Friday, February 27, 2009

Top Chef Finale recap (in brief)

On vacation in Key West, so I'm going to do this telegram style.

Well, that was anticlimactic. STOP.

Hated to see Carla cry. STOP.

At least it wasn't Stefan. STOP.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Aw shucks: The Top Chef recap

Once again, I watched an episode of Lie to Me before tuning into Top Chef, and once again, it armed me with mad skills to read the secret meaning behind the facial expressions of the judges and cheftestants.

But first, our four finalists arrive in New Orleans: With the exception of Fabio, who sports a truly unacceptable “faux hawk” and a Pepto-pink scarf, they all look pretty much the same—Hosea is sweaty and ill-at-ease; Stefan is smug and self-satisfied (but perhaps a tad thicker than last we saw him?); Carla looks like a happy and slightly bewildered giraffe.

Emeril Lagasse is the celebrity judge and, as my pal Evan pointed out, is weirdly subdued the whole night. Not a single “Bam!” to be found, despite many “Bam!”-friendly openings. (An Emeril without a “Bam!” is like a Hootie without a Hoo.)

There are three cooking stations set up but the chef’s are told that they won’t be competing in this Quickfire.

This immediately sets off my reality TV “oh, crap, they’re screwing with the rules” alarm, and with good reason.
Out march Jamie, Jeff, and Leah.

The cheftestants grin tensely, expressing outward pleasure at seeing their former castmates. Actual meaning: Christ, didn’t we get rid of these people already?

In particular, Hosea’s facial expression reads: I promised my girlfriend I would never see Leah again and now here she is—should I run?

Yup, one of these three cast-offs is now vying for a place in the finals. I absolutely HATE when reality shows do this. Why have rules at all if you’re just going to randomly change them? It’s not like Jamie, Jeff, or Leah were such stellar contestants that the competition has felt their absence. Hell, Leah was eliminated last week and I’d already forgotten about her.

Their challenge is to make a dish with crawfish, advantage Jeff, who works with seafood a lot at Hotel Vibrator. So he wins.

Jeff gets high fives and congratulations from the cheftestants, but what they’re really thinking is: Can’t you just go back to the hair salon you crawled out from under?

One catch: The only way Jeff can make it to the finals is by winning the Elimination Challenge. So at least there’s that.

Stefan expresses his displeasure with his new competition.
“This is Top Chef. This is not a butt-rubbing contest,” he says. No, I have no idea what it means either. But, if you are playing the home game:

This is not Top Scallop.
This is not Top Pussy.
And this is not Top Butt-Rubbing Contest.

Happy to clear that up.

Their Elimination Challenge is to make New Orleans-style food for a high society masked ball.

Everyone is completely sweating over their work, except for Stefan who, true to character, acts like the whole thing is a joke.
“Stefan’s Achilles heel is that he thinks he has it in the bag,” says Hosea. Foreshadowing? Or just wishful thinking.

Jeff is casing his own sausage, but Stefan is using the sausage that’s in the kitchen.
Stefan holds up the links of sausage like he’s 10. “What does this remind you of?” he giggles.

(Between the butt-rubbing and the sausage jokes, we can safely say that New Orleans brings out the repressed homosexual in Stefan like no other American city.)

Carla is making shrimp beignet and oyster stew, even though she just learned how to shuck an oyster, like, on Tuesday.
“I’m going to have to MacGyver it,” she says, endearingly hacking away at her oysters.

Hosea has been studying up on Cajun cooking techniques and is rouxing the hell out of his gumbo.

Chef Colicchio comes into to visit the chefs and notices, with some displeasure, Stefan’s nonchalance. (More foreshadowing?)

Eventually the chefs set up their tables and the ball begins. At which point, four mysterious masked figures emerge in the entranceway. One is a leggy, raven-haired goddess, one is a thickish bald guy, one is a busty woman, and one is, well, Emeril Lagasse.

“What’s the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation doing with Emeril Lagasse?” I think to myself.

Then they dramatically unveil their masks. They got me!
It’s Tom, Padma, and Gail!

(Re: The return of Gail. Does this mean we are done with U.K. McSnarkerson for good? Pleeeease make it so).

The guests seem to be enjoying the food. Fabio is hitting on all women—and despite his hair-don’t, they seem to like it. Carla is exchanging spirited “Hooties!” with her guests. And all the cheftestants are adorned in appreciative Mardi Gras beads (SO much more appropriate than the AIDS ribbons from a few shows back.)

