Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Bewitching, Bothered & Bespectacled

To obsessive “Top Chef” fans, no detail is too trivial, trite, or tangential. And so it is with not a whit of shame that we bring you this item from the Mexican daily El Universal, covering the wedding of Elia Aboumrad’s cousin, also named Elia (and did we mention our Elia’s mother is yet another Elia?).
The civil ceremony took place at the Mexico City spread of our Elia’s parents. Our bewitching, bothered and bespectacled Elia, then working at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, contributed her own spread. She catered the wedding, preparing “a delicious menu with predominantly Arab dishes” that was her gift to the happy couple. Given what we’ve seen of her talent and her taste in funky eyewear (and footwear), we certainly wouldn’t mind having her cater our wedding.

Speaking of funky eyewear, while reading Heat, Bill Buford’s superb memoir of kitchen slavery, we came across the story of how Casa Mono, Mario Batali’s Spanish tapas restaurant, came to be created. It is a gripping story in and of itself, but was of particular interest to us because Casa Mono is where cheftestant (yes, we have crumbled and adopted the term, if only temporarily) Ilan Hall works as a line cook. Since the menu features cockscombs (yes, those floppy red bits of millinery atop roosters’ heads), tripe and fried sweetbreads, we’re not surprised that Ilan wasn’t fazed by simple snails.

A. J. Liebling Quote of the Day

"Wine drinking is more subjective than horse racing and nearly as subjective as love, but the gamble is less; you get something for your money no matter what you pick."

Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Episode Two, Part 2: Pompadour & Circumstance

Now it’s time for the Elimination Challenge (we can tell, because they always say it in audible capital letters). Padma announces, rather fatuously, that “L.A. is one of the most multicultural cities in the world.” As Angelenos of a particular stripe, we snort and drink to the platitude, surprised that it has taken until Episode Two to trot it out.

The Elimination Challenge will be a team effort, with the teams focusing on two of multiculti L.A.’s cuisines, Vietnamese and Korean (to go along with the Japanese of the Quickfire Challenge). The teams will each be responsible for creating one hot dish and one cold dish, and will be judged on their team work.

The teams are created by having the chefs draw knives. The knife handles bear either a Vietnamese or (South) Korean flag (we hate to be nitpicky—oh, hell, whom are we kidding?—but it’s not the “Korean” flag, since you have both a North and a South Korea). The whole time the chefs were drawing knives, we kept looking for a “cheat sheet” posted on one side of the knife. Call us skeptical, suspicious bitches, but given the geographical literacy of the American public as a whole, the idea that some of these contestants (we’re talking to you, Beer Bong) would know what the Vietnamese or South Korean flag looks like is just preposterous.

Instantly we are struck by the geopolitical implications of the decision. These are the cuisines of two Asian nations that were or are divided by Communism on a north-south basis, and in which the United States fought a war. We hadn’t realized that the Bravo producers were so devilishly deep in their formulation of challenges. And how great is it that Marcel and Otto, the two contestants vying with Kim Jong Il for Dictatorial Coif of the Year, should both have been on Team Korea?

The teams will be presenting their food at a charity event for Project by Project, an organization established to help the Asian community. Cut to Otto the NeckerChef telling us how glad he is, since he is “hugely involved in hunger issues.” That’s all well and good, and certainly admirable, but as Season One contestant Lee Anne Wong wryly points out on her blog, Otto just “assumes that the Project by Project event will be feeding the needy and hungry Asian community of Los Angeles,” when Project by Project, according to their press materials, is actually “a national volunteer organization of social entrepreneurs that serves Asian Pacific American non-profit organizations by raising public awareness, encouraging volunteerism and building capital.”

Team Vietnam consists of Josie, Betty, Mia, Emily, Carlos, Beer Bong, and Sam. Team Korea is Frank, Otto, Ilan, Cliff, Marcel, Elia and Marisa. This means that we’re not just replaying the Cold War with cold noodles; we’re also revving up for another skirmish in the Battle of the Sexes.

Team Vietnam’s organizational meeting is a model of efficiency, cooperation and organization, with Spice Rack (unwisely baring her midriff yet again), Josette Eber, and Empress Josiefine (sporting a rather rakish newsboy cap that would do “The L Word” proud) taking charge but soliciting input from the other members.

Team Korea’s organizational meeting, as befits a divided nation, is extremely disorganized. As Cliff tells us, he, Frank and Ilan decide to make a huge batch of sangria before the meeting. (We hasten to point out that Cliff has immunity after the Quickfire Challenge; could our little Valrhona Bear be so devious?). This means we are treated to the nauseating sight of Tarte Titass flashing her tanline and shaking her nonexistent maracas in a hideous pink and white striped top. They sit around, with Elia bravely trying to get them to discuss the menu while the boys get drunker, tell incomprehensible jokes, and lasciviously stroke the rim of a glass before sucking their fingers (we’re talking to you, Ilan).

We admire Elia’s focus and spunk, as well as her very cute Marc-Jacobs-goes-to-the-souk ballet flats, but get hives looking at Marcel’s flipflops and Otto’s Roman centurion Mary Janes. Elia’s plea—“Let’s just finish the menu and then we cheell”—goes unheeded. This is also where we first hear the word lychee—pronounced “LEE-chee,” and this is very important—in the form of Marisa’s plan to make a dessert involving lychee pearls.

