Tag Archives: metacooking

Top Chef Does Dessert: Please, No Chocolate Lava Cake

So the other day,

a coworker tells me he’s going downtown to be a gay republican alcoholic, and probably he will be a famous TV person. This is not unusual in Portland! But it turns out my friend did not have a sudden change in sexual/political orientation, and is actually intending to audition for Top Chef: Just Desserts, a show that is really happening and really casting in Portland.

Let’s face it, for years pastry-inclined viewers of Top Chef have squirmed in their seats and shouted at their TVs while macho chefs attempt and fail at making dessert. If I never see another “Cheftestant” whine while inelegantly frosting a cake that they DON’T DO PASTRY, it will be too soon. It’s like there’s a mental block that prevents even the most basic execution of baked goods. And I mean, it’s not like I could go on that show and perfectly sear a pork loin or whatever, but one wonders: if they’re so shit at it, why do they even try?

So I’m both excited and nervous for this new show, though I think Portland’s a bit of an odd choice for an audition locale. LA, Vegas, New York, these places all make sense. But for a second West Coast city I’d go with San Francisco or Seattle any day. Portland’s dessert scene, while thriving, is pretty limited.

I also wonder whether the contestants will be mostly bakers or pastry chefs. I’d expect the easiest thing to do would be to have pastry chefs compete, mainly in plated desserts, because it follows a similar structure to the OG Top Chef. You’ve got a dish with a theme, an inspiration, and it’s visually appealing as well as flavorful. But will they try to incorporate baking? Or special occasion cakes? Or showpieces a la Food Network Challenges? All these things require a LOT more time than savory dishes. And a well composed dessert menu is a product of dozens of smaller sub-recipes, all requiring time not just in preparation but in baking, setting up, drying out, etc.

And I’d love to say that the pastry version of the show will have less posturing and ego, but OH FUCK IT LET’S BE HONEST. First of all, it’s reality TV. Second, Pastry Chefs are insane. INSANE. ABSOLUTELY NUTBALLS. And the higher up/more experienced a person is, the more shit crazy they are. We’re talking bitchy, anal retentive control freaks the likes of which you would not expect from a group that serves up apple crisp. So basically, the same as the OG Top Chef only with more women, gay men and stoic Frenchmen.

Which, by the way, is kind of exciting. Top Chef, despite starting each season with equal numbers of women and men, has always seemed rather slanted toward the dude side. And sadly, that’s just a reflection of the actual industry. Women chefs, despite being on the rise, are expected to Man Up and Bring It in the kitchen, needing to show that they’re just as capable as the boys despite the fact that everyone who ever learned to cook learned it from their mom first. And pastry’s a lot different in that, in my experience, most of the people entering the workforce right now are women. The day-to-day life of a baker or cake decorator is filled with women, with women-run businesses and women-dominated workplaces. There’s less of a feeling among female pastry chefs that they have something to prove. So I’m pretty happy that the ladies will, undoubtedly, represent.

So basically, I’m looking forward to watching it but harbor no illusions that I or anyone I know would ever/could ever excel on it. Which is okay! I’m excited to see a non-retarded approach to dessert on TV, as well as a portrayal of pastry chefs as something other than the Collette Peters cutesy lady or the Duff Goldman/Elizabeth Faulkner cake rebel. Though I will refer all Cheftestants to my own personal mantra, when the day gets too long or too tough:

It’s just cake. Just. Cake.

*deep breath*

Right, continue.

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At The Risk Of Becoming The Girl Who Hates Things

The internet ate my morning. It’s about to eat my evening. Hang in there, this bitch is gonna be long.

So last week Christopher Kimball, (you know my boy Chris? Bowtie? Apron? Makes weird sex noises when sampling food?) a.k.a. That Guy I Hate, wrote an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times about the closing of Gourmet, and why it was probably because of that dang internet. I don’t know if you’re required to be a sanctimonious douchenozzle to write an Op-Ed in the Times, but that is my understanding of the situation. Anyway, he’s real sad Gourmet’s dead.

