, but as the episode went on, the aspects grew on me a little. The chefs were told to divide themselves into three teams and to write a classic Italian menu consisting of antipasti, pasta, and secundi (which means second course, often meat, poultry, game, or fish, according to The diners would see their written menus, and the team that got the most orders for their menu would win the challenge. Everyone on the remaining three teams would be up for elimination.

In essence, then, three people would get immunity for their menu alone, no matter how good or bad the actual food turned out to be. While I understand the importance of designing a menu with dishes that people will want to eat, I felt that this was an awful lot of immunity to award when it could actually happen that the food itself would be inedible. Also, didn't this result in a lot of wasted food? If each team had to prepare for 60 diners and they only got 8 orders, did everything else they have prepped get thrown away? But as the episode went on, I could see why some menus were clearly more appealing than others.

The second aspect was the guest judge Emmy Rossum turned out to need gluten free food, in a challenge that specifically required pasta. At first, this totally ticked me off. I completely understand the necessity of restaurants having gluten-free and other allergen-free offerings, but it seemed out of place in this artificially constructed environment and challenge. In a normal restaurant, after all, you would have many dishes that are not pasta, so the customer needing gluten-free food would ideally have several things to choose from, not just a "pasta dish substitute."

But then I saw how well three of the four teams handled the gluten-free aspect, and it kind of won me over. Chefs can be mentally prepared for this, especially these days. The only reservation I still have about this requirement is that some of the teams seemed to have more time to deal with it than others; the teams who got lots of orders and/or who served the judges earlier in the evening had a disadvantage -- although I suspect more time wouldn't have improved things for the one team that didn't handle the gluten-free aspect well.

In any case, the chefs seemed to sort themselves into teams without too much drama. Aaron quickly sidled up to frontrunner Gregory who happened to be standing next to Katsuji, which could have been an recipe for disaster but wasn't as bad as it could have been. I'm not sure why Gregory agreed to be the peacekeeper between the two most obnoxious chefs, but it was probably because he didn't want the drama of saying no. The teams ended up as:

- ORANGE: Adam, Mei, and Doug
- PURPLE: Katsuji, Gregory, and Aaron
- GRAY: Melissa, James, and Keriann
- BLUE: Stacy, Rebecca, and Katie

Guest judge Michael Schlow expedited service as this was the kitchen of his Italian restaurant "Via Matta." He and Tom Colicchio took a quick whirl through the kitchen that again seemed rushed (in editing, not in actuality, I imagine).

Right off the bat, the blue and purple teams got a lot of orders, although the show was careful not to let us know for sure which one got the most. The judges had the purple team's food first; they loved Aaron's scallop antipasti and Gregory's peppercorn crusted strip loin with sweet onion compote, but didn't care for Katsuji's spring pea and goat cheese ravioli with pecorino, nor his gluten-free take on it, which consisted of the insides of the ravioli inelegantly dumped into a bowl.

Next, the judges ordered the orange menu. They were not initially impressed with Doug's radicchio salad for the antipasti course, but conceded that it tasted fine. Adam did the pasta course: scallop and fennel linguine with sun-gold tomatoes and gremolata (which Google describes as "a dressing or garnish made with chopped parsley, garlic, and grated lemon zest" -- sounds like dressy pesto to me). His gluten-free version was a red quinoa polenta cake with seafood brodo, that Emmy loved. The last course was Mei's branzino (sea bass) with lemon jam. Padme loved the crispy skin and the judges liked it overall.

The gray team came next, and James began second-guessing himself about letting the others talk him into seafood when he would have preferred to serve lamb. Based on the number of orders that they didn't get, he should have gone with his gut. I know I wouldn't have ordered an all-seafood menu against so many other interesting choices. The judges felt his cold seafood salad was un-modern. Melissa did a pasta course of spring-pea ravioli with ramps and a bacon-parmesan broth, and her gluten-free risotto with fresh peas was fine in Emmy's opinion. Keriann finished with a pan-seared halibut and olive oil potato puree that everyone seemed to love.

