Posts filed under Food/Wine

Top Chef: Season 4

Filed in ReviewsTags: Food/Wine, Top Chef, TV/Cable

Tonight the premiere for season four of Top Chef aired. As you all are well aware, I'm sure, this show is one of our favorites.

I would like to follow along a bit better, and blog my thoughts and reactions to each episode - but that will depend on how much time I can spare for blogging (which hasn't been much, lately). We'll see how it goes!

Of course, watching Top Chef always seems to inspire me in the kitchen, and tonight I (hopefully) proved that I still know my way with an omelet. (Steph's opinion may differ; I'm still getting adjusted to cooking with gas.)

Well that's all for tonight; hopefully there will be more later. Tomorrow I have an appointment with a chiropractor, which will hopefully make things a bit easier (apparently, I overdid it with the moving and unpacking, as I have had a sore back for a week or two).

Peanut Butter Recall

Filed in MiscellaneousTags: Food/Wine, Health/Nutrition, Missouri, Saint Louis

When I woke up this morning, Stephanie alerted me to reports of a Peanut Butter recall - one that particularly impacted Missouri/Saint Louis. The recall was issued due to a suspected link between the peanut butter and a widespread salmonella outbreak, and includes Peter Pan and GreatValu peanut butter packaged by ConAgra, with lot numbers starting with "2111" stamped on the product lid - such as this one, that I just bought:

Peanut Butter Recall 005

Peanut Butter Recall 009

The jar of peanut butter that we just bought was included in the recall of ConAgra-packaged Peter Pan and GreatValu peanut butter with lot numbers starting with "2111".
Photo © Chip Bennett, all rights reserved.

I returned it today, but of course, that didn't do anything to help the jar I just threw away that also had a lot number starting with "2111" - which means I fed a whole jar of possibly salmonella-contaminated peanut butter to Steph...

Top Chef 2: Episode 11

Filed in ReviewsTags: Food/Wine, Top Chef, TV/Cable

Episode 11: The Bitter End of Bullying

The Quickfire Challenge continued the ad nauseum corporate sponsorship, tasking the contestants to create a dish using Nestlé Chocolatier. Surprise guest judge Eric Ripert chose Sam's dish as the winner:

Shrimp & Bananas with Chocolate Chipotle, Black Bean & Cilantro Pesto Sauces
Photo © Bravo TV

The Elimination Challenge, which was to determine the four who would move on to the final in Hawaii, tasked the contestants with each preparing a dish in a five-course, romantic dinner. The chefs were given nearly limitless freedom in budget and food choices, and were to pair each dish with an appropriate wine. Sam, as the winner of the Quickfire Challenge, had the option of choosing his course and dish protein, which none of the other contestants could then use.

Knowing the stakes of the challenge, each chef put forth commensurate effort - as the meal's outcome proved. However, the judges chose no winner for the Elimination Challenge, due to events that took place following the completion of the challenge.

Judge Colicchio explains what happened next:

When I got to the set, the producers told me that the previous evening Cliff, Elia, Ilan and Sam had been drinking. While Marcel slept peacefully in the next room, they made a decision to shave their own heads (only Ilan and Elia actually went through with it) and then to shave Marcel's, whether he liked it or not. Cliff jumped him, abruptly waking him up, and hauled him into a half-nelson, while the others laughingly captured the incident on a crew member's camcorder and debated shaving his head. Marcel was bruised and understandably freaked out, and the video footage had found its way back to the Producers.

The next morning, the producers scrambled to try to resolve the situation, and in the end, Cliff was disqualified for violation of contest rules that prohibit physically accosting or threating another contestant. In, again, Colicchio's words:

The whole thing brought to mind that famous quote, "All that is necessary for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing." Any one of them could have spoken up and said, "This isn't cool, guys. Knock it off."

But they didn't, so as far as I was concerned they were all to blame and I was ready to send the lot of them home and let Marcel win by default.

