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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