Thursday, November 27, 2008

Foo the Right Thing: The Top Chef recap

“Now, when Chef Tom Colicchio says Happy Thanksgiving, don’t stare at him like he’s got two heads.”

Or such is what I imagine a producer told the contestants for this very special “holiday” edition of Top Chef. I think they film the show about 4 months in advance, so by my calculations, the Foo Fighters were enjoying their tasty Thanksgiving feast in late August. But, hey, it’s the magic of TV, people—and let’s always remember that when it comes to reality TV, that’s reality with an asterisk.

First, we had our truly wackadoo Quickfire Challenge, which involved one very high concept—reimagine a dish from Top Chef past—that turned into another even higher concept when guest judge Chef Grant Achatz announced: “We’ve decided we’re in the mood for soup.” (The next time I eat out, I’m totally going to instruct my entire table to dramatically put down their menus and say to the waiter, “We’ve decided we’re in the mood for soup.”)

Anyway, some yummy looking soups were being concocted from some very unlikely ingredients—tuna tartare? falafel? bacon and eggs?—but it was Leah who won, despite her bold declaration that she hates white asparagus. Also, lest you're still not convinced that Carla needs her own line of Hallmark cartoon greeting cards, this week she told us the special ingredient in her soup was “love.”

So Leah picks the teams for the Feed the Foo challenge and it’s basically Team World Domination (a.k.a. Team SexyPants) versus Team We Can’t Boil Water (a.k.a. Team Cougar), so naturally I was rooting for the underdogs.

Off they went to the supermarket, where Stefan and Fabio’s raging manlove manifested with a tender forehead kiss at the checkout line (their brand of hetero-passion cannot be contained within a kitchen.)

Then, more curveballs thrown their way: They have to cook outside. They have one burner. They have no refrigerator. They have a boatload of microwaves. Hey, were they trying to give the Foo Fighters botulism or something? And then, as pretty boy Jeff put it blandly, “God made it rain.”

Actually, Jeff was the only semi-hateful character on Team Oh Crap I Burnt the Toast. Despite the fact that he hasn’t won a single challenge or even gotten an honorable mention in a Quickfire as far as I remember, the boy thinks he is all that. (Oh, and by the way, the man is a chef for the Dilido Beach Club. I said Dilido. Get your minds out of the gutter.)

Somehow, Team We Don’t Know What Sous Vide Means Either put Ariane in charge of making the turkey—only the most important element of a “Thanksgiving Dinner”—and, in an even more unlikely turn of events, it worked. Yay, Ariane. (Oh, but honey, look up cougar. It doesn’t just mean sexy, it means on the prowl for younger men. I’m sure Jeff thinks you want him bad.)

One thing I noticed about the Foo Fighters, they say “fuck” a lot on the buffet line. I guess cause they’re rockers.

So the two meals were pretty much neck and neck, with everything Jeff did for Team We Forgot to Add the Salt pretty much sucking. Of particular note? His parfait that one of the waggish Foos referred to as “barf-ait.”

So, damn, Team World Domination Wins. If only they knew how close they came to losing to Team Fallen SoufflĂ©. (No actual winner this week? I guess it just wouldn’t be in the spirit of Thanksgiving in August.) Cut to the dorkiest group of humans ever to rock out at a Foo Fighters concert.

In the end, it comes down to Jeff, sweet Richard, and that peanut-butter-dripping bandit himself, Danny. Jeff may’ve made barfait and dry spoonbread, but at least he showed leadership qualities (and also, Padma still wants to trade haircare tips with him)—so he’s safe. Danny seems fairly useless, but he and Jamie hate each other, so that bit of lesbian-on-Guido action ain’t going nowhere—he’s safe. Richard is loveable, but he made sucky smores (how is that even possible?)—so he is packing up his knives and going home. Don’t cry on the way out! Whoops.
Too late.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Rotten Egg: The Top Chef recap

I want to start this recap by pointing out the awesomeness of the fact that, at this very moment, the Top Chef website has a banner ad for Campbell’s string bean casserole. Yeah, you know the one: With the cream of mushroom soup and the onion rings from a can baked into creamy white-trash goodness. Ahh, bliss.