At judges table, the following thoughts are expressed:

The judges pretty much LOVE Carla’s shrimp beignet and oyster stew and even her fizzy, non-alcoholic drink.

They also love Jeff’s atomically-green cucumber mojito, his crawfish pot de crème and his fried oyster and sausage.
They are particularly pleased that Jeff made his own sausage.
“This is the end,” says Jeff. “I wouldn’t win if I stole somebody’s sausage.”
Stefan gulps.
(Jeff has just seriously gone up in my estimation for making Stefan squirm.)

Despite the fact that it didn’t pass muster with Stefan, the judges are very fond of Hosea’s gumbo, with its authentic roux.

And they like, but don’t love, Fabio’s pasta with crawfish and Stefan’s gumbo with grits.

“You seem pretty indifferent to all this,” Chef Colicchio says to Stefan.
“I’m 36 years old. If it works out, it works out. If not, fine,” Stefan shrugs.
Cut to Colicchio, his lips pursed, his eyes squinted: Classic disgust.

So now here we are: If Jeff wins the whole thing, which is clearly a possibility, both Fabio AND Stefan are going home.
Holy f*&*#! Maybe that foreshadowing WAS for real.

Stefan sits in the holding room, trying to affect an air of amused indifference and nonchalance. Actual mood: Ready to poop his pants.

The cheftestants file back in.
And the winner is . . .Carla! Hootie!!!!

That means Jeff is gone. Again.

So it comes down, fittingly, to the bromance—Hans and Franz, the Euro twins.
For the first time, I actually think that Stefan should get the boot. He didn’t even try, for God’s sake.
And, as Fabio says, “Top Chef will be the enzer to everything I need.” (Yeah, took me a sec, too. Enzer = answer.)

“Fabio pack your knives and leave,” says Padma, her ovaries quivering with sorrow.
Fabio and Stefan share a completely hetero Euro kiss.

“You better win this thing!” Fabio says. And with that, he’s gone.

Don’t worry Fabio, I have a hunch the Dr. Diet Pepper fan favorite award is in your immediate future.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Harriet and Max: A Love Story

The image of Harriet that comes to me when I think of her, the one that breaks my heart is this: We’re on the wooded trail behind my house, where we went often. Harriet has run ahead, sniffing things, exploring. She realizes she’s lost sight of me. Suddenly, she barrels down the path. Her run goes from frantic to joyful as she spots me. I can’t tell you how many times I watched Harriet’s stampeding run, and that look of joy and relief on her face when we were reunited.

I met Harriet on a blind date. It was a year after my old girl Maggie had died and I was ready to get another dog. That’s what dog people do—we get dogs.
I went to the Maryland SPCA, which is where I had found Maggie 16 years earlier. I was a kid then. I could barely afford the adoption fee (I think it was $40 at the time). Now I was all grown up—a magazine editor and a longstanding member of the SPCA board of directors.

I scanned the cages and saw many adorable dogs—that usual assortment of grinning labs and cautious pit mixes and snouty hounds and yappy beagles—but every time I found a dog that seemed suited to my taste, it had a little note on the cage: “I’m Going Home Tomorrow!”
Translation: Someone had beaten me to the punch.

After three or four such thwarted attempts, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I’d been on the board for 8 years at that point—membership had to have some privileges, right?

So I called up my friend Aileen, the SPCA’s executive director. “Can you call me if a perfect Max dog comes through the gates?” I asked. I had only a few requirements: I preferred a girl dog, if possible. I wanted the dog to be under 25 pounds. I was partial to floppy ears, but again, not a deal breaker. I didn’t want a precious lap dog type and I didn’t want a dog that had been bred for fighting. Aileen told me she’d get back me.
And then I waited.

It took two weeks for Aileen to call. She reached me at work. “I think we have your dog,” she said: A bitch, about 6 years old; she’d been found wandering the streets of Catonsville. I literally dropped everything and went to the SPCA. I waited in the courtyard. I paced.

In minutes, Harriet—curiously called Brownie at the time (Harriet was a blonde)—emerged. She was cute, of course. Some have described her as a miniature Sandy from Annie. She had dark button eyes and a scruffy coat and these ridiculously dainty long legs. We took her into a special holding room to see if we were a match.

I’ve often characterized my meeting of Harriet as love at first sight, but that’s not entirely true. She was hyper that day and it was hard to get her to focus. She ran around nervously. Occasionally she would stop and lick my face.