“This, hard on the heels of the death of Julia Child in 2004, makes one tremulous about the future. Is American magazine publishing on the verge of being devoured by the democratic economics of the Internet? Has the media industry fully become an everyman’s playing field, without the need for credentials or paid membership?”

For the sensitive reader, I’ll tell you right now that he trots out Julia twice in this article, for no real reason. Those of you who are offended by the use of a dead loved one to make a barely relevant point may want to turn away.

Hey, I used to do it too. It got me into college.

So yeah, pretty much it’s the same fears that print media has had for the last TEN YEARS rearing their ugly head. Kimball is especially concerned that the quality of recipes will decline now that we don’t have boatloads of money to throw at lengthy editorials on morel foraging in Peru. He then makes a point to give kudos to his own publication, Cook’s Illustrated, for flourishing under an ad-free subscription model with a Fort Knox-like (trust me, I’ve tried) website. That must be the paid membership he was referring to!

He goes on to mourn the loss of Old Skool journalism, where you could only achieve recognition and respect through years of hard work and study. Unless you were a lady. Or black. Or oh forget it.

“The shuttering of Gourmet reminds us that in a click-or-die advertising marketplace, one ruled by a million instant pundits, where an anonymous Twitter comment might be seen to pack more resonance and useful content than an article that reflects a lifetime of experience, experts are not created from the top down but from the bottom up. They can no longer be coronated; their voices have to be deemed essential to the lives of their customers. That leaves, I think, little room for the thoughtful, considered editorial with which Gourmet delighted its readers for almost seven decades.

To survive, those of us who believe that inexperience rarely leads to wisdom need to swim against the tide, better define our brands, prove our worth, ask to be paid for what we do, and refuse to climb aboard this ship of fools, the one where everyone has an equal voice. Google “broccoli casserole” and make the first recipe you find. I guarantee it will be disappointing. The world needs fewer opinions and more thoughtful expertise — the kind that comes from real experience, the hard-won blood-on-the-floor kind. I like my reporters, my pilots, my pundits, my doctors, my teachers and my cooking instructors to have graduated from the school of hard knocks.”

Maybe it’s just the way he puts it, but doesn’t it sound like kind of a good thing to have an equal voice? To have experts created from the bottom up? To rely on relevance rather than branding to choose which writers we trust? He makes it sound like publishing is this boys’ club of pedigree and get-off-my-lawn style clinging to tradition, and who doesn’t think that deserves to get challenged, just a little? Though I don’t think blogs will ever replace magazines, in a sense he’s right to be antsy about his place in the world.

Then he goes on to say that Julia would’ve had his back because she always wanted to know where a chef had trained. Which is a decent question, I suppose, for a PROFESSIONAL CHEF who runs a kitchen, creates the menu and gets called “Chef” by his underlings, though I’ve never worked in a kitchen formal enough to require addressing someone by their title. But I don’t expect that specific experience from bloggers OR editors at Gourmet, nor do I think Julia would’ve poo-pooed a chef for saying he or she simply worked their way up from the dish station and trained in the school of hard knocks, baby. Well, maybe she’d have taken issue with being called baby.

But the thing that has incensed a lot of bloggers is the “ship of fools” comment regarding the push for print media to go online. In a follow-up blog (HELLO) post he clarifies his statement to be less about the blogosphere in general and more about the internet chatter from untested recipe sites. This is where it really gets interesting. He had four points to make:

1) He finds much of the crap said on the internet to be dumb, even though he enjoys using it and concedes that some of his tweeps are funny.

2) However, it’s a free country and y’all can talk out of your butts all you want.

3) No wait, actually please stop the butt-talking because a world without editors is a world filled with idiots and liars. Blogger zombies are going to eat him and Walter Cronkite. Sounds leathery!

4) THIS IS THE MAIN POINT, KAY. Recipes tested by professional cooks, repeatedly and under controlled circumstances, will always be the more reliable method because there is a right way and a wrong way to do things, and they know the right way. Suck it.

