Top Chef: The First Thanksgiving

TOP CHEF 13.06: “The First Thanksgiving”

Yes, I’ve absolutely missed out on weighing in on a couple of Top Chefs, including an episode that was practically filmed in my backyard at the Watertown Arsenal. How did I miss out on that? Anyway, I’d say the most notable event over the last few weeks was Aaron, aka Douchehat, who I’ve pretty strongly disliked since the beginning of the season. I’ll admit, I actually felt a little bad for him after his final speech; he’s obviously a guy who’s had a tough life and probably didn’t have a very positive home life to grow up in, and that’s got to leave some scars (that are hidden by adopting the exterior of a raging asshole), so it’s hard not to feel for someone with that kind of background, especially when they’re on the way out and you don’t have to deal with their posturing anymore. But then I hear that he got arrested for felony domestic abuse, which sends the sympathy quotient plummeting back down again.

Anyway, enough of him. We’re somehow down to nine contestants; I can’t believe the numbers are so low already. The Quickfire starts with a mad dash through a flooded cranberry bog; the four chefs who can fill their crates the fastest get to use better ingredients in the cooking portion of the challenge, when they’re tasked with making something that highlights cranberries. Can’t say I’m a super fan of the cranberry rush, though, as it seems to give an advantage to the more physically built chefs, although it was amusing to see Katsuji rolling around on the floor afterwards like he’d just run a marathon. Of all the Quickfire dishes, Katie’s stood out for me; borscht with cranberries instead of vinegar? How creative! Obviously the judges thought the same, because she wins and gets immunity.

The elimination challenge takes place at Plimoth Plantation. The chefs will have to cook at true 17th century Thanksgiving feast, using not only period ingredients (duck, venison, goat milk, squash), but also period cooking equipment, and serve the results to descendants of Mayflower passengers and local Native American tribes. It’s a lot of fun to see the chefs work with open flames, iron spits, cauldrons, and wooden spoons. It strips away a lot of the high-technique distractions of contemporary cooking, which is a nice change of pace. No xantham gum, no liquid nitrogen, nothing special. It’s great, and interestingly enough, everyone gets along incredibly well, functioning as perhaps the most well-oiled team ever seen on the show as they work together to get their feast on the table. The strong teamwork apparently shows in the quality of the food as well; the judges have high praise for pretty much everything, and the three folks on the bottom only had minor flaws in their dishes. I actually thought they might not kick someone off today; certainly this season, with it’s unexpected elimination quickfires, is primed for at least one unexpected non-elimination challenge. But in the end, its not to be and our local Boston girl, is sent home; it’s a shame, because any other day her dish would have been good enough to save her for the next week.

Restaurant wars is next week. Despite Gregory’s weak showing in the elimination challenge this week, he’s still clearly at the top of the pile. Mei, Doug, and Adam are a tier below, with everyone else perhaps just a step below them.

Top Chef: Boston’s Bravest and Finest

TOP CHEF: 12.02 “Boston’s Bravest and Finest
Last week, I identified two early villains in this season; DoucheHat (Aaron, who wears the black baseball cap), and Adam. This week, Adam comes across as much more tolerable. He seems easy-going, energetic, and there’s not a whiff of misogyny in sight; of course, the emotional way he tells the story of his mother’s experience at Ground Zero in New York during 9/11 goes a long way to help the audience connect with him. Not so much for Aaron, who seems even more unpleasant and arrogant than last week. He seems completely unable to function in the group challenge, insisting on wasting most of his time making some kind of bullshit molecular gastronomy “gel” to serve to Boston Firefighters and Police Officers, a group which is probably not really into gimmicky, fancy, ultra-haute cuisine. Worse yet, he gets plenty of warnings from his teammates, particularly Keriann, who as the daughter of a firefighter insists that they shouldn’t get too fancy and stick with simple, well-prepared food with good flavors. Of course, he completely ignores her in the most dismissive way possible, earning him the misogynist card for the week, and nearly getting himself kicked off in the process. I feel bad for Stacy, the Boston contestant, who’s stuck in the middle of such a dysfunctional dynamic. Somehow she manages to deal with it, because her chicken is actually well done and apparently the only thing that keeps her team from being ranked on the bottom.Joy from the other team, unfortunately, is sent home for serving some undercooked veal chops. It’s disappointing, because I believe she had talent and I would have liked to see what she could do in future challenges, though given the nature of the mistake, it’s maybe not all that surprising. The judges seem to always be harsher on simple mistakes of execution, and undercooking veal is certainly that, than they are on failures of complicated concepts, like Aaron’s (Sorry, I mean DoucheHat’s).