I’ve always had romantic notions about dogs and their humans, that we would instantly recognize that we belonged together. It’s weird. I didn’t feel that way instantly about Harriet. I thought she was cute and sweet and needed a home. The face licking charmed me. So I adopted her.

Everything changed in the car ride home.

It’s hard to explain it, but there is that moment when the dog goes from “a dog” to “your dog.” You feel this surge of protectiveness and tenderness. I looked at her, standing shakily in the front seat of my Mini (she never was much for settling down in the car) and suddenly I adored her. The funny thing is, she must’ve had her own similar revelation. Because within a day, she was my shadow.

I happen to think dog owners are an insecure bunch. (If we were secure, we’d own cats). We want a dog to love us unconditionally, to flatter us into thinking that we are something extraordinary.

In Harriet’s eyes, I was a goddess. She followed me around the house. If someone else went to pet her, she’d cast furtive glances in my direction, as if to say: “Is this okay? Because if it’s not, I can end this any time.”

She kept vigil at the bay window when I left home. She was always there when I left, poking her little nose out from behind the curtain, and there when I got home. As soon as she confirmed it was me, she’d make a beeline to the door to greet me.

Once, I was working from home—a rarity—and Kate, the dog walker, came to get her. It took a lot of tugging and cajoling to get Harriet out the door. It was nothing personal. Harriet absolutely loved Kate. She just had this real anxiety about being taken away from me.
Ten minutes passed and I looked down. Harriet was standing next to me, her leash trailing her, looking rather proud of herself.
“Where’d you come from?” I laughed.
A few minutes later, Kate came bounding in, out of breath.
“She just took off,” she said, trying not to laugh.
Harriet had come home.

I always joked that Harriet came pre-trained. She was the best behaved dog I’ve ever known. Lord knows, I had nothing to do with it. I literally never once had to yell at her. Her separation anxiety made her perfect off leash in the park. She came when I called, without fail. Sometimes, she'd have leaves stuck to her nose. I called her canine Velcro.

She was a picky eater, to a comical degree. I could never anticipate what she would eat. She liked hummus. She ate olives. She didn’t like milk or bread. Most dog treats held no appeal to her. I found one kind of biscuit she liked—Milk Bones Chewy Chicken Drumstix. I bought 6 or 7 bags a time, whatever they had in stock. SuperFresh is going to wonder why the hell they have so many left in the store now.

She loved when I played cello, especially Beethoven duets with my sister, Felicia. We called her Ludwig. Sometimes when I played, I’d look up and she’d be staring at me dreamily. Once in a while, she’d come and jump up on my leg mid piece (she risked being poked in the eye by my bow on more than one occasion.) Once, she managed to wedge herself behind me on the chair while I played. She was in heaven.

The face licking never ended. Harriet loved to give kisses, all the time. It was her signature move. Just a few weeks ago, we were outside and saw my 2-year-old neighbor Violet. Her daddy held her upside down; Harriet kissed her face, like that scene from Spiderman. Violet giggled, delighted. Some grownups complained that she had bad breath. Violet and I never minded it.

After Maggie died, I wasn’t sure I could ever love a dog again like that. But I did. And I’m happy to say that I never took Harriet for granted. “I’m so lucky to have her,” I said to myself. I thought that almost every day.

I had Harriet for two years. I still can’t believe she’s gone. I couldn’t have loved her more if we’d spent a lifetime together. She did nothing to cure me of my hopeless romanticism when it comes to dogs. I do believe she and I were meant to be together. And no, I don’t understand why our time together was so short. I’m just so damn grateful that, for a brief period of time, she was mine.

This blog post is dedicated to Felicia, Mom, Dad, Travis, the Lewins, Amy E., Patti, Marge and all my friends and family who have helped me get through this difficult time. I couldn’t have done it without you.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

There Won't Be Blood: The Top Chef recap

Admit it, when Stefan overcooked his salmon and it came down to him and Leah in the elimination challenge, you got a little nervous . . . for Stefan. I’ve said it before, Stefan needs the finale and the finale needs Stefan. In its own way, the finale will be all about Stefan. Can Hosea prove his manhood after Stefan said that he “didn’t have the balls to be a Top Chef”? Can Fabio emerge from his BFF’s shadow? Can Carla prove that it’s not outsized ego, sexism, and Euro-chauvism, but in fact love that conquers all?
Only time will tell.

Anyway, whoops. Ruined the ending. Leah goes home. Quelle damage.