(Ed. Note: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." is a quote generally attributed to Edmund Burke.)

Kudos to Tom, for wanting to do the right thing by dismissing the lot of them. However, the show's producers vetoed that decision - after all, the show must go on. Cliff was dismissed for explicit violation of contest rules, no winner was declared for the Elimination Challenge, and following the Judges' Table, Sam, Ilan, Elia, and Marcel were sent on to the final in Hawaii.

I cannot express the extent to which the decision not to dismiss Sam, Ilan, and Elia disappointed and upset me, for several reasons.

First, the events of Episode 11 were the climax of a situation that not only had been building up for several episodes, but one that the show's producers actively encouraged and fomented. The editing of each episode has clearly intended to justify and to promote the anti-Marcel attitude amongst the other contestants. In fact, during the airing of Episode 11, Bravo even ran a television poll asking "Who Hates Marcel the Most?" - with the choices being "Sam", "Cliff", "Elan", and "Me". It is ironic that Colicchio should reference the Burke quote, since the show's producers, editors, and judges allowed the situation to escalate as it did, with several instances of bullying taking place with nary a response. Frank threatened Marcel with physical harm in Episode 6. Sam publicly berated, swore at, and humiliated Marcel in Episode 9 - the same episode in which all the contestants helped each other serve their Elimination Challenge dishes except for Marcel, who was left to serve his dishes alone. This anti-Marcel sentiment was actively encouraged by the show's staff, and led directly to the outcome in Episode 11.

For a show purported to showcase quality food and professionalism of a group of individuals vying for acclaim as a "Top Chef", the producers, editors, and judges have instead given the viewers a product not "all about the food" but instead sometimes about the food, and more often about interpersonal conflict. If I wanted reality drama, I'd watch Real World. I want what was advertised: a show that brings the best out of a group of creative, professional contestants, and in the process encourages my own culinary imagination.

Second, I generally have an innate response to seeing someone subjected to group outcast and bullying. I can empathize all too well with such people, because growing up through much of elementary, junior high, and high school, I was that person. I know how it feels to be made fun of, to be different, to be unaccepted - and, yes, to be bullied. (Granted, most of the bullying ceased by the time I was in high school; not many bullies choose to take on someone nearly six feet tall and over 200 pounds.) I understand the mental and emotional toll enduring such things incurs. Books such as Frank Peretti's non-fiction and auto-biographical The Wounded Spirit resonate very well with me.

Fortunately, thanks to my parents and my faith, I endured those days, and became the person I am today. In my case, what I endured was because of the immaturity of kids, adolescents, and teenagers. Most of those people have now grown up and matured, and I hold no ill will. However, in Marcel's case, the instigators are not immature teenagers, but rather (equally immature) adults. Cliff, Ilan, Sam, Betty, Frank, and the rest have no excuse for their behavior. Others have said that Cliff's actions amounted to felony assault; regardless of the degree of legal severity, his actions were abetted by Ilan, encouraged by Sam, and not challenged by Elia.

I am especially saddened that the show's producers insisted that the end - the show itself - justified whatever means - up to and including the events of Episode 11 - of its completion. The producers should have let Colicchio send all of Cliff, Sam, Ilan, and Elia home. Given that the show had a three-month gap between the filming of Episode 11 and the planned filming of the final two Episodes in Hawaii, more than sufficient time existed to come up with some alternate means of completing the show (other than letting Marcel win by default, if that outcome was so undesirable). But instead, cowardice and profit motive superceded principle.

Most of what else could be said has already been said (see Gail's, Andy's, Harold's, Lee Ann's, Padma's, and Shauna's blogs).

The show's staff have a lot of work to do to salvage season two, not to mention to redeem the Top Chef franchise itself.