To rewind just a bit, the opening quickfire featured Todd English as judge, and tasked the chefs with cooking surf and turf. They had to select their ingredients based on several lanterns lighting up at different intervals, a call back to Paul Revere’s famous ride; I may not have been paying close enough attention at this point, because this never really did make sense to me. Some fellow who I didn’t recognize from the previous episode came out on top, with $5000 for his victory. In the main challenge, competitors are split into five groups, assigned a time by which to show up to the restaurant they’re cooking at (I forget the name), where they will select a basket of ingredients. Of course, the best baskets go first. They’re all cooking and serving to members of the Boston Police Department and Fire Department. Aside from the dysfunctional nature of DoucheHat’s team, I thought the team with two people seemed to function pretty well together; despite being down by one hand, they seemed to be on the same page and produced some good food. The winner was Adam’s team; as I said above, this episode does a lot to rehabilitate his image, especially because Aaron comes across as such a raging misanthrope.

On to next week, and a meal underneath the Green Monster?

Top Chef: Boston, Episode 1

TOP CHEF: 12.01: “Sudden Death”

As I mentioned the other day, I’m very happy to see Top Chef return to the tube, not only because it’s my favorite reality show (albeit, perhaps also the only one I watch), and not because I’ve been watching it since the second (or third, I forget) season, but also because this year it’s set in the Boston area, the region that I currently call home.

It was exciting to see places I’ve been on the show, even if they didn’t throw in too much local color in the first episode. The most we saw, really, was the Whole Foods (which I think is in the Fenway?) and the “Top Chef Food Festival” at the Museum of Science; we didn’t even see the house the chefs will be staying in yet. But I’ll say, the guest list at the Museum was pretty impressive, full of Boston culinary superstars like Barbara Lynch, Ming Tsai, Jasper White, Jamie Bissonnette, Todd English, and others.

This early in the competition, it’s tough to get a sense of all the chefs because the field is so big. Right now, I’ll be rooting for the Boston girl (I forget her name, but she’s from Regal Beagle in Brookline; unfortunately, I think I moved out of that neighborhood before it opened so I’ve never been). I have to feel for George, who got eliminated in the new-look Elimination Quickfire (which I’m not sure I like; it seems too abrupt), and who seemed like an earnest and likeable sort of guy. I also like Joy, who’s pretty humble and self-effacing, but who I suspect has some serious skills regardless, at least judging by the response to her food in the elimination. She didn’t make it in the top, but her simple grits, greens, and crispy chicken skin looked really good. Least likeable is Adam, who not only comes off as incredibly arrogant but also disgustingly retrograde when he refers to Keriann as a “beautiful blonde thoroughbred”; sure, she’s good looking, but comparing her to a race horse is thoughtless at best and misogynistic at worst and immediately left a bad taste in my mouth. Also in the running for early villain is Aaron (I think that’s his name), who comes across as completely full of himself and totally dismissive of his competition, despite the fact that he serves such a fatty piece of pork to Padma that she spits it out in front of him and tells him to get his shit together, though in a slightly nicer tone; he tends to wear a black hat (appropriate) in his face-to-face interviews, so I think I’ll be calling him DoucheHat from now on. Katsuji has an interesting backstory (Japanese, Kosher, and Mexican all together?) but his “petroleum shrimp” looked bizarre, and based on the reactions of the judges, it probably tasted bizarre too; I’d avoid adding the word “petroleum” to anything edible. Katie’s broccoli dish sounded like a bad idea from the start, and it was. Too simple, and ugly to look at.

When it gets down to judging, it looks like this year all the chefs are going to be called into the same room at once, and they’ll all get to hear who succeed, who failed, and why. I like this approach a lot better than last year, when they simply piped the judge deliberations into the waiting room via TV. Mei wins, for making some kind of traditional rice porridge, and Michael goes home for putting fish eggs in a cold soup (eww). I have to say, I love that two-time former contestant and one-time winner Richard Blais is back as a judge. I hope he’s around for most of the season; he was my favorite competitor in both of the seasons he was in, and I like seeing him on the other side of the table. He gave some pointed criticisms to a few folks (in particular he was critical of some of the molecular gastronomy approaches that he was known for during his time on the show), but I wonder if he went a little easier on the chefs in general, since he’s been there before and knows what it’s like.

Anyway, it’s great that the show is back, and I can’t wait to see more locations around Boston. As I said above, it’s a bit too early to get a sense of the strongest and weakest links, and all the personalities, but I’m looking forward to trying to figure it all out in the upcoming episodes.

Top Chef: Boston

It’s important to note that Top Chef, my favorite reality show (or really, the only one I watch), will be returning tonight at 10 pm on Bravo. Even more exciting, it (finally) takes place in Boston, the area that Raked has collectively called home for almost a decade.