So this week’s Quickfire Challenge should’ve been renamed the MidlengthFire Challenge, although I admit that’s not quite as catchy. One hour to make an egg dish? Hell, I can whip up a mean mushroom and cheese omelet in 7 minutes flat.

Since the judge was molecular gastronomy wunderkind Wylie Dufresne, all the contestants felt compelled to go all Richard-from-Season-4 on us, making panna cottas that looked like eggs and eggs that looked like panna cottas. Only Carla decided to eschew the gastro-biology gimmick and make good old fashioned green eggs and ham. Naturally, she won. (Anyone else surprised to hear that Carla used to model? Actually, Carla looks surprised to hear that Carla used to model. . .I kid, I kid.)

I absolutely loved the Elimination Challenge. Each cheftestant was given the task of creating a perfect last meal for one of 5 acclaimed foodies.

Fabio, ever the literal minded one, said, “I wouldn’t want my last meal prepared by a contestant on Top Chef.” (Hey, Fabio, this is a metaphorical last meal, not an actual . . .oh, never mind.)

Carla got chef Jacques Pepin, who wanted squab and peas.

Fabio got Italian chef Lydia Bastianich, who wanted roasted chicken.

Stefan got chef Marcus Samuelsson who wanted salmon and dill.

Hosea got food doyenne Susan Ungaro, who wanted shrimp scampi.

And Leah got our Quickfire judge Wylie Dufresne, who wanted eggs benedict.

Of course, at this precise moment we are all trying to come up with our own perfect last meal, a task I find nearly impossible. I am a food generalist, a jack of all palates you could say—on any given day I’m just as likely to want Thai Drunken Noodles as I am to want a bagel with lox and cream cheese or a spaghetti Bolognese. How will I know what mood I’ll be in on my last day? (Oh wait, duh. . .lousy. In that case, mac and cheese and a half pint of Ben and Jerry’s New York Superfudge Chunk—always works when I’m PMSing.)

At Whole Foods, Stefan is positively giddy with confidence, Leah looks completely lost (it’s week 10 and she still doesn’t know where the eggs and butter are?), and Carla is making adorkably corny puns (“Chef Pepin and I are two peas in a pod.”)

Back in the kitchen, there’s a crashing sound and the next thing you know, Fabio is cradling his finger in pain, being treated by a Top Chef staff medic. (I wonder if Make Me Supermodel also has a medic on standby? Insert bulemia joke here.). Okay, I don’t know about you, but I am totally expecting Fabio's finger to be lying somewhere on the kitchen floor, David Lynch-style. Kitchen injuries usually involve gushing blood and sliced appendages. Color me relieved to see all of his limbs attached.

Despite his handicap, Fabio soldiers on. (“This is Top Chef,” he later explains. “Not Top Pussy.” Hosea seems surprised.)

The last thing Tom Colicchio says to the Cheftestants before dinner is “don’t embarrass me,” which I actually find kind of touching. He really does sort of see the chefs as his kids—kids who can potentially get busted with a bong at a party and have their face plastered all over the national media. (Sorry. . . I digress.)

Leah goes first and her Eggs Benedict are good but the Hollandaise is too thin (in a last minute panic, she thinned it) and her eggs are too runny.
“I like runny eggs,” says Toby Young. Remember, he’s British.

Next up: Stefan. Everyone agrees that his salmon is overcooked and his spinach “cooked two ways” appears to be cooked “one way” as Padma notes, as the cream sauce from the salmon runs onto the plain spinach.

Then we have Carla, who keeps it blissfully simple, with beautifully prepared squab and a bowl of peas. There’s some debate as to whether or not the squab is overcooked (Carla, for one, thinks it is) but Chef Pepin is in heaven. He calls the peas “scrumptious.”

Next there’s Hosea, with his shrimp scampi and tomato Provencal. Toby Young is uninspired, and all agree that Hosea's tomato preparation was too fussy, but for the most part, the judges like it.

Finally, Fabio. Turns out he can cook roast chicken with one hand tied behind his back because the judges go nuts. Chef Pepin declares he’s in heaven. Tom Colicchio says that the roast chicken can be Fabio’s signature dish. I’m not going to lie, it looks incredible. I’m basically salivating at this point. (About the chicken, people. Not about Fabio. Get your minds out of the gutter!)

In the end, Fabio wins, despite making airplane salad.
Leah gets her long overdue boot.

Next stop, New Orleans and guest judge Emeril Lagasse. Brace yourself for a chorus of BAMs!