But I digress, possibly because I just want to avoid the unfortunate topic at hand: The premature ousting of my Baltimore homegirl Jill. Now maybe we here in the Baltimore region were getting a little cocky, what with Christian Siriano’s big win on Project Runway. No, we’ve never had a Real World—Baltimore. No, there are no Real Housewives of Baltimore County. But perhaps, we thought, we had some secret Bravo TV reality mojo. We thought wrong.

I began to suspect as much when Jill proved to the be the only chef who didn’t even attempt to make a hot dog or sausage for the New York hot dog challenge. (By the way, the show’s admirable restraint in not using a hotdog challenge lasted all of one episode.) Her sliced hot dog sushi screamed “wiener!” not “winner!” to me. And I was right. (Nice, however, to see Radhiki win for her sausage kabob-y thing. She seems sweet. Also, any competition that puts Stefan in the bottom three—as veins of fury bulge from his bald Finnish cranium—is fine by me.)

I next suspected that Jill was in trouble when she chose a soft-ball sized ostrich egg for the challenge, although she had never worked with an ostrich egg before. General rule of thumb: If you don’t know how to open your main ingredient, it’s probably not wise to cook with it. Luckily, Fabio and his trusty chisel were available, and she eventually popped that sucker open.

Of course, Jill wasn’t alone in questionable food choices. Hosea wanted Dungeness crab, but settled for crab-in-a-can—the Spam of the sea. Self-sabotaging Ariane volunteered to make a lemon meringue martini, although, by her own admission, she’s no pastry chef. Padma’s napkin would apparently agree.

As for Melissa’s choice to make a chilled cream of corn soup? Fabio may have scoffed it for being too simple, but did he learn nothing from butternut-squash soup-gate from last year? These judges love them some simple cream soup.

I thought it was positively diabolical for the show to invite rejected contestants to judge the meal at Craft, although I do wonder: What’s was in it for them? Sitting around a table insulting people on a show that you unsuccessfully auditioned for doesn’t make you look cool, it just makes you look petty. It’s not like I was watching that and thinking: “These people were clearly robbed!”

Ultimately, it was Fabio, Melissa, and Carla (who made apple tarts with a random piece of sweaty cheddar cheese on the plate but somehow stole the judges’ hearts) who were the top three. (One last thing about Carla: Don’t you feel like the cartoon version of her should show up on a line of Hallmark greeting cards? Maybe it’s just me.)

The elimination process got lost in translation as Fabio began pissily defending his beef carpaccio dish. “I don’t even know why I’m here,” he barked. “Because we liked your dish,” replied Gail, the words “you moron” clearly implied. Fabio immediately demurred, and turned into Borat: “I’m glad you like it, that’s why I make it.”
So Fabio is our winner. (And off he went to gloat to the object of his fiercest rivalry and most passionate man crush, Stefan.)

Bottom three: Hosea, Ariane, and Jill. Although Ariane was saddled with the awkward knowledge that Padma hocked her meringue into a napkin, it was Jill who failed the simple Q&A portion of our elimination.

Indeed, not since Sarah Palin faced off with Katie Couric has someone looked so blindsided in an interview.
“How can we be sure you won’t make this mistake again?” Gail asked.
And here is Jill’s answer, sadly, verbatim:
“Um. . .I think. . .I understood the mistake that I made. . .but the pressure of the time and um. . .I had an idea and um. . .tried to execute it the best I could.”
Cut to the judges, all looking like they just swallowed some of Ariane’s meringue.