This is exciting! We are, collectively, swimming in a large swimming pool of excitement over here! The metro Boston area has become a great place for food, especially in the last few years when it has seemed like dozens of interesting restaurants open up each month and more and more young chefs from the area earn national plaudits. I hope to see some familiar sights, and I hope this provincial little “town” acquits itself well on the national stage. I’ll also echo Devra First, the Boston Globe‘s wonderful restaurant critic, and hope the show doesn’t lean on the cliches too much; please, try to avoid saying Beantown! No one actually says that here!

But anyway, we’ll be checking in again as the season progresses.

Until tonight, check out this preview.

Game of Thrones: The Children

tyrion

GAME OF THRONES: 4.10 “The Children”

This was a great ending to a really great season. It may have been one of my favorite episodes of the series. It had some great character moments and some brilliant interactions that were never in the books. The world of Westeros, and the personal lives of many of our favorite characters were deeply shaken up in this episode, and the ending makes it clear that they are all sailing (figuratively, and in Arya’s case, also literally) toward an uncertain future. I’ll jump to some parts of the episode that I really liked, but first, a warning. If you’re one of those pedantic book readers who gets inexplicably enraged every time the show diverges from the book, if you insist that the television show must be utterly faithful to Martin’s sprawling, enjoyable, but at times utterly unfocused novels, even though the medium of television is entirely different from text and requires different methods of storytelling, please just go away now and don’t bother to read the rest of this. I’ve heard that some folks are mad about the omission of one character from the end of the third novel. To that, all I can say is: “Seriously?” This is a character whose importance to the overall storyline is still extremely unclear, and who pops up again at the end of the fourth book in a way that would make much more sense on screen. If this character ever makes it into the small screen (which I’m not even totally sure is necessary at this point), that’s where we will see him/her. The first introduction is totally unnecessary in a show that arguably covers too much ground in each episode already. Please, you small but vocal contingent of book readers, stop being so pedantic. It’s embarrassing and it’s giving the rest of us a bad name.

Anyway…

  • I loved seeing Jon and Mance, after a very tense greeting, toast to the memories of fallen comrades on both sides of the battle. Later, the deadly, precise symmetry of Stannis’s marching troops was awe inspiring and gave me a bit of the shivers. I’m glad to see these two stories unified, as, judging by the hungry look Melisandre gave Jon, things are going to get a lot more interesting at the Wall.
  • I loved, loved, loved Brienne and The Hound’s brutal fight. It was a totally original invention, and not in the books at all. Like many of the other invented scenes on this show, I love every second of it.
  • Tyrion’s escape was nicely done too, between the heartfelt goodbye he gives his brother, the white hot rage that swallows him when he strangles Shae, to the cold lack of emotion as he cranks the crossbow again and puts the fatal bolt through his father. Happy Fathers Day! It’s funny; Tywin nearly talked himself out of the situation, but like Oberyn a few weeks ago, he got cocky and lost his life because of his arrogance. Other inhabitants of Westeros, take note: don’t be so prideful.
  • We didn’t see too much of Dany here, though we did see her lock away her remaining two dragons, after the bigger one killed a little girl and then flew away. This incident, along with the old man who basically begged her to allow him to be sold back into slavery, will hopefully show her that ruling is in many ways more complicated than conquering.

Overall, this was a fantastic season of Game of Thrones. I really do love this show, and when I think about it, I’m still surprised that this geeky fantasy series that I fell in love with over a decade ago is now HBO’s most popular series. It’s great, and I can’t wait to see what’s next. As I predicted before the season started, there was a lot of invented material in this season, and it was almost uniformly excellent. I suspect the writers will have to develop even more new material for next season, since both books four and five aren’t nearly as action packed as book three was. It’s an exciting, but also terrifying thought. I think we’re in good hands, though, because so far the writers seem to know how to make this whole unwieldy thing work. I can’t wait until next year.

Game of Thrones: The Mountain and the Viper

GAME OF THRONES: 4.08 “The Mountain and the Viper”

My apologies for such a last, and what may likely be a short, post. But man, while this was a very well done episode, it was also a brutal, difficult episode to watch. I remembered the fight between Oberyn and Ser Gregor in the book, and I remembered its outcome. It was a disappointing result, mostly because it made me fear for Tyrion’s fate, but coming in the same book as the infamous Red Wedding, I think I may have been a little emotionally shellshocked already, and it didn’t have as much of an impact as it could have. I didn’t really care that much for Oberyn on the page; sure, I wanted him to win because Gregor is pure evil, but I think I even resented his careless arrogance a bit.