Last and not quite least, the blue team started with Rebecca's scallops, which Padme found too salty while Emmy was disappointed that the fennel was not charred as advertised. Tom said he wished some of them had "dug a little deeper," which I took to mean he found some of the dishes uninspired. Katie was the star of this team, with her hand-cut pappardelle pasta with basil-walnut pesto and confit cherry tomatoes. Her gluten-free zucchini pappardelle was Emmy's favorite GF dish of the night, and I felt it was the most creative, with perhaps the red quinoa polenta cake a close second (although I know I would have found the texture of the zucchini pasta a lot more satisfying than that of the polenta cake). Stacy ended the judges' service with her grilled ribeye. Tom was not happy that she'd sliced it thinly, and the vegetables were apparently pretty unappetizing at this stage in the evening. Having cooked veggies sitting around for I'm assuming an hour or longer can't have been too smart.

Judges Table

There weren't a lot of surprises this time around, which is fine. According to Michael Schlow, the blue and purple teams were very close in the number of orders, but the purple team won. Tom noted that Katsuji could have been looking at going home if he hadn't had immunity. The orange team was safe, and James, Stacy, and Rebecca were called out as having cooked the least favorite dishes. Tom felt that they all played it too safe, and there were also major problems with their dishes: James' issue was the oil to acid ratio, Rebecca's fennel wasn't properly executed, and Stacy killed her vegetables. I was a bit surprised that Stacy didn't seem to own up to it, instead saying they tasted good to her, when we had seen her in the kitchen lamenting how overcooked her veggies were becoming.

In the end, James and Rebecca were sent home. I felt more for James than I did for Rebecca, not that I dislike her, but because I have a feeling James had a little more to offer as a chef (although to be fair, I'm going on gut feeling and very little information). Stacy got lucky.

I came away from the episode still disliking Aaron and Katsuji a lot, but at least the episode wasn't all about them. It's telling that when the purple team won, Aaron said "I knew I'd win" instead of "I knew we'd win." (Hopefully that wasn't creative editing to make us dislike him more.)

Chefs I Particularly Liked This Week: I still like Doug a lot, and Melissa seems nice and competent, but we didn't get to see as much of them this episode. I think I have to go with Katie, then. She handled both the Quickfire and the elimination challenge calmly and skillfully, and didn't bat an eye at the gluten-free request.

The Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: In the Quickfire, no contest: I love fried cheese, and I bet Katie's fried cheese curds took it to a new level. Although I have to admit I'm a bit intrigued by the idea of peanut butter and mayo on a burger.... In the elimination challenge, I wanted to get my hands on Gregory's strip loin with sweet onion compote. I brought home a jar of onion marmalade from a recent trip to England, and can just imagine how something like that would taste when made from scratch by an accomplished chef. And Padme said it melted in her mouth.
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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Top Chef Boston - Episode 3 - The Curse of the Bambino

This week's episode of Top Chef was a lot of fun, with just the kind of challenges I like. Both the Quickfire and the Elimination Challenge allowed the chefs to make upscale dishes that required a bit of creative thinking. Nobody had to trample each other. And I think I want to adopt Richard Blais, because he's just as cute as a button. And here I was thinking that Mei Lin was going to sweep the series, but at the moment it looks like Gregory Gourdet is the one who's fixin' to do that. (Forgive the expression, but I've been living in Houston for ten years now!)

The Quickfire

For this week's Quickfire, guest judge Ming Tsai and Padme explained that in honor of the Boston Tea Party, each chef would have to create a dish highlighting tea as an ingredient. Although the chefs had to hurry up to the front of the kitchen to choose their tea, they didn't really have to stampede because they were choosing the teas blindly. I admit I'm not much of tea drinker myself, but even I can see that there's an almost endless variety of flavors, so a lot of scope for creativity here.