It’s the next morning, and we get the requisite “Good morning, Vietnaaaam!” voiceover from that Robin Williams lookalike, Spice Rack Betty. We do not, however, get a snippet of the theme from “M*A*S*H” for Team Korea. The teams are each given $500 dollars and one hour to do their shopping.

As Team Vietnam marches off to the specialty store to the strains of “Asian-inspired dance music,” courtesy of the closed captioning service, we see Josie expertly handling melons and cooing, “Yeah, baby.” Even Austin Powers couldn’t have done better. The rest of Team Vietnam’s shopping expedition proceeds just as smoothly.

Team Korea’s shopping expedition in a supermarket in Koreatown is as much of a muck-up as a “M*A*S*H” episode. We are first subjected to a Marcel interview featuring not only full-on pompadour but also a pompadour of a double-Windsor tie knot. In pink. Paisley! Did Jimmy Neutron spend the entirety of last season studying Stephen Asprinio’s mannerisms and sartorial choices? We are very disturbed, and secretly hope Stephen Asprinio has seen “Single White Female.” We can just see the remake: “Single White Sexually Ambiguous, Arrogant, Prissy, Overcompensatorily Large Tie-Knot-Wearing Chef.”

“EE-lia, did you get the LIE-chee?” asks Otto, setting our teeth on edge. For your information, NeckerChef, her name is pronounced “EH-lia” and the fruit is pronounced “LEE-chee.” Not that we’re obsessive or anything, but we actually counted the number of times the word “lychee” was uttered on this episode: 22 times. 11 times it was pronounced “LEE-chee” and 11 times “LIE-chee.” Of those, Otto was responsible for 9, and Ilan and Marisa for the other 2, and she was just quoting Otto (we don’t know what Ilan’s excuse is).

At the checkout, Team Korea is over budget and they have to return some items. As they take their cart to the minivan, the closed captioning informs us that we are hearing “dramatic music,” and then an unidentified voice says, “I think we got a case of LEE-chees for free.”

Marisa tells us that Otto said this to her, but our Perry Mason instincts were roused at once. That was clearly not Otto’s voice, and Otto would never have said “LEE-chee.” “Otto wuz framed! This is the type of thing that brought Dan Rather down,” whispers Miss XaXa.

Marisa, who only last episode crowed, “I use everything to my advantage that I can use to my advantage,” professes to be shocked at this unfair advantage that Otto wants to take, and makes her outrage clear to anyone who will listen during the food-preparation montage. Our favorite bit in the montage is Marcel, stealing another of Beer Bong’s lines as he exclaims, “Oh fuck, where’d that pot go?”

Betty is shown making a “refresher” with ginger, cucumber, and aloe. She proclaims herself “the bar wench” to Chef Colicchio, and then tells the camera, all the while flaunting her fun bags, that they’re going to have “so many reasons to entice these guests over to our table.” Well, I guess two reasons counts as “so many,” n’est-ce pas?

When Chef Colicchio reaches Marisa and Elia and innocently asks how things are, Lycheegate breaks and all hell breaks loose. Tom calls Team Korea together and questions Otto, forcing him to admit that he did say, “We got a case of lychees for free.” We are impressed by Tom Colicchio’s prosecutorial skills--this is how the international nuclear agency is supposed to behave with Kim Jong Il--but not so impressed by Otto’s defense. All our Perry Masoning was for nought. Otto is forced to return the nukes, er, lychees to the store, and Team Korea’s confidence is shaken.

The next day, the teams set up at the charity event, and then comes the tasting and judging. We are momentarily distracted by how fabulous Gail Simmon’s shoes are. Padma’s hair person has redeemed herself, but oy, the wardrobe--an unflattering peacock skirt and a black corset top. Padma introduces us to the guest judge, Ming Tsai of Blue Ginger Restaurant in Wellesley, Massachusetts and PBS fame. Someone has obviously briefed Ming on chef jewelry, since he sports a Colicchioesque necklace on a strap.

We’re no experts, but it looks to us like Ming Tsai has had work done. He’s certainly ballooned since we last saw him on PBS, and is starting to look like one of those Wellesley matrons we remember from college. Miss XaXa says he actually looks more like Siegfried or Roy, she can’t remember which, the one that got mauled, and is he wearing lip gloss? We're also shocked when he tastes Team Vietnam's refresher and points out that it's spicy and has chili in it. "Ginger," corrects the Spice Rack herself. The owner of Blue Ginger can't tell when something has ginger in it? Is this what things have come to?

At the Judges’ Table (we are so pleased they got the apostrophe right), we are nearly blinded by the rock on Padma’s finger, just about as large as one of the illicit lychees. They discuss the virtues of the teams’ dishes, and Padma even breaks through the Valium haze to get a little feisty about just how good the Korean-style pork was. But the others win out, and Team Vietnam is called in as the winners. Betty is declared the individual winner and given a prize, a limited-edition Kyocera ceramic sashimi knife, one of only 100 in the world. “Huh?” says Miss XaXa, “I thought Kyocera made copiers.”

Having heard the shouts of joy from Team Vietnam, Team Korea figures out that they’ve lost. Cliff declares that he’s pissed they couldn’t work together as a team. This strikes us as rather rich, considering that he was responsible for getting the team drunk in the first place.

Team Korea is called in to be worked over. After questioning by Ming Tsai, Frankie the Bull crumbles and admits that he made the rice and that it looked like “hell on a plate.” If he’s that good, let’s send Ming Tsai to do some interrogation work at Guantanamo.