Top Chef 2: Episode 10

Filed in ReviewsTags: Food/Wine, Top Chef, TV/Cable

Episode 10: Michael Gets The Shaft

In the Quickfire challenge, in which the chefs were asked to prepare a snack from a variety of foods and a selection of Kraft condiments, guest judge Mike Yakura chose Marcel's Lamb Kebab with Curried Kraft Mayo, Endives & Tomatoes and Sam's Southern Kraft Sandwich with Tempura Shrimp Pickled Peaches & BBQ Aioli. As a reward, both winners were allowed to choose teams for the Elimination challenge: to design a restaurant from concept to menu and serve customers within 24 hours.

Sam's team of Ilan and Michael opened Lalalina, a rustic Italian restaurant. Marcel's team of Elia and Cliff opened M.E.C., an up-scale diner. The judges deemed both efforts so poor that no winner was declared, and both teams would be at the judges' table.

Episode 10 Judges Table

Judges' Table: No Winner

Marcel, Elia, and Ilan were excused from the judges' table, and the elimination decision came down to Cliff, Sam, and Michael. Of the remaining three: Cliff bombed horribly in his attempt at front service, contributed almost nothing to the food production effort, and displayed disrespect and arrogance that seemed even out of his normal rude, self-confident manner; Sam created and produced what may be the single worst dish in all of Season Two and spent more time taking over Michael's work than stepping up as the team leader he was designated to be; and Michael made no obvious mistakes for which he was solely or uniquely responsible.

In the end, the judges eliminated Michael for failing to purchase side plates for bread and olive pits and for making no obvious contribution to the cooking efforts. Both charges are specious.

On the former, Michael simply purchased supplies from a list that the team as a whole put together based on their chosen dishes. If anything, lack of foresight of the need for side plates should fall on the team leader, not the person simply purchasing supplies on the list. This failure was a team failure, not an individual one. In the worst bit of irony, had Michael realized the omission and bought the dishes on his own, the judges would not have credited him with the effort; they simply would never have realized that anything was ever amiss. The judges erred miserably in making Michael the scapegoat for the missing plates. For that matter, the judges noted the egregious lack of wine served at Lalalina's Italian restaurant, yet completely overlooked that Sam and Cliff (who purchased food while Michael purchased supplies) were solely responsible for the omission. Which is worse: an Italian restaurant that offers no wine or fails to provide a plate to discard olive pits?

On the latter, considering the disaster of a dish that Sam concocted, the raw chicken Marcel served, the bacon that Colicchio himself observed Ilan burning, and the over-cooked hamburgers Elia served (thanks to Cliff's inability to serve them in a timely manner), and Cliff's apparent lack of doing, well, anything in the kitchen, the judges again made the wrong decision. Their critique of Michael was not entirely incorrect; he was the least talented of the remaining chefs. However, if the chefs are judged based on current performance, then Michael had no business being eliminated this round. Clearly, either Sam (for poor team leadership and a horrendous dish) or Cliff (for complete failure in front service, lack of contribution in the kitchen, and utter boorishness at the judges' table) should have been eliminated.

Michael's downfall began as early as the Quickfire challenge, when the guest judge inexplicably bemoaned Michael's use of seafood and cheese in his Brie & Crab Quesadilla with Chipotle & Mayo Salad:

Episode 10: Michael Quickfire

Mr. Mohawk blatantly dismissed Michael's dish simply because he disagreed with pairing seafood with cheese. Yakura must have shaved off some brain cells when he gave himself that ridiculous 'do; regardless, he unfairly biased himself against Michael in the Quickfire, and that bias undoubtedly bore itself out in the judges' elimination decision.

Tom Colicchio didn't address the elimination decision, but discussed at length his disappointment with the overall effort. Key points:

I was truly disappointed to see that none of the chefs stepped up with a deeply personal vision of their food, and the environment that could showcase them to the judges and to the world. We’re down to only six chefs, and its safe to say that each of the six hopes to win and use the victory as a stepping stone for their own culinary career. Here, at last, they were given a chance to show who they were. If even one of the three on each team had done this, and the other two had provided support, it would have been a revealing window into the soul of these chefs and a chance to see who led and who followed.