It was at that moment that I knew homegirl was toast. Oh well, Jill. You’ll always have your fans in Baltimore. I’ll look for quail egg on the new Red Maple menu.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Tao of Mini

I truly believe that everyone, at least once, should build a Mini Cooper.
And when I say “build” I don’t mean, ya know, in a factory somewhere. I mean online, at

Sure, you can go to your local Mini dealer, wander the lot, and find a Mini Cooper that roughly meets your specifications, but that is not the way the car gods intended. To properly buy a Mini Cooper you must build it from scratch, considering things like: What color should the exterior be? What color should the roof be? Should there be chrome details? Fog lights? Driving lamps? (No, I’m not sure what they are either, but they sure do look nifty.) Stripes? If stripes, should the stripes be white, black, or silver? Should there be jazzy details like Union Jack flags on the roof or checkered mirror caps? Should it be a Sport model? A convertible? If you’ve got kids, maybe a Clubman? Should the interior be leather or fabric? If leather, should the leather have trim? Should there be a roofrack? A spoiler? And on and on and on. . .

Maybe right now you are thinking, “Geez, Max. You sure are shallow.” To which I might respond: You’re just noticing this now?

Yes, people who love Minis, like myself, are something of design fetishists. My friend Travis made an apt analogy: The Mini Cooper is the Apple Computer of cars. Part of the reason we so love our iBooks and iPhones and iPods is because they are designed beautifully—sleek yet cute; modern yet homey. Also, there’s also something positively tactile in their appeal—you’re not sure if you want to gaze at an iPhone or caress it. And of course, going Apple instead of PC says something about you—that you’re urban, artsy, a little alternative. (Yes, I’m aware of the evils of forging a sense of personality identity through brand identification, but I don’t really want to kill my Mini buzz. I’ve been seduced by design and marketing. So sue me.)

Okay, back to my Mini. Here’s the joy of “building your own.” Once you’ve sweated out the details and built the car EXACTLY as you like (assuming that money is no object, or a minimal object, or in my case, if you’ve decided to ignore the object and hope it goes away) you bring it to your dealer and they order it for you.

My Mini order went a little something like this:
Model: S hardtop
Color: Pepper white
Interior color: Tuscan beige leather
Chrome Exterior: Yes
Chrome Interior: Why the hell not?
Stripes: Black
Mirrors: Checkerboard
Name: Spike

And then you wait.

But you’re not passively waiting. Oh noooooo. You’re involved. You go back to trusty and you check into the Owner’s Lounge and you click on Where’s My Mini? The first thing it says—and for weeks, it seems stalled in this hated designation—“In production.” Then, one glorious day, you click on Where’s My Mini? and it says, “At the dock.” Then a few days later, “En route.” Now, let me tell you, en route takes a eternity—or so it seems, as you check the website once, twice, even three times a day. Then—oh glory—it reads: “At the dealership.”

But don’t expect your car just yet. If you’re like me, you added some snazzy dealer add-ons, like those checkered mirror caps and driving lamps. So you wait a little longer. And then, finally, your car salesman Benn calls you—or, in my case, you send him so many annoying emails inquiring about your car’s status, he eventually just caves—and your baby is ready for delivery.
I have to say, I’m not one for delay of gratification. It’s not my thing. Ask anyone.
But there is something to be said for laying your eyes on your new Mini for the first time, the car that you bought, that you named, that you pined away for and charted the progress of as though you were some sort of modern-day Magellan.

Yeah, everyone needs to buy a Mini at least once. Or at least play with the build a Mini feature online—it’s a lot cheaper that way.

*Pictured: Me and Spike. . . MC Sparky, you will be missed.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Unkindest Cut: The Top Chef recap

Poor what’s-her-name. I’m referring, of course, to the Top Chef wannabe who got booted before she even got to pull a knife from the block, don a single apron, or see the damn Top Chef kitchen. I’m talking about a girl who, no doubt, had an elaborate bon voyage party back in her home town, who packed enough recipes, spices, and culinary dreams to last a whole season, who had visions of Padma Lakshmi sighing with pleasure and Tom Colicchio licking his plate clean dancing in her head.
And now she’s gone.
What’s-your-name, we hardly knew ye.