For all that has subsequently been said and written, it’s interesting to note that when the issue of Otto and the lychees comes up, Marcel is actually the first to throw Otto under the bus, and then Marisa and Elia pile on.

Frankie the Bull is irate and aghast. The ethic of the team, la squadra nostra, this team of ours, has been violated. He doesn’t understand how team members can flip their loyalties on a whim: “It’s a team, and if you don’t back your team mates, you might as well take your head and shove it up your ass.” Are we imagining things, or is Frank’s restaurant called Omertà?

As the maker of the “hockey puck” that purported to be panna cotta, Marisa’s head is on the chopping block, but Otto finally fesses up and falls on his sword. See, Rummy? This is how it’s done. Marisa’s skinny, padded ass is safe for one more week. Otto waxes philosophical in a hideous chalk-stripe suit, purple shirt and yellow tie that he must have stolen from the Cleveland dinner theater production of “Guys and Dolls.”

Then come the previews from next week, featuring a fire house, and scenes of self-immolation by Beer Bong where he is raring for a fistfight with Tom Colicchio. We definitely can’t wait.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Episode Two, Part 1: The Story of the Feesh and Lovs

The episode starts with a perfunctory gathering of the herd after the weakest member has been picked off by the wolves. Following sad-sack Suyai’s sad sacking, one of the women says, “We are one lady down,” which to us has the whiff of a title for a Thai movie about transvestite volleyball players or an Agatha Christie mystery (though the Agatha Christie mystery this most resembles is And Then There Were None). They resolve to be on their game in order to avoid the Suyai send-off.

Otto the patriotic NeckerChef tells us that it’s going to come down to “who can improvise, adapt and overcome.” But Otto, what ever happened to “stay the course”?

Then the contestants are woken up at 4:30 a.m. in the way we would like to be woken up every morning: by a beefy, twinkly-eyed Tom Colicchio. The early bird catches the best fish, he tells them, and they’re off to the fish market. The ladies’ modesty is left undisturbed, but we do get to see Beer Bong’s wriggling chest. When Marcel prances around shirtless, we are so distracted looking for the Siamese cat we are now convinced he is hiding in his pompadour that we almost miss the fact that he has a soul patch on his chest to match the one on his chin.

Mia confesses that the stress and the sleeping in a strange bed has left her feeling queasy. Frankly, this is unworthy of our Josette Eber. No cowgirl worthy of the name would be put off by a strange bed. Calamity Jane and Diana Ross turn over in their grave and Beverly Hills mansioleum, respectively.

It’s now six a.m., and time for the quickfire challenge. Padma greets us at the American Fish and Seafood Co. And this is where things come to a screeching halt.

We now interrupt this regularly scheduled recap for a rant.

Padma is sporting an unflatteringly tight pink polo cum pirate-wench top, nondescript black tights, riding boots, and pigtails. The woman who posed in a silver lamé bikini on top of live lobsters is wearing pigtails and pirate gear to the fish market?!? After last episode’s fashion successes, this is simply unacceptable.

We would, of course, have been in heaven if she had worn marabou, silk jersey, and Louboutin slingbacks to the fish market, but we were expecting at least a repeat of the time, two years ago, when, sporting a “Gucci bag and her goggly Costume Nationale sunglasses,” she went with a reporter from the Observer to “Chinatown, in search of fish (she thinks nothing of swinging a great big bass near her flowery summer frock, but she is a little concerned that her heels - as high as the Empire State itself - will get all fishy).”

Forget for a moment that the British reporter actually meant the Empire State Building. Isn’t “Top Chef,” aren’t we, good enough to get at least a “flowery summer frock” and some bass-swinging? Badly done, Padma, badly done.

Oh, and the pigtails. For a second we thought we were looking at Marisa. (Seriously, Typhoid Marisa’s pernicious influence must be stopped, or next we’ll be seeing Tom Colicchio wearing pigtails; we’ll leave it to bloggers with PhotoShop skills to portray that horror). The cruel morning light reveals Padma’s gauchely done highlights and hair that looked encrusted with hair spray. We expected Oribe; you gave us Raggedy Anne. Raggaydy Andy Cohen, you have some 'splainin' to do.

We can hardly believe we’re saying this, but we are actually starting to miss Katie Lee Joel, even with her nonexistent upper lip and the painted whore of Babylon look befitting a shopgirl made good. Padma has a flat, affectless delivery, and this, too, seems like a betryal and a put-on. Consider this excerpt from the same Observer article:

"I'm getting into making pickles ," she says, super-animated (when the tape recorder is switched on, she swoops straight into voice-over mode; as soon as it is off, she immediately flicks out the light, and you are left feeling all chilly and resentful).
Well, that’s exactly right. We are feeling all chilly and resentful. Where is the woman who played Sylk, diva rival to Mariah Carey, in Glitter? And where is the woman who starred in Boom, “a Bollywood thriller about three supermodels who steal diamonds belonging to Indian Mafiosi”? And, indeed, the woman who posed in a silver lamé bikini on top of live lobsters?

You may be trying to prove you’re intelligent and competent, but this isn’t the way to do it. Anyway, we thought you had resolved this issue for yourself. After all, you told the Observer, apropos of your marriage to world-famous novelist Salman Rushdie, “I'd be lying to you if I said that my new last name didn't resolve the issue of whether I am intelligent or not. I think that people assume that if someone of that calibre ...”