So, I was surprised that, all throughout the last two weeks, I was dreading this episode. I think it’s because the show did such a good job making Oberyn so darn likeable. We saw more of him on the screen, and Pedro Pascal’s performance was so vivid and full of life. Yes, he was arrogant, but he was charming, sarcastic, funny, and seemingly one of the few people on the continent that knew how to enjoy life and even laugh from time to time. And though both book and TV Oberyn were driven to seize some kind of justice for the murdered Elia and her children, it seemed like TV Oberyn was at least in some small way driven to defend Tyrion in order to prevent him from suffering injustice as well. The story he told of his childhood, when he first met Tyrion, made me feel that the prince of Dorne felt deep empathy for Tyrion; empathy for his situation at the time, and empathy for the horrible life he’s had that was inflicted on him by his horribly broken family. I don’t recall if this monologue was in the books or not, but I never quite felt like the book version cared quite so much. So I doubt I was the only book reader to wonder, fleetingly, if perhaps Oberyn would escape his grisly fate. Sadly, he didn’t, and actually watching his graphic death play out on screen made everything worse. I think, for the first time in the run of the show, I felt ground down by the tragedy. I felt hollowed out all night, and sad for days later.

It’s too bad, really, because this was a great episode packed with some great stuff: Sansa’s expertly handled political manipulation of the Lords of the Vale; Arya’s manic laughter; Gilly narrowly escaping the wilding attack; even Reek’s attempt to impersonate “Theon,” and Ramsay’s unexpected legitimization. But in the end, I don’t think I’ll be watching this one again for quite a while. It was just too much.

Game of Thrones: Mockingbird

GAME OF THRONES: 4.07 “Mockingbird”

There was a lot of stage-setting in this week’s Game of Thrones, but that’s not a bad thing because of some fantastic character moments. For this week, I just want to touch on a few of my favorite ones:

  • Arya and the Hound run across a dying farmer, who gives them a nihilistic speech that may be a good example of Arya’s developing worldview. They give him the “gift” of mercy, and then get immediately attacked by two of the escaped prisoners that Yoren was once transporting north to the Wall. The Hound eviscerates one, though not before suffering from a nasty bite, while the Arya runs the other one through with her sword. Later, while cleaning his wounds, the Hound explains to Arya how his older brother Gregor burned his face when they were young, over a simple child’s toy. In that scene, you can see real vulnerability in the Hound, who’s usually such a stoic, even cold character. He’s hurt, of course, by what his brother did to him, but hurt also because his father cared more about shielding Gregor from the consequences of his action. The elder Clegane protected his heir, and as a result contributed to the creation of a monstrous sociopath who’s murdered countless innocents, and who now is poised to fight Oberyn in a trial by combat to decide Tyrion’s fate. It’s another example of the weight of history in Westeros; how some actions can cause profound, long-lasting, unexpected ripples.
  • Brienne and Pod have been wonderful together. As I’ve said before, I hate comparing the show to the books too often, but they’re a vastly better duo on screen because Pod is so much more charming (in a goofy, earnest, puppy dog kind of way). I really think I could spend an entire episode following them around Westeros. As I said a few weeks ago, I really hope Pod is destined to become some kind of great hero, and we’re just watching his early education in true chivalry. It was great to see Brienne and Pod run across Hot Pie, who now seems comfortably ensconced as an experienced cook in a busy inn. The wolf shaped bread he cooks for them is a touching reminder of his fondness for Arya. Now that I think of it, perhaps it’s an example of the positive effect, however small, people can have on each other’s lives amid the chaos raging in Westeros; though, judging by Arya’s current path, I doubt the ripples she’ll leave behind in the future will have much of a positive outcome.
  • Tyrion’s three major scenes were so well done. First, he learns that Jaime’s only remaining hand isn’t strong enough to defend him, and the brothers share some sad memories of a pair of wasted childhoods. Next comes Bronn, who admits it’s too risky for him to defend Tyrion, especially now that he’s a knight who’s slowly climbing his way up the social ladder. But he admits how much he admires Tyrion, and the two share a surprisingly emotional handshake and bid each other farewell. Finally, Oberyn arrives and tells the story about when he visited Casterly Rock years ago with his beloved sister and saw Tyrion in his crib. Instead of seeing a monstrous child like all the rumors prepared him for, he saw only a baby. The real monster was Cersei, who stood beside the crib and abused her helpless brother. Oberyn then declares that he’ll defend Tyrion, so he can avenge the death of his sister, who loved him in a way that Cersei never tried to with Tyrion. It’s an incredibly emotional speech, made even more moving by watching Tyrion’s face as he listens. It was worth the price of admission, as they say. Game of Thrones is taking a week off, but when it comes back, it looks like we have our duel.