Kimball admits in the comments that this is a pretty self-serving thing to say (and full disclosure: I’m a blogger defending the internet ZOMG). And it’s true that his recipes are probably better than some shit you fucking google. But this is a gross misunderstanding of the way people use the internet. When I need a recipe, I don’t do a random internet search and make the first one I see. I check if any of my favorite food bloggers have made it. I check my cookbooks. If I check a recipe site like epicurious (run by conde nast, hello) or Tasty Kitchen (a user-generated community based site, run by the Pioneer Woman) I make sure that the recipe is well written and, preferably, has a couple reviews so I can get a second opinion. And editor doesn’t make a good recipe. Even a well tested recipe may not be relevant to my needs as a cook. Only I am qualified to decide if a recipe might taste good to me.

Chatter is chatter, and there will always be chatter. To assert that we are too dumb to separate the wheat from the chaff is ridiculous. Yes, the internet has a lot of semi-illiterate chirping from douchebags and 12 year olds, but it’s also the device that gave us the verbal smackdown of “just fucking google it.” Chatter is part of the charm. Boy, does that make me sound like a reasonable human who lives in this fucking world young.

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Also, God Kills a Kitten

murdercakeI know I said this two years ago, but

This cupcake thing is really getting out of hand. I was going to write about the cupcake bubble, but then I saw this little gem (via feministing). Cupcakes for Life is a…well. Campaign? Publicity stunt? Hilarious ironic website?

PEOPLE, LET’S STOP WITH THE CUPCAKES. I mean, really? Yesterday was National Pro Life Cupcake Day, which I’m pretty sure is not a real holiday, on which you’re supposed to give out tasty cupcakes to promote an end to abortion. How anyone can eat a cupcake while thinking about an abortion is beyond me. But maybe that’s the point! Or maybe it’s a pathetic attempt to capitalize on a trend and ride the cupcake train all the way to the supreme court, baby!

Also, I think there’s a reason why they chose cupcakes instead of something more topical (maybe King Cake, which has religious origins AND HAS A TINY BABY INSIDE, just like your sinning uterus). To quote the website’s magnificent “Why Cupcakes?” section, (apostrophe abuse preserved)

“Bring in a tray of cupcakes for any group of people and you will find that they will flock to get them. As soon as they take a bite they will probably ask, “Who’s birthday is it?”

Then you answer. “It’s no ones birthday. These cupcakes represent the 50,000,000 children who weren’t allowed to be born, who never had a birthday.” The cake in their mouth will become dry and the moment will hopefully become quite somber. Then you say, “If you and I were aborted we wouldn’t have a birthday party either.”

Ouch. I hope they weren’t Red Velvet.

So for me, leaving aside some bitchy comments about how the cupcakes are TOTES FUG ANYWAY (I mean really? Is that from a box? And shouldn’t it be “shalt?”), this just makes me hate cupcakes and anti-choicers, which are two things I didn’t care for in the first place, so there you go. And they kind of go well together. It’s like everything I hate about the cupcake trend, with its day-glo frosting and childish appeal, paired with the preachiness and logic fail of the anti-abortion crowd. It’s like peanut butter and chocolate! Except, y’know, one is an annoying bakery trend and one is a legal movement to take away reproductive rights. I know, right? Tasty!

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This Will Be a Post Where We Use The F-Word

Today is my Saturday. I got all my Saturday plans done and it’s only 6 pm.

To be fair, these are my Saturday plans:

9 am: Wake up because I forgot to turn off my alarm, curse and drop phone on floor.
10 am: Get dressed
10:08 am: Finish getting dressed, pester Yean to do same
11 am: Go to brunch at dim sum place, eat an embarrassing amount.
2 pm: Go see “Julie and Julia” in the Beav. The dark theater conceals my food baby.
4 pm: Wander out of theater and directly into bookshop across the parking lot. Buy related Julie/Julia books.
5:30 pm: Still full, waddle home an write a blog post.

