Monday, October 20, 2014

The Boston Massacre

Top Chef - Season 12, Episode 1

For a show that's clearly past its prime, Top Chef should be commended for doing their damndest to keep things fresh. I can't even pretend to care what's happening on The Amazing Race these days, and that used to be appointment television. Top Chef treads well-worn territory, and some of the casting for Season 12 may as well be published as the Reality Show Archetype Checklist, but some changes are being attempted too. Some are more successful than others.

In the promising column: This season is located in Boston. I may hate their accents, but there's no denying that I'm very interested in the city's food culture. Starting with sixteen contestants that is almost immediately whittled down to fourteen is a lot more manageable than the seasons where they fling close to two dozen people at us. That immediate whittling is due to a new concept called the Sudden Death Quickfire. We'll get to the details in a moment, but on first glance, it struck me as a good way to keep the season moving along at a good clip and to keep the contestants on their toes. Judge feedback is a lot more direct and up-front. I'm a little wary of snark for snark's sake, but it's interesting to see judges criticize food as they eat it, right to the chef's face, rather than sitting on it like some giant secret until it pops out at Judges' Table. And speaking of Judges' Table, all the contestants are called in so that the top three and bottom three are discussed in front of everyone. That should make for some fascinating interpersonal dynamics.

In the not-so-promising column: As this show gets longer in the tooth, casting becomes more and more of a challenge. We'll get to some of the individual people in a moment, but as a group, they seem a bit milquetoast and recycled. A few of them have been brought to the show by their association with previous contestants, which is a bummer. There are plenty of talented chefs in the country; there's no need to be so incestuous. Though it's tough to judge the judges after a single episode, let's give it a whirl, anyway. Tom seems completely over the entire enterprise. His boredom is palpable. Previous contestant (and All-Stars winner) Richard Blais is present as a guest judge, possibly a permanent one. And while he may be an amazing chef, he falls flat in this role. That's about it for my initial complaints, and none of them are insurmountable.

So, shall we get to the details of this first episode from the cradle of American liberty? As always, it's tough to get much of a sense of the contestants, other than the handful that the editors wish to focus on. It'll take a while to figure out who's worth rooting for, and who's a secret asshole, and who can break out of the Reality Show Character Rut. For now, though, the rut is in full swing. Shall we call her "Joy" or "Nice, Relatable Lady Who's Out Of Her Depth"? (Laurine and Carrie say hi, by the way.) Is that "Aaron" or "Guy Who Correctly Assumes He's Not Talented Enough And Will Attempt To Get Attention By Being A Jerk"? (Ken and Eli send their regards.) We'll obviously learn more about these people as we go along, but for now, they're essentially all That One Guy, and That Type of Lady Who...

We begin the festivities with the aforementioned Sudden Death Quickfire. How it works is that the chef who performs the worst is up for immediate elimination. The only way to save himself/herself is to directly challenge another chef to an additional challenge. If the initial loser loses again, then they're out. If they win the subsequent challenge, then both chefs get to stay. It seems very well-designed, and I'm looking forward to seeing how these shake out. The first Quickfire is the always-popular mise-en-place relay race. I generally like this challenge, but feel like it's too early in the season for it. Since we have no sense of the contestants (and they have no sense of each other), the teams and placements are entirely arbitrary. So, that's a disappointment, but it's still a pretty fun challenge.

Since we're in Boston, we get thematically-appropriate ingredients. Someone has gone to the trouble of researching and concluding that it should take about equal amounts of time to break down each of the following: 3 lobsters, 20 oysters, 8 mackerel, and 21 clams. I'd like to see the raw data and footage of the testing that went into reaching these numbers. Not because I don't believe it - it just sounds like it'd be interesting to watch. There will be four teams of four (Green, Yellow, Red, Blue), and the person that takes the longest to finish on the team that completes all four tasks last will be the unfortunate soul up for elimination. So even if you suck, having three capable teammates will pull you through on this one. Ready? Go!

There's immediately some grumbling and pissing matches about who should take each ingredient on each team, but again, since we know nothing of these people's actual strengths and weaknesses yet, it's fairly pointless. All you need to know is that the Green team speeds through their tasks with razor-sharp focus, and everyone on the Red team is terrible. The Red team is last to finish, and the stopwatches show that George took the longest on his task (shucking the clams). He's asked to select which chef to go head-to-head against in the final challenge, and he picks fellow Red teammate Gregory, mostly because Gregory insisted on taking the mackerel, which he then took forever to break down. It sounds petty, but given that George doesn't know anything about anyone in the room, it's a decent enough choice. The final challenge is twenty minutes to prepare a dish with any of the four ingredients. George makes a pan-seared mackerel in a very Greek style, while Gregory goes for style points by making a chilled trio with the lobster, oyster, and mackerel. How he chills food in twenty minutes is beyond me, and it's never shown or remarked upon, I think. Neither one of the dishes blows Padma and Richard away, but Richard selects Gregory as the winner, which means that George will never even get to unpack his suitcase. Bye, George! I'll never forget the time we shared!