There were a nice variety of dishes created, and Ming picked as his three favorites Melissa King's seared duck breast with toasted nut oolong tea-infused rice; Gregory's tuna crudo with strawberry; and Ron Eyester's chocolate and salt tea-crusted duck breast in "the spirit of mole." Ultimately, Ming chose Gregory's dish as the favorite, giving Gregory immunity for the elimination round. Gregory's dish sounded terrific to me except for the mention of coconut, which happens to be a flavor I don't care for. Because of that, I was actually more interested in Katsuji Tanabe's toasted brown rice tea broth with brown rice crusted tuna.

On the downside, Ming singled out James Rigato's crispy skin trout and quinoa with beurre blanc, noting that he hadn't had a beurre blanc sauce in about ten years, and that there was too much of it. Aaron Grissom had remarked on the datedness of this type of sauce as well, so I guess some things just go in and out of style. Another misstep was Aaron's overcooked monkfish, and the third was Rebecca LaMalfa's cake with strawberries and apples. I know they're nervous, and I would be too, but Rebecca didn't do herself any favors by telling the judges that she made, in her words, "a pretty-much neutral cake" in order to try and soak up the lemongrass tea flavor. I'm sure the judges would have reached the same conclusion anyway, i.e. that she didn't manage to infuse the cake with the tea flavor, but still, it would be better not to have planted the idea in their heads that she had just served them a flavorless cake.

Not surprisingly, Aaron's overcooked fish was chosen as the least favorite dish of the Quickfire. This was a pretty basic mistake for someone who just told a competitor he could cook her under the table. Aaron also said that he he'd wanted the yellowtail, but "Adam grabbed it out of my hand." Did Adam really grab it out of Aaron's hands? Seems unlikely, and if it isn't true, then he should have said instead that "Adam got to it first." Oh a show like this, yes, I'm a stickler for accuracy.

Since this was a sudden death Quickfire, Aaron then had to choose a chef he thought he could beat in a head-to-head challenge. The added twist was that the only heat they could use was boiling water. Aaron chose Katie Weinner, which was fine, but then he spent a little too much time explaining that it was because she teaches at culinary school, and he never went to school, so he really wanted to beat her for that reason. There have been plenty of contestants over the years who haven't been formally trained, and it's one thing to mention it (as in "yeah, I'm a little intimidated because I don't have the training that some of these folks have but I think I can hold my own"), but I take a pretty quick dislike to the ones who have turned it into a chip on their shoulder.

In any case, I was really hoping Aaron would go home at this point based on his behavior so far, but as soon as Katie said she was making pasta, I suspected we'd be stuck with Aaron for a while longer. I bet her hand-cut pappardella tasted good, but it's fairly hard to get a "wow" factor that will impress judges with a simple pasta dish. Also, she said she made "sauce," but I sure couldn't see any in the bowl. In the meantime, Aaron concocted a spring roll with the wrapper made of shrimp that he cooked in a Ziploc in the boiling water, which I thought was kind of impressive. His only misstep was putting raw peanuts in the roll, and I also think he should have tried to actually close the ends of it, but this dish was enough to beat Katie and to save Aaron.

Elimination Challenge

To announce the Elimination Challenge, two ballpark vendors came into the kitchen bearing peanuts, popcorn, cotton candy, and a few other ballpark standbys. The challenge was simple: create a fine dining dish based on one of these classic concession snacks and serve it the next day at Fenway Park. The chefs had 45 minutes and $350 to shop, three hours to prep and cook that day, and an hour to finish cooking at the ballpark. (I always wonder how badly the dishes are hurt by some of the cooked ingredients hanging around overnight; I'm not sure why they didn't just give them four hours straight the next day, but maybe they don't want to give them an entire night to spend deciding what to make.) In this case the chefs had to go up and grab the snack they wanted, but they had multiples of everything and it didn't appear that anybody got stuck with something they didn't want. In some ways I wouldn't have minded them drawing knives, because we got an awful lot of peanuts and popcorn this episode, but this way was fine too.