So huzzah! You see I have challenged myself a lot. The only thing I might add to my to-do list is to eat a light salad, then blackberries with whipped cream. Those berries have been sitting in the fridge for days, too tart to consume on their own. Gotta bust out my whippin’ arm.

streep as child

So Julie and Julia! Can I just say, I love movies for the ladies? As a professional cook (and I guess AS A LADY) there’s something incredibly powerful about sitting in front of this unabashedly girly food porny lovefest for two hours. At one point I nudged Yean and whispered “macarons!” and then when I decided she hadn’t heard, “opera cake!” I also was on the verge of tears the entire film, which is an accomplishment because I am typically dead inside.

A lot has been said about Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Julia Child, to the point where a lot of people expressed a desire to see a straight up biopic of Julia. I for one would love that, and probably Julie Powell would love it too(because IT WOULD BE AWESOME). But the fact is that this whole project was inspired by a book that was inspired by a blog that was inspired by a cookbook/tv show. The narratives don’t exactly go together, in movie form, and it’s a valid point that what made Powell’s blog, and later book, compelling doesn’t necessarily translate well to screen. My favorite scenes with Julie were ones where her narration of blog posts was laid over scenes of her cooking. While die-hard Julia fans may dismiss the Julie narrative as whiny and tiresome, it actually says a lot about how we relate to cultural icons.

There’s a scene toward the end of the film where Julie finds out that Julia Child, then in her 90s, didn’t care for her project. She’s crushed, of course. “Do you think it’s because I occasionally use the f-word?” she asks her husband. Sadly, it really happened, and Judith Jones, Child’s editor, had no kind words for Powell either. The unfortunate thing about this is that is really is just a generational difference. At that point Julia Child had become this untouchable goddess of cooking, and Powell thought she was honoring her by attempting her recipes. Child and Jones were suspicious that Powell was just trying to cash in on her years of work, but to Powell it was about documenting an emotional journey. “Julia’s perfect!” Powell’s character moans. “The one in your head is,” her husband corrects, “and that’s the one that matters.”

But ultimately, the Julia in Powell’s and all of our heads is fictional. The real Julia was imperfect, as we all are. And I think a lot of the kerfuffle over the Julie side of the movie could have been eased if the narrative had confirmed this. Instead we get a dreamlike account of Julia’s life in France, with amusing anecdotes and an alarmingly attractive Stanley Tucci. Compared to that, even Amy Adams has to work to make her storyline sympathetic.

There’s also some interesting stuff about blogging and the internet in here. I wish the film didn’t have to explain and justify blogging as a hobby or as a profession. There’s a lot of “what the fuck is the internet?” sort of discussion going around, which is another mark of the generational difference. It’s true that the more delicate Julia fans out there would be put off by the dirty words in the blog. But you know, this is the world we live in now. People write blogs. They connect with each other on online communities. It can be as superficial or as serious as you want it to be, but it’s there and it’s valid. It’s not a sign of the apocalypse. And can we please dump this idea of blogging as a profession for the lazy and impatient? Look at what Powell did; 524 recipes, 365 days. All while working full time and somehow finding the energy to write about it. That’s nothing to sneeze at. Most people wouldn’t even attempt it. Girl had spunk, and drive, and more than a little cooking skill. She made good on the merit of her writing, which was funny and emotional, not on concept alone. And I can personally assure you that blogging is not and never will be a get rich quick scheme.

So go see it! Now that I have said all these mean things, I will say that it is an incredibly gorgeous food movie, and everyone in it is wonderful in it. The movie succeeds because it hits us in that nostalgia place that makes us love everything. Watching Julie and her husband crack up over the Dan Akroyd SNL sketch, seeing Julia’s sister (played by Jane lynch) have a squawking tall girl reunion, it’s all brilliant and beautiful. And it really, really makes you want to cook. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go look up this beef bourgignon recipe.

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