Aren’t we “Top Chef” viewers entitled to profit from having the issue resolved? We take back everything we said, Padma. Bring back “super-animated” and “flowery summer frocks” and silver lamé bikinis and supermodel hair. We want Sylk and Glitter and Boom in the kitchen. (Whom are we kidding? Silk, glitter and boom describe the entirety of our life’s ambitions.)

Rant over, we now return you to your regularly scheduled recap.

Padma announces to the assembled contestants (who, unlike her, seem to have had enough time to get their hair done), “Today’s challenge is about sushi.”

Priceless expression on Mia’s face, trying to keep the gorge down, an expression which the rewind button, a shaky hand and a digital camera don’t seem to be very good at capturing.

Beer Bong reaches for the top: “How am I going to stay in the middle on this one?”

Not content with her customary and apparently contagious pigtails, Tarte Titass is also wearing a pink baseball cap reading, “koukla.” Forever alert to punning opportunities, we do a little research and hit a gold mine. Koukla is the Greek word for “doll” and the name of a line of women’s clothing sold online and at Greek church fairs (Marisa is part Greek). Well, Marisa, doll, we never expected you to be reading Ms. magazine, so I suppose this doesn’t really come as a shock. Our one question: Bravo blurred your denim-ed derrière in the audition tape, presumably because it sported a label or logo, but didn’t blur the koukla cap. What gives?

After a little dry heaving, Mia tells us her first thought upon hearing about the sushi challenge, “H-E-double hockey sticks.” We find it delightful. Is it retro? Where does it come from? Can we get a linguist on the case?

Elia’s reaction is equally priceless: “I lov kook-eeng weeth feesh. I lov butt-cherrying feesh. I lov sweem-eeng weeth feesh. I lov eat-eeng them. I lov feesh.” What did we tell you? It’s definitely all about the feesh and lovs. Well, Elia, after this episode, we would advise you to be careful around Frankie the Bull, or you may be sweem-eeng weeth the feesh to your heart’s content.

So the challenge is to prepare sushi in 30 minutes for sushi chef Hiroshi Shima, who comes with his own translator (batteries not included). Our favorite part of the food-preparation montage is Mia talking to herself: “Come on, Gaines, get it together, girl.” Even we feel motivated by that. One question, though. According to her Bravo bio, Mia’s last name is Gaines-Alt, so why doesn’t she say, “Come on, Gaines-Alt, girl”? Inquiring minds want to know.

Despite our rant, there is one point during the judging when Padma’s icy demeanor is exquisitely deployed. Beer Bong, who at least is honest enough to declare himself “so out of my league,” has garnished his attempt at sushi with a “cornstarch slurry” (yet another fitting nickname for him). After tasting it, Padma’s only reaction is a straight-to-the-heart, cold-enough-to-keep-vodka-in, worthy-of-Helen-Mirren-playing-Queen-Elizabeth-II, “Thank you.” Brava, Padma, brava!

Then Chef Shima sexually harasses a clearly embarrassed and unprepared Padma by pushing in her mouth one of Mia’s curiously cigar-like handrolls. Verdict: “It wasn’t really appealing.” No shit, Shima. Watch your back. I don’t think Salman Rushdie will appreciate his wife’s being forced to fellate bad sushi. No wonder that “translator” of yours looks so much like a bodyguard.

Of Otto’s sushi, Chef Shima says that he is “very impressed with the way you rolled it.” Pardon us, but isn’t this a compliment that might be better and more accurately given to Beer Bong? Just saying.

Dear, culturally sensitive Otto is truly touched by this compliment. After all, he is but a mere “round-eye from Cleveland, Ohio.” As we will soon discover, Otto’s eyes may be round, but they’re also shifty. Anyway, we thought people from Ohio were called the Buckeyes, not the Round-eyes, but what do we know?

In the end, the winner is Cliff, with his Hubba Hubba, er, Hama Hama oysters with ginger, rice wine, soy, mango and jalapeño. Congratulations, Cliff. And may we say, you look very, very, very good in scrubs. Perhaps you can replace Isaiah Washington on “Grey’s Anatomy”?

Thursday, October 26, 2006

DeeLeeShoss Americahn Cheeze, Part 2

Our little antennae always keenly attuned to the political implications of what contestant Elia Aboumrad Harfuch dubbed "DeeLeeShoss Americahn Cheeze," we could not help but giggle when we read yesterday's New York Times story about former White House chef Walter Scheib III.

Chef Scheib was fired by First Lady Laura Bush's social secretary for serving "country-club food." Chef Scheib was taken aback, since he was serving only what the First Family wanted to eat, and declared himself bored with their unadventurous eating.

The first time [the new social secretary] met Mr. Scheib she told him that she wanted the White House kitchen to produce meals like those her husband had enjoyed at one of Marco Pierre White’s restaurants in London. Mr. White, who once had three Michelin stars, has served everything from braised pigs’ trotters to truffled parsley soup with poached eggs.

“I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’m not sure the president is going to be big on that,’ ” said Mr. Scheib, who had made many an enchilada and grilled-cheese sandwich on white bread with Kraft singles for President Bush."

It's tricky, ain't it, when Hail to the Chief replaces Hail to the Chef.