Elimination Challenge. The chefs will be manning booths at a Top Chef food festival, alongside previous contestants and some Big Name Chefs. Whew. There's been an unfortunate trend of front-loading the season with team challenges, and I'm glad to see that the chefs will be rising and falling on their own merits in the first big one. The chefs will be serving 250 diners, and are tasked with making an updated version of the very first dish they ever made. So, it'll be fifteen grilled cheese sandwiches or scrambled eggs? Because those are everyone's first dishes. So when you see congee and fried chicken and such later, know that all these people are liars.

The shopping and prep montage is mostly boring, except for giving Aaron another chance to be a tool by openly deriding Katie's choice to make a broccoli salad. Except here I am paying attention to him, so mission accomplished, I guess? That, and... Well, you know when someone makes a good point, but does it in such an assy way that you're reluctant to agree with them? That's where we are here, because although I'd cheerfully push Aaron into a vat of fish guts, he's right. Katie's salad looks overly simplistic, and kind of gross to boot. Katsuji is Mexican, Japanese, and Jewish, and he celebrates his jumbled heritage by throwing every ingredient ever grown or invented into his dish. Meanwhile, Michael tells us that he's totally going to win this competition because he's got "the personality, the look, and the style". I'll just go ahead and remind you that this is a cooking competition in case you've forgotten, because it seems that Michael has.

Service. Boston native Stacy is anxious about representing for the hometown, and is adorably giddy when she gets good feedback on her chicken dish and when she meets the mayor of Boston, who strolls through to shake hands and get some camera time. No judgment. If I were the mayor of my town, going to local food festivals would be number one on the agenda. That, and stemming crime or WHATEVER. Joy makes fried chicken skin with grits, and Js*afl8jfaeKlkhj. Whoops, sorry about that. I was choking on my own drool. And for yet more chicken, Doug (or Dougie, as he asks to be called) gets rave reviews for his chicken with pickled jalapenos and watermelon. As I mentioned before, the judges are lot more forthcoming with their critiques, telling the chefs right there at their booths that their dishes are too sour or contrived or whatever. Richard has the nerve to criticize a couple of them for annoying molecular gastronomy trends like bacon salt and olive oil snow. Physician, heal thyself.

Though there are dishes the judges like and dishes the judges dislike, they seem utterly befuddled by two: They're impressed by Gregory's Haitian stewed chicken with fried bananas and Scotch Bonnet chilis, and less impressed by Katsuji's everything-including-the-kitchen-sink-and-maybe-some-stuff-down-the-garbage-disposal-as-well dish of "Petroleum" Shrimp, with saffron couscous, chili aioli, and a "fondue" of squid ink. Just in case you ever wanted a puddle of gray sludge running down your plate. Aaron may have a lot of bluster, but bluster doesn't save him from Padma having to spit out the pork belly he serves her, which is conservatively 87% fat. I've never seen her look so pissed off, except maybe when Howie took away her power to eliminate. The judges also hate Michael's chilled corn soup with pickled cherries and Sriracha caviar. But don't worry, he knows why they didn't like it. It's because the judges have unsophisticated palates, and just don't understand the dish. Sure, that seems likely. In case my sarcastic tone didn't come across in that last sentence, just picture my eyes rolling out of my head and across the room while reading it.

Judges' Table. All of the contestants are brought in to witness their compatriots' triumph and defeat. In the top three are Dougie's excellent fried chicken, Gregory's confusing, but tasty Haitian chicken, and Mei, who I haven't really mentioned, but whose congee With carmelized pork, fish sauce caramel, and black garlic puree looked amazing. So amazing that she wins. That really does sound like a dish I'd inhale in a very ungentlemanly manner. Down at the bottom are Katie, with her poorly-conceived and poorly-executed broccoli salad, Katsuji's giant mess of a dish, and Michael's corn soup, which is likened to "fishy cereal". Bleh. Tom throws it over to Padma, and Michael is unsurprisingly axed. He humbly accepts his loss, and in his final interview, promises to learn from his mistakes and to work on expanding his understanding on how to appeal to a broad range of tastes. Nah, just joshing you. He spits out excuses as to why the judges are dumb dummies who don't understand his genius. OK, well, thanks for stopping by, Michael. See ya never.