But for reasons I can’t even fathom, Lalalina, Sam, Ilan and Michael’s “rustic Italian” restaurant and Marcel, Elia and Cliff’s M.E.C. Diner seemed like theme restaurants -- each representing an idea devoid of the personal connection that a real chef needs to bring to his work to make it unique. And on top of this, neither one was done particularly well.

He's right, but not addressing the judges' elimination decision in the post-episode blog was as much of a cop-out was was the decision to eliminate Michael for failing to purchase olive-pit plates.

In contrast the Colicchio's blog, Gail Simmons epitomizes the ridiculous rationalization of the judges in hers. She spends one page discussing the unacceptability at this point in the competition of producing bad-quality food and lack of people skills or charisma - which she somehow segues into her critique of Michael. Here is her explanation for the decision:

We decided to eliminate Michael this week for the same reasons. We no longer doubted his passion or his basic ability, after all he did set a record by winning both the Quickfire and the Elimination round in the same episode, but when placed in a team environment Michael did not attempt any kind of leadership role or show resourcefulness at all. This was apparent in both his purchasing of equipment (over $100 leftover in his budget and no bread plates or bowl for olive pits! No wine glasses! No wine!), as well as how he worked under Sam in the kitchen. None of us could be sure what, if anything, he actually contributed to the meal. He was at times infuriating but always fun to see on set, cheerful and positive. Maybe he should have been doing the serving at Lalalina that night? At least then we would have laughed a little.

She actually blames Michael for Lalalina failing to serve wine - something he had absolutely no control over and for which Sam and Ilan were completely responsible! The rationale for eliminating Michael was a complete non sequitur with the overall criticism of the teams' efforts. Michael didn't fail as a front man. Michael didn't serve under-cooked or horribly created food. Michael didn't overspend on food and decide not to purchase wine.

Gail's blog demonstrates that the judges were - for whatever reason - looking for an excuse to eliminate Michael, and found one suitable enough to justify the decision in their own minds.

Padma Lakshmi's blog echoes the judges' sentiment:

Sam’s team had bigger problems with stray olive pits, no bread plates and no wine; their team was the worse of two losing teams. Their biggest weakness was Mike. Finally Mike’s lackadaisical attitude caught up with him. Relying on his list, he failed to think on his own and take responsibility for at least the shopping. He kept saying he followed the list, I think "Top Chef" is looking for leaders, not followers.

Again, which is worse, a team player who follows more than leads, or a leader who fails miserably on all fronts? Were not Lalalina's failures a direct reflection on Sam? Utterly ridiculous reasoning.

Overall, the Episode 10 blogs were as disappointing as the show itself. The only redeeming entry was from Harold Dieterle, who appropriately bagged on Yakura for being a complete jerk.

Top Chef 2: Episode 9

Filed in ReviewsTags: Food/Wine, Top Chef, TV/Cable

When we moved into our new place, I decided to get cable - mainly, for Steph since she is home all day. One of the unintended consequences of that decision is that we are now both hooked on Top Chef: Season 2. Steph has been reading the chefs' blogs, but I've not really had the time to read them. So, as dinner is finishing and we're waiting for tonight's episode, I decided to have a look.

In Episode 9, Michael won both the Quickfire and Elimination challenges, and Betty was eliminated. The Quickfire challenge featured colors, with each chef creating a dish around a designated color. The Elimination challenge featured the Seven Deadly Sins, with the chefs serving a seven-course meal, and each chef's course created around a designated Deadly Sin.

Michael won the Quickfire with a salmon-and-carrot-chip dish (for the color orange) and the Elimination challenge with Trout and Salmon with Basil Aioli and Asparagus (for Envy):


Envy: Trout and Salmon with Basil Aioli and Asparagus
Photo © Bravo

As the episodes have progressed, Steph and I both began to sympathize for Michael for being the underdog, and to despise Betty for her treatment of Marcel. We were both rooting for her to be the next one eliminated, but I would have been equally happy if Ilan had been eliminated for his complete lack of professionalism in this episode.