Miss XaXa's First Reaction: These Boots Were Made for Riding

Padma, Padma, Padma!

Ugh! Where do I begin? The clothes! The hair! That bizarre speech pattern! You are boring me to tears!
Miss XaXa’s first reactions:
1) Riding boots in the kitchen? I don’t even know where to begin with this. Darling, don’t you know that Laura Bennett is the only person who can pull off wearing riding boots on a Bravo reality show?
2) A too-tight bra at an early-morning fish market? A most unwise move. It makes you look like you have gills on your back.
3) And a hoochie skirt to judge a benefit to feed the poor!?!
4) Braided pig-tails on a woman over 30!?! There are no words; see example pictured above for reference.
You are wasting this opportunity to show the fashion-challenged how it’s done. Or have you’ve entered into an agreement with Glamour magazine to be this season's example of what women should not be caught dead wearing? Are you trying to be he ultimate fashion “don’t”?
5) And why..... do.... you... speak.... the...... way... you.... speak? If you’re trying to be thought smart, speaking slowly is not the way to go about it. I had SO much hope for you, yet I am already bored to tears with this season. Can I survive? I'm afraid Beyoncé couldn't survive this season! But seriously boys, girls and bitches, being hoochie-fied at a “feed the people” benefit!?! The poor have enough troubles without having to be hoochie-fed on top of it.

First Reaction: Lychee Sounds Suspiciously Like "Lie, Cheat"

As usual, we will have much more to say over the next few days, as the little bees off our Laguiole knives sit in their little hives, making envenomed honey. But oh do they have a lot to work with!
Hideous fashions! A new L.A. Plague, the Pigtails! The first use of the word "multicultural"! A great debate over the pronunciation of an overripe Asian fruit (is it too early for a Ming Tsai joke?)!
A parable of feesh and lovs for our time! Subversive politics! Geography lessons! Still another profound parable, this one about Kim Jong Il, and the responsibility of speaking truth to overcoiffed dictators!
And who knew the leathery-skinned, bubble-shaped lychee would turn into "Top Chef's" version of leather bubble shorts?
The bees, they are a-buzzing, mes enfants.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Pig Heaven: The Wednesday Press Roundup

Wednesday is food day, and not only because "Top Chef" is on. It's also the day the food sections in some our favorite publications come out.

Frank Bruni, the purple-prosed prince of sybarites at The New York Times, has returned from his Italian vacation with an ode to the pig. In the spirit of the piece, we illustrate this with an item from last Sunday's lunch, a rather nice queso de puerco, or head cheese, obtained from one of our local carnicerías.
Bruni, asking "Just How Good Can Italy Get?", answers his own question by praising his "kind of pig heaven," which "looks a lot like Bologna’s fatty heart." He then tantalizes us with the usual quasi-pornographic descriptions of prosciutto di Parma and culatello.
A little farther west, Auntie Irene at The Los Angeles Times reviews BLD, a breakfast, lunch and dinner place blessed with brioche French toast, "each slice easily two fingers high and wearing a ruffle of eggy batter," ricotta blueberry pancakes, "big crumbly buttermilk scones dotted with currants, cinnamon buns swirled with butter and cinnamon, and a wonderful Breton pastry called kouign amann." However, she's also got pig on the brain, praising "the cured pork products from Paul Bertolli at Fra' Mani, a new salumeria in Berkeley from the former Oliveto and Chez Panisse chef." Coincidentally enough, she also wrote about the glories of Italy and pigs last month, describing her dinner with Dario Cecchini, "the most famous butcher in Italy."
At the LA Weekly, Jonathan Gold extols the glories of duck fat and finally gets around to reviewing the uniquely Angeleno craze for Pinkberry frozen yogurt, "as pure and smooth and white as the Carrara marble from which Michelangelo carved his David, a perfection probably attained through the use of powdered nonfat milk, which is a Korean obsession. If you are what you eat, Pinkberry may be the ideal food."

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Defrosting the Hostess Cupcakes

As you may have noticed, despite our early posts on the subject, we haven't really discussed Padma Lakshmi's performance as hostess, now that we've actually seen it. There are two reasons for that, which we'll get to eventually. But keeping in mind the previous hostess, Katie Lee Joel, let's first do some comparisons, shall we?

Padma's age: 36 -- Katie Lee's age: 25.

Salman Rushdie's age: 59 -- Billy Joel's age: 57.

Age difference between Padma & Salman: 23 years.

Age difference between Katie Lee & Joel: 32 years.

Padma & Salman food-related quote:
"Get some green seedless grapes, take them off the stems and freeze them. They become like hard, little marbles. They're great to feed your lover in bed. You can imagine the rest. But use the green ones, not the red ones because the red ones stain the sheet. Just keep them in the fridge - you never know when a date is going to end up back at your place."