Overall Grade: B

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Reluctant Companionship and the Astonishing Pepper Gradient

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 9

Well, damn! I got so excited about the change in the season and its attendant food, and so busy inhaling the scent of autumnal spices, that I forgot to mention that we just released an episode about it! Other fans of the cooler months of the year will find much to like in these next few editions of the podcast, so to kick it off, go give Episode 9 a listen.


Topics include Eleven Eleven Mississippi, the Urban Chestnut Brewing Company, the fruits and vegetables of autumn, and the ups and downs of communal dining. We wrap with Andy's befuddlement over the omnipresence of a particular fruit, then head back outside to soak up the cool breezes. Please enjoy, and feel free to drop a line to fourcoursespodcast@gmail.com with any questions, comments, feedback, or suggestions!

Monday, September 01, 2014

Cornbread Canaries and the Crêpe of Perpetual Motion

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 8

Summer is winding down, so your Four Courses hosts did a fair amount of eating outdoors this past month. Whether it was patio dining at a restaurant or attending local food events at the park, we were all about soaking up the sun while we can. That seasonal eating influenced a couple of our discussions this month, so go give Episode 8 a listen, either on our site, or via iTunes/Stitcher.


Topics include Katie's Pizza, the specialized lingo of bar drinking, the culture of food trucks, and the recent surge of Cajun and Creole cuisine. Finally, we wrap up with Kyle's thoughts on how a certain actress' contribution to the world of food goes over. Spoiler alert: Maybe she should stick to acting.

I hope you enjoy it, and feel free to mail fourcoursespodcast@gmail.com with any questions, comments, feedback, or suggestions!

Sunday, August 03, 2014

American Food Mythology and the Feast of Waffles

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 7

Independence Day falls in July, of course, but there are a lot of other reasons July makes us feel so darn patriotic. Summer BBQs! Baseball games! Fruit pies! We spend this hour delving into how food and drink ties us to America, so go check out Episode 7 on the site, or subscribe to Four Courses Podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.


Topics include the alluring waffles of Melt, a grown-up approach to Jello shots, foods that might make the average American feel patriotic, and the phenomenon of pop-up restaurants. Finally, I get a little feisty in railing against a fruit that nobody seems to like, yet won't just do the honorable thing and go away.

Please enjoy, and mail fourcoursespodcast@gmail.com with any questions, comments, feedback, or suggestions!

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Sacred Sandwiches and the Romantic Meat Connection

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 6

With summer upon us, we felt we must tackle some appropriate, hot-weather topics. But really, any excuse to get together and shoot the shit about gin and steak is acceptable. Episode 6 is now live at the site, or if you want to take us on the go, subscribe to us on iTunes or Stitcher. You'll be just in time to listen to me flail about hopelessly when it comes to backyard grilling.


Topics include the achingly good BBQ at Sugarfire, the versatility of gin, the ins and outs of grilling, and in our most popular Dessert segment to date, a discussion of the food buzzwords that drive us up the wall. Finally, we wrap things up with an impassioned defense of the classic grilled cheese.

Please enjoy, and mail fourcoursespodcast@gmail.com with any questions, comments, feedback, or suggestions!

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Señor Skrillex and the Citrus Dichotomy

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 5

¡Hola! Up for some Mexican food? Sure you are! Well, you're in luck. In honor of Cinco de Mayo, the May episode of Four Courses is almost entirely Mexican-themed. Why not mix up a margarita, kick back, and go give Episode 5 a listen? It's live at fourcoursespodcast.com, and is also available for subscription on iTunes and Stitcher.


Topics include Tower Taco, the origins and variations of margaritas, the St. Louis festival for Cinco de Mayo down on Cherokee Street, the relatively recent trend of upscale Mexican food, and finally, a short discussion of the edibles we've got planted in our spring gardens.

Please enjoy, and mail fourcoursespodcast@gmail.com with any questions, comments, feedback, or suggestions!



Sunday, May 04, 2014

Polish Hospitality and the Schrödinger Brunch

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 4

Hello! There's a lot of news to report in the world of Four Courses! We have a shiny new logo, and have become available to download from and subscribe to on iTunes. And now that you've got a new way to find us, how about a new episode to go with it? Episode 4 is now live at fourcoursespodcast.com (and on iTunes, of course), so go give it a listen!


Topics include the Goody Cafe, the Civil Life brewery, the wide variations of St. Louis' lenten fish frys, the uptick of dim sum's popularity, and finally, Kyle takes us out with his...strong feelings about flair bartending.

I hope you enjoy it, and please feel free to email fourcoursespodcast@gmail.com with any questions or comments you have about the show.