Colicchio summarized the Marcel situation well:

Marcel is the kind of guy who has probably pissed people off his whole life -- dating back to the playground -- without really understanding why or how. Faced with people’s negative reactions he lashes back in even more annoying ways, creating a cycle. Under ordinary circumstances, the others may have been willing to brush off Marcel’s irritating behavior, but with little sleep and mounting pressure, they’re regressing instead into a group of petty sixth-graders. This reached a head for me when I saw the group decide not to serve his dish during the dinner party (Elia was the lone dissenter in this). I replayed the episode to see what Marcel had done to spark this little mob mentality, and realized he hadn’t done much, other than speak forcefully. Obviously, the group was primed to be angry with him over the slightest infraction. I wanted to see some leadership -- someone who would step up and say, "Marcel may be the most annoying guy in the world, but the show must go on. Let’s put our heads down and get this meal over with." Imagine if a restaurant line came to a screeching halt every time some cook pissed off another? Trust me; it would be the end of restaurant dining as we know it.

I can empathize with Marcel here; growing up, I had the same problem: I could annoy (or worse) people just by my personality, and not even know it. The problem is, the workplace is no place for personality conflicts. Of all the contestants, Marcel is the one that most models the professionalism required especially for a chef. Regardless of personality issues, he is the one always trying to help out his fellow chefs - trying to see that the show goes on.

I still think Cliff and Sam are the strongest two competitors, but I would love to see Marcel outlast both Ilan and Sam.

Episode 10 Prediction:

Despite his Episode-9 sweep, Mike is still the underdog in terms of talent. He showed that he can hang with the rest, but he is the one most likely to falter of the remaining six competitors. If he does, he will be done. If he doesn't, he has an equal shot of seeing Episode 11.

Cliff and Sam are the two strongest, followed (in no particular order) by Ilan, Elia, and Marcel. I don't forsee either of the top two being eliminated this week, and I think Michael has a decent enough follow-up to last week's sweep not to get eliminated. One of Ilan, Elia, or Marcel will go this week. I'm rooting for Ilan, but my instinct tells me it will be Elia (unfortunately, as she has been the lone supporter of Marcel).

We find out in about an hour!

Saint Louis Songwriters’ Showcase

Filed in PersonalTags: Food/Wine, Friends, Missouri, Music, Photos, Saint Louis

Tonight I'm at the Crave Coffeehouse, just off of the SLU campus, for the Saint Louis Songwriters' group songwriters' showcase. Neat venue for a coffeehouse:

crave coffeehouse
Photo © Crave Coffeehouse

crave coffeehouse
Photo © Crave Coffeehouse

My friend Christina is one of the songwriters performing tonight.

Cooking For Engineers

Filed in ScienceTags: Food/Wine, Geekery

This site rocks!

Via Casting Out Nines, who says:

Cooking for Engineers is a cooking site (imagine!) with the detail-oriented geek in mind. All the measurements are in MKS units rather than tablespoons and cups. The recipes — and there are many of those — are formatted as little Gantt charts, which makes so much sense to those with a little operations research exposure, it’s scary. There are experiments — for example, comparing the results of cooking bacon by frying, broiling, or microwaving. Think of it as Alton Brown taken to his logical extreme. (AB is, by the way, my hero; I find that a disturbing amount of my classroom pedagogy is based on how he operates on Good Eats.) If you enjoy cooking but long for a more scientific approach — check it out.

Vacuvin Concerto

Filed in ReviewsTags: Food/Wine

Being single and living alone does not go well with wine - especially since a full glass with dinner is almost more than enough for my tastes. I have turned more bottles of cab and zin into expensive vinegar than I care to admit. Well, along came this post from the Corktease blog, introducing me to vacuum wine stoppers, particularly those from Vacuvin.

I recently bought the Vacuvin Concerto vacuum pump, and so far it has worked great and is worth its weight in gold - or, at least, worth its cost in wine.