Katie Lee & Billy Joel food-related quote:
"There's nothing better than good sex. But bad sex?
A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is better than bad sex."
Sorry, Katie Lee. The advantage goes to Padma. Not to be stingy, though, Miss XaXa does praise the smart little clutch in the picture at right, all the while questioning the whereabouts of her upper lip. Come to think of it, "Smart Little Clutch" might just be a good nickname for Katie Lee.
At any rate, back to Padma. We haven't said anything about her performance on the first episode because, frankly, what performance? It's almost as if she wasn't there. We can't remember much about her other than her impeccable shoes, yet another area where she outdoes poor Katie Lee. But for that very reason, we almost missed Katie Lee, and the opportunity to make catty comments about her uncanny resemblance to another Katie, Ms. Holmes, and about her aesthetic transformation from Junior League to War Bride Chic.
Say what you will about Heidi Klum (and we have much to say, especially about her heretofore unsuspected milkmaid's giggle at Jeffrey fart jokes), she is clearly in charge at "Project Runway." Of course, it may have more to do with her being a creator and producer of the show than with any Prussian propensity for taking charge, but she keeps her two tigers, Nina Garcia and Michael Kors, on a leash. (Apropos of nothing, we were reminded of the delicious putdown from last season's "Nip/Tuck": cold, jugmental, Michael Kors-wearing ass).
But we also haven't said anything precisely because it was Padma's first show. She says on her blog that she felt like the new kid at school, and we feel it's only fair to let her get her bearings. But the amnesty expires tomorrow at 10 p.m. After that, our motto is, Hey, Marcel, wanna see our knives?

Monday, October 23, 2006

Mexican Spitfire Spits Tacks

As much as we understand the compunction or need for reality television to reduce contestants to a bite-size, easily digestible appellation for the ease of television viewers, it does bother us that the shorthand is often lazy and stereotypical and sometimes borders on the racist or offensive (e.g., Frankie the Bull).
For example, it irks us that the Bravo bio describes Carlos as "a handsome and zealous Cuban with a flair for cooking and a passion for life," and Elia herself as a "Latin firecracker."
A "positive" stereotype is not always a blessing, and can be just as limiting as a negative stereotype. God help the Latin who doesn't go in for passion or the gay who can't decorate. But lest we get too preachy, let's talk about Elia, who isn't exactly Lupe "Mexican Spitfire" Velez.
Her full name is Elia Aboumrad Harfuch, and, like Salma Hayek and Shakira, she is of Middle Eastern heritage. (There is a large and prosperous Lebanese community in Mexico, where they made an important contribution to the country's cuisine by turning the shawarma into the emblematic Mexico City dish, the perfect late-night on-the-run treat, tacos al pastor).

Elia's parents appear frequently in the society pages in Mexico, throwing Arab-themed dinners in their mansion in Pedregal de San Angel, the Bel Air of Mexico City, appearing at French Embassy shindigs, theater openings, and society weddings. This isn't exactly someone who learnt cooking at her family's taquería.
As she told Mexican daily El Universal last year, "Everything began three years ago when I left home to go study in Paris. Since I've always liked cooking, I planned to take a six-month course at Lenôtre, a school that, among other things, has the greatest number of Meilleurs Ouvriers de France winners (the highest title a French chef achieve)." She didn't know much about gastronomy, and so enrolled in a special course for people starting from scratch. She went on to take courses in pastry-making, ice cream-making, ice and sugar sculpture, and chocolate-making. She then worked for Joël Robuchon in Paris.
The article was published two weeks before Elia was to travel to Las Vegas to become the first woman, and only Mexican, to occupy the post of sous-chef at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, a matter of considerable pride. And now she works for Alain Ducasse at the Hotel at the Mandalay Bay resort. Not bad for a society girl from San Angel. Let's see Paris Hilton make a demiglace. Anyway, Elia, we still wish you had used tequila or rum for the flambé challenge, but we forgive you and wish you luck with the rest of the season.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Episode One, Part 2: Frogs & Snails & Puppy-dog Tails

After the drinking and the bitching, they’re back in the kitchen for the elimination challenge. They split into two teams, Orange and Black. They will have to make a dish from five secret ingredients, à la Iron Chef, and the results will be judged by the other team. The orange team cooks first, and their ingredients are snails, processed cheese, artichokes, potatoes, and bar peanuts, which, naturally, throws the contestants into a tizzy.

Suyai: “The cheese totally threw me; the peanuts totally threw me.” Luv, we think that’s what may get you thrown off.

Carlos on marital aids: “Very important. Must refrigerate cheese when using cheese products.”

“Keep it simple, make it taste good, stay alive”: the stoned Stockton Socrates strikes again.

And then, at last, we are able to break out the Calvados, for we have our first tears of the night, and the season. Suyai is just crying through the whole thing. Well, we say to ourselves, the salt in the tears should help the seasoning.

That takes care of sweat and tears; we’re only missing blood, and Marisa helpfully obliges by cutting herself, then proceeding to make the same lame pastry-chefs-and-sharp-knives joke over and over again. Marisa seems blissfully aware that it would have been more apropos to say that that pastry chef is not the sharpest knife in the kitchen. Personally, we think it was the knife trying to punish her for those pig tails and the camouflage skull cap.

Elia: “I hate the cheese. I didn’t know what to do with the American cheese. It’s just this funky product that shouldn’t exist." We can't wait to hear Rush Limbaugh playing a tape of how she pronounces the word “American.” It gets even better at the team judging, where Elia speaks sarcastically of “DeeLeeShoss Americahn Cheeze.” The team judging is also brightened by Padma’s cleavage and strappy heels, deeleeshoss americahn cheezekayk.

Despite hating the cheese, Elia manages to produce one of the two favorite dishes, along with Ilan. In trying to decide which one they like best, Tom asks the chefs, “Which one would you pay $16 for?” This made us laugh out loud the second or third time we heard it. Why? Well, we had just read the New York Times article on the emergence of the $40 entrée, and the article points the finger at none other than Chef Colicchio.

