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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