Of course, things didn’t go much better for her culinary school buddy Patrick. He was a member of the gay posse, Team Rainbow, and I was extremely confused that there were only three members of Team Rainbow, until I remembered that this is Top Chef, not Project Runway and they’re not all gay. Anyway, Patrick was cute but oh-so green and I was totally worried they were going to send home fretful, insecure mother of two Ariane before him (she needs this so much more than he does), but they cut him loose. Deservedly so, that piece of salmon beached on that bok choy with gummy squid ink noodles was so NOT fierce. (Sorry, it may take me a while to make this whole Project Runway to Top Chef transition.)

There is also Team Euro, featuring our villain of the season, the fiendish Fin Stefan.
“A vinagrette is NOT an emulsion,” he said snootily, and several times, rolling his eyes with elaborate European contempt. Fabio, his Italian buddy, nodded in sage European agreement.

And playing the role of the Ugly American? That would be Long Island’s Danny, Guido extraordinaire. “They think they’re so great,” he said (or something to that effect.) “They’re my back yard.”
And with that, the entire progress of the Obama election was snuffed out.

The first challenge featured the different ethnic neighborhoods of New York, which was cool, although I would’ve bet good money that at least the first Quickfire would involve hot dogs or pretzels from a street vendor. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time.

I left my notes at home (the blogger’s equivalent of an 0-4 on Opening Day), so I’m a little sketchy on the rest of the details. I sort of like Carla, but she has one of those “I just plugged my finger into an electric socket” type way about her—whippet thin; large, surprised eyes; Crayola-box attire; gravity-defying hair. Still, she seems sweet.

Major demerits to Jeff, not only because he doesn’t know how long it takes to plate food, but because his silky, shiny, Breck girl hair is so much nicer than mine.

Of course, I’m rooting for my home girl Jill. Represent, Baltimore!! (That’s all I have to say at this point. Her personality didn’t really “jump” out at me.)

I find myself drawn to the underdog of the season, Gene. I love the fact that he has no formal culinary training, works on instinct, and managed to accidentally whip up one of Padma’s favorite dishes from home. I also appreciate that, even with all those “menacing” tattoos, he’s about as threatening as Miley Cyrus.

When Tom pointed out that the winner of the first challenge has gone on to win all but one of the Top Chefs, I was chanting, “Gene. Gene. Gene” under my breath.

But no, it was that damn folicle-free Fin again. (If last year was the season of the lesbian faux hawk, this is the season of bald men.) He’ll definitely be one to watch (and hate) this season. C’mon, Team America, take him down!!!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Yes We Did

Earlier this year, Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten won a Pulitzer Prize for an article about the absence of grace in a subway station. He put internationally acclaimed concert violinist Joshua Bell in a D.C. Metrorail station and watched as most pedestrians—rushing to work, distracted, perhaps too cynical to appreciate beauty in our daily lives—walked right on by. These subway denizens had an opportunity to be part of something truly extraordinary and they missed it.
Yesterday, the American public had their chance for the extraordinary—and they seized it.
I am so proud of my country right now, I can just about burst. We saw what was happening to this nation—the loss of civil rights, the mindless patriotism (which is no kind of patriotism at all), the isolationism, the impediments to medical and scientific progress, the corporate greed, the kind of neglect of our own that leads to a monstrosity like Hurricane Katrina—and we said, “Hell no, that ain’t us.”
Readers of this blog know that I supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. And I still love and respect Senator Clinton, but I now realize that I was wrong. It’s not that Hillary isn’t formidable, impressive, an agent of real change herself—but she isn’t what this country needed.
We needed Barack Obama. To the people who say that America is racist and jingoistic, that we only elect white men with last names like Bush and Clinton and Reagan—we showed them who we really are. To people who say that we are cocky cowboys who don’t want to be part of a global community—we showed them the truth. To people who say that we are easily swayed by the politics of fear and divisiveness—we said, no, not us.
Barack Obama is exactly what this country needs at this pivotal moment in history. He’s a genuine agent of hope, of change, of real progress. An extraordinary man needed for extraordinary (and extraordinarily challenging) times. We didn’t let the moment pass us. We weren’t too cynical, too narrow-minded. We said, Yes We Can.