“I blame Tom Colicchio for this,” said Barry Okun, a New York lawyer who has established a personal price limit of “between $50 and $60” per entree. “It’s not that I’m happy about it,” he added. Mr. Colicchio acknowledged the influence of his pricing, adding that restaurants like those of the Bistro Laurent Tourondel group in New York “completely ripped off the concept” of focusing on individual elements. To which Mr. Tourondel replied, “He should look back at the old-time steakhouse menus that were around way before Craft ever existed.”

See, Marcel? That's how it's done.

Then it’s the black team’s turn to cook, and their ingredients are frog legs, chicken liver, eggplant, cornflakes, and peanut butter. No major dramas here, and no promise of spilt bodily fluids, unless you consider Marcel’s come-on to Tom Colicchio: “A little bit of grenouille? Pretty stoked on it.” Oh, Marcel, you naughty boy; you make it sound like you’re offering frottage. And it’s adorable that Spiccoli knows the French word for “frog.”

Another one who’s stoked is Mia. Correction: she’s “fricking stoked on the ingredients. It was Sunday dinner at Grandma’s house.” As she later tells us, she grew up hunting frogs as a little girl. Her Southern fried frog legs are the favorites with her peers. As Mia puts it, “I see finger lickin’.” Ilan’s testimonial: “I bit into it, and stuff dribbled down my chin.” (Ilan, baby, we would have licked it off).

Any good will from the testimonial evaporates when Ilan beats Mia to win the best dish from the judges. Mia’s expression sends shivers down our spines. We silently counsel Ilan not to go near any frog ponds.

Suyai, Marcel, Carlos, and Otto are marched to judges' table to the strains of “foreboding music,” as noted by the closed captioning service. The NeckerChef claims he had a bad day, Marcel says he doesn’t know why he’s there, other than because the others want to get rid of him. Gail, being Canadian, and therefore nice, finds one nice to say about Suyai’s dish: “There was a lot of good potato in there.” In response to Tom’s queries about his dish, Carlos responds: “It wasn’t my crowning achievement, but I didn’t think it was crap on a plate.” Tom disagrees, saying, “I had a hard time getting that down.” (Confidential to Tom: get Carlos to talk to you about overcoming the gag reflex.)

In the end, Suyai is sent home, but not before she finally embraces her victimhood, deciding to look on the bright side of things: “I know how to flambé now.” Some flame out, and some flambé out. We salute you, Suyai (and not just because, thanks to you, we won the pool on the season's first crying episode).

We end with the preview for the full season, scored, courtesy of the closed captioning service, to “fast techno music.” There’s Padma, getting tough!: “I don’t know what you guys were thinking.” Ay mami, more, please. And there’s Anthony Bourdain, making drug allegations! And Betty, calling Marcel a “selfish, self-centered, egotistical bastard!”

Finally, and best of all, there’s Frankie the Bull, telling Marcel: “If you ever touch anything personal of mine, I will beat you so bad that your mother will not recognize you.” “Top Chef” meets “The Real World” meets “GoodFellas.” We love it. Our favorite part: Marcel doesn’t look scared, but rather, like a pig in shit. We can’t wait.

Episode One, Part 1: DeeLeeShoss American Cheese

The show starts with Padma in a classy but revealing, husband-hunting-in-the-Meatpacking-District black silk charmeuse dress, telling us that we will be privy to what really goes on in the kitchen: “Extreme pressure, intense passion, ruthless competition, and of course”—and here we get a close-up of Padma giving us her best windblown, fuck-you-fuck-me, low-calorie Tyra Banks stare—“beautiful food.” Brava! Oh Bravo, we love you when you’re this transparent. There’s definitely a reason these types of shots are known as “cheesecake.”

After the perfunctory montage of Padma actually eating (which, much as we love our Canadian headmistress, she does more attractively than Gail Simmons), we get the opening credits, which we have reviewed below.

The show proper begins with Josie, sharing a cab with her partner, Caitlin. Yay! Thank God our gaydar, which often gives us false positives on Canadians and Mormons (much as radar is sometimes fooled by flying ducks), did not fail us this time, which means that our Honorary Lesbian card will not be taken away. We especially relish the dreamy, playful way in which her partner assures us that, “Josie IS the next top chef,” thus sparing us from having to reach for the cheap joke so early in the program. We decide we love Josie. If we ever had a flat tire, she’s the sort of girlfriend we’d want, Triple A sometimes being so much better than Triple X.

And speaking of spare tires, we next meet Buxom Betty, jumping up and down, midriff bare. Our actual first glimpse of her is inside the SUV ferrying her to the downtown L.A. loft where this season was filmed. Being that she was in a car, we at first thought the airbags had deployed, but then we realized air bags don’t come in hot pink, and just like that, she earned her nickname, Spice Rack. Then there she is in the sports bra, doing the Jell-O jump. We can’t look away. God, she’s fearless to let her lonjas (good Spanish word for love handles) flop around like that. So we say, Girl, get down with your bad Venus of Willendorf self. But we change our minds when we see her cooking in a black miniskirt that makes her look like a refugee French maid, and, horror of horrors, sporting the Plague of L.A., the Ugg boot. My God, the woman is cooking in Ugg boots and cyber-wench gear! Clearly, she’s in the (818) area code.