At the ballpark, the chefs served in stages, which I always think is a good idea. With thirteen competing, there was a pretty standard distribution of the great, the okay, and the bad. During service, the judges were most impressed with Katie, Melissa, Gregory, and Stacy Cogswell. Katie had intended to make a popcorn panacotta but turned it into mousse on a blue cornmeal salted shortbread when it didn't set, and apologized to the judges as she served it. She was pretty floored when they really liked the dish, and they all advised her not to try and take herself out of the game like that. Melissa made a corn and ramp soup with bacon popcorn; Stacy served a seared scallop with pickled peanuts that judge Hugh Acheson really loved; and Gregory made a roasted duck and peanut nam prik pao (and no, I won't even pretend I have any idea what that means). Richard called it a moneyball dish, smart and balanced.

More towards the middle of the road were Rebecca's salmon with honey mustard glaze and toasted peanut streusel (I read that as "crumbs" but it still sounded good) and Doug Adams' seared scallop with sweet corn sauce and popcorn. Aaron didn't do terribly, with his pretzel-wrapped rillette and spring pea tendril salad, but Ming thought an actual sausage would have served better than the rillette, which the magical internet tells me is like a pâté. I know I've seen others make their own from-scratch sausage on Top Chef before, and can see how that might have really been stunning in Aaron's pretzel wrap.

The chefs who found themselves on the bottom included Keriann Von Raesfeld, whose beer-braised short ribs were undercooked and underseasoned; Ron, who put a huge fish croquette in the middle of his very thick, very rich corn soup; Adam, who seriously overcooked his fish (the judges loved the rest of the dish); and Katsuji, who ruined what might have been a good bread pudding dish by plopping a tough, dry piece of pork belly on top of it.

Back in the Stew Room, Aaron once again disgusted me, but I have to say that Katsuji really turned me off too. It was obvious Aaron was nervous about his dish; give him any excuse and he will lash out, from fear. For all I know I might do the same under the circumstances, not that I think I'd be as big an ass as he is. But there was no reason that Katsuji had to deliberately poke at Aaron like that. And by starting a testosterone-laden fight in the Stew Room, Katsuji made it miserable for the rest of the chefs. This is a prime opportunity for them to bond a little, but instead they have to listen to a couple of jackasses make everyone uncomfortable. Maybe I am not the typical Bravo TV reality show viewer, but I don't actually like the drama and I don't like to see contestants do poorly and get shredded by the judges. I think they should be challenged to push the boundaries of their comfort zones, but for me a terrific episode is when a bunch of chefs do great and the judges have to agonize over who gets the win.

In any case, this judges official top three choices this week were Gregory, Melissa, and Katie. I thought it could have gone to either Gregory or Melissa, and I was happy enough with the outcome when Gregory was announced as the winner. I do like Katie and was very glad to see her do so much better than she expected, but I don't honestly think she has the confidence or consistency to go all the way.

The bottom three called out were Keriann, Katsuji, and Ron, with Ron being the one to pack his knives. I'm kind of sorry to see him go.

Chefs I Particularly Liked This Week: Gregory's story about his past with drugs was surprising to me, and a little moving. I'm really glad he got his act together. And although I can't say whether he'll be the one I'm rooting for in the end, I do like that he just generally goes about his cooking without being a drama queen about it. On cooking alone, I like that Gregory seems to nail two things every time: balance and details. Interestingly, in his blog post this week, Hugh Acheson says in relation to Gregory, "This industry is fraught with addiction and we need to support those who have fought through that beast of a battle to win." It made me wonder why the culinary industry is fraught with addiction. Maybe because it's full of stress and adrenalin highs, and you want to keep the latter going when the cooking is done for the night. In any case, I recommend Hugh's blog posts, which are kind of funny. (I also like Richard's posts, but somebody needs to proofread them because he doesn't know the difference between "your" and you're." I know, he's an amazing chef and we can't expect him to do everything perfectly!)

I also enjoyed watching Stacy, the one Bostonian on the show, a lot this week. I can't imagine what pickled peanuts taste like but I'd love to find out. She's spunky and I think we haven't really seen what she can do yet.

The Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: Melissa's corn and ramp soup with bacon popcorn. I'm not a fan of the "everything bacon" trend, but wow, that looked good. I also wanted to get my hands on Katsuji's brown rice crusted tuna from the Quickfire.

Til next week!
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