Breaking: SCOTUS Upholds Constitution

Filed in PoliticsTags: Food/Wine, Judiciary

Supports Legitimate Constitutional Function of Federal Government; Prohibits Discriminatory Bans on Inter-State Wine Sales reports on the decision yesterday by the Supreme Court of the United States, striking down laws forbidding direct shipments of wine from out-of-state.

In a long overdue ruling that split Justices Antonin Scalia (who sided with Breyer, Ginsburg and Stevens) and Clarence Thomas, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state laws forbidding direct shipments of wine from out-of-state. While proponents of such laws used the prevention of underage drinking as their pretext, the Court saw through this facade and acknowledged that the true purpose was simply to protect both in-state wine producers and wine distributors' profits.

Great news for my parents, who live in the People's Republic of Maryland, which, not surprisingly, has some of the most restrictive laws on out-of-state wine shipments. I, on the other hand, live in Missouri, which is already a reciprocity state.

The post also points out how the CNN report misses the crux of the ruling, referencing the 21st Amendment, rather than Commerce Clause:

As usual, the MSM gets it wrong. The AP article states that the case centered on the 21st Amendment. While it was relevant, the opinion focused on the fact that the 21st Amendment did not give States the power to discriminate in interstate commernce, so the Commerce Clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3) ruled the day. In this case, laws were ruled unconstitutional because they actually contravened actual constitutional provisions that actually exist. That's what distinguishes it from run-of-the-mill liberal judicial activism.

To refresh your memory, the Commerce Clause is as follows:

The Congress shall have Power...To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;

A further reading of the rest of the U.S. Constitution with respect to limitations on the rights of the States clearly indicates a prejudice against discriminatory anti-competition practices between states.

The dissenting opinions centered on two arguments: the right of the States to regulate liquor sales, and the impact striking down inter-state wine shipments would have on sales of liquor to minors. However, as the majority pointed out, addressing the first issue:

The details and mechanics of the two regulatory schemes differ, but the object and effect of the laws are the same: to allow in-state wineries to sell wine directly to consumers in that State but to prohibit out-of-state wineries from doing so, or, at the least, to make direct sales impractical from an economic standpoint. It is evident that the object and design of the Michigan and New York statutes is to grant in-state wineries a competitive advantage over wineries located beyond the States' borders.

We hold that the laws in both States discriminate against interstate commerce in violation of the Commerce Clause... and that the discrimination is neither authorized nor permitted by the Twenty-first Amendment.

And in response to the latter:

The States provide little evidence that the purchase of wine over the Internet by minors is a problem. Indeed, there is some evidence to the contrary. A recent study by the staff of the FTC found that the 26 States currently allowing direct shipments report no problems with minors' increased access to wine... Without concrete evidence that direct shipping of wine is likely to increase alcohol consumption by minors, we are left with the States' unsupported assertions. Under our precedents, which require the "clearest showing" to justify discriminatory state reulation... this is not enough.

Read the opinion for yourself; the majority completely discredit these claims.

For those of you soon to be freed from discriminatory out-of-state wine shipment laws, refer back to my post on Missouri Wineries and sample what the country's first officially designated wine district has to offer.

Extended coverage:
Fermentations, Again, and ,Again
Professor Bainbridge

Jeopardy Does Terre Haute Cuisine

Filed in MiscellaneousTags: Food/Wine, Indiana, Terre Haute, TV/Cable

Vyvoda and Tyler both report on Jeopardy featuring the "cuisine" of Terre Haute, the home of our Alma Mater, in the Double Jeopardy round of a recent Tournament of Champions show. Tyler has the list of questions (answers) posted, as well as a video of the category being played out.

However, Jeopardy missed the single, most important eating establishment in Terre Haute: Big Shoe's Barbecue - and only gave a passing reference to the only decent, non-chain steak house: Stables. No mention, either, of Gerhardt's Bierstube.