Consequently, we lose our bearings and nearly miss our little gougère, Ilan Hall, with his Jonathan Franzen pseudo-hipster glasses and his desire to be famous.

And here, in all his meringue-headed glory, comes 26-year-old Marcel, whose entrance line is, “I got dibs, where do I wanna go? The top bunk, I think, is a good way to go.” The boy is a walking innuendo; it’s as if he took his dialogue wholesale from the collected works of ChiChi LaRue. “I came here to be the next top chef,” he smirks. Well, dream on, bottom boy.

We next meet Elia, who was born in Mexico, “where they think that cooking is for girls that want to get married and never work gain, but smart people decide to do what they like to do, not what the world thinks.” Well, mija, don’t tell that to our mothers, who managed to work and keep us in tamales, but we love, love, love that you wear sequins in the daytime.

Then we meet Sam “Is that an insulin pump or are you just happy to see me?” Talbot, known to us as Captain Nemo from the opening credits. The grungy bad boy observes, “I think I was supposed to be in the girls’ room, but they screwed me.” We think that may be because he won’t have access to their cosmetics, as he has no problem saying on his bio that he is “like a girl when it comes to shopping and grooming himself.” Notice also that his t-shirt reads “Mi Vida Loca.” And yet we see little evidence of grooming or shopping—the hat, the greasy hair, the sunglasses, the wrist bands, the sub-Neanderthal lilt, the wide-armed stance—it’s more Carson Kressly-goes-to-the-Mineshaft than Matt-Dillon-goes-to-Copia.

Trying to channel Mae West by way of Sal Mineo, Marcel purrs to Ilan, “Did you bring some nice knives? You wanna see mine?” To which Ilan replies, “Next we’ll be showing each other our cocks.” You know, sometimes there’s just nothing we can add. Message to Andy Cohen of Bravo: We know you have those outtakes; don’t be so selfish. The sight of Marcel polishing his knives rather reminds us of Burt Reynolds in “Deliverance.” Who’ll be the first to squeal like a stuck pig? Our money’s on the pothead from Stockton.

And there’s Frank, bringing his own silencers, by which we mean earplugs. Of course. As Frankie the Bull says to his room-mates, they’re “for you, not for me.”

At long last Marisa. We had such high hopes for her. Her signature dish, black currant tea crème brûlée with huckleberry compote (which Bravo helpfully misspells), made us all tingly with anticipation. But our soufflé falls flat when Marisa announces that she’s brought “goggles, swimsuit, bustier, whatever you need, I came prepared.” Muff-diving implements aside (and ignoring for a moment that hideous tanline), the bustier has us at a loss. Don’t you have to have a bust in order use a bustier?

She further endears herself to us with her statement, “Do I use my sexuality to my advantage? Damn right. I use everything to my advantage that I can use to my advantage.” We fail to see what advantage she could derive. The jeans she wears in her audition video have clearly been stuffed with brioche, as when she stands in profile, you can see it’s all flatbread. For God’s sake, she’s from San Francisco, and as Patsy Stone once said, in a world where men will turn to soft fruit, well, she just doesn’t stand a chance. Oh, Tart Titass, you’ve definitely been baked upside down.

And there’s Betty, softly stroking Suyai’s blond hair, and telling her, “We can be Sisters.” Not to be orally fixated or anything, but we would have gone with Bosom Buddies. Still, Sisters it is. Drumroll please. Herewith, a selection from Sisters, a lesbian bodice ripper by the Vice-President’s wife, Lynne Cheney: “Let us go away together, away from the anger and imperatives of men. There will be only the two of us, and we shall linger through long afternoons of sweet retirement. In the evenings I shall read to you while you work your cross-stitch in the firelight. And then we shall go to bed, our bed, my dearest girl.” Now that’s exactly what this season of “Top Chef” needs.

Suyai tells us, “I’ve been bulimic for many years, so I got into food as a way to heal my eating disorder.” Well, that’s a new one to us, hair of the dog that fattened you; the logic is impeccable. Girl with an eating disorder on a cooking show; you can see how this would make a programming exec get all wet. Still, we sort of dig her curves and Kathleen Turner accent.

And here’s Marcel’s Ned Beatty, none other than Mike, the sage of Stockton, whose ambition is to own a sports bar and grill. Mais non, ce n’est pas possible! And here we were envisioning a little bistro with seasonal products, Chez L’Ami John Madden. We’re flabbergasted. But, as Mike informs us, “I got balls, so I’m ready to rock and roll.” That’s very deep, or deep-fried.

Next up is Miss XaXa’s Carlos. She yells at the television, “Ricky, you’rrrrrrre hooooome” (or is it, “Ricky, you’re homo”?). He informs the other chefs that he’s just received his first four-star review (and it wasn’t the one from Miss XaXa). He reminds us a little of “Project Runway’s” Robert Best—tanned, dark-haired, t-shirted. Babalu, oh yeeeeaaah.

It’s time for the quickfire challenge. There’s Padma, in jeans and furry white boots, telling us about “the Kenmore Kitchen,” which must be kin to the Macy’s Accessory Wall. We love the boots. Betty, take note. If you’re going to wear furry white boots in the kitchen, this is how it’s done. We also love her accent; we have always had a weakness for women with muddled accents providing a veneer of class. Finally, we love the fact that she risked her life to be in the “Top Chef” kitchen. As she points out in her blog, her hair and makeup woman used so much hairspray to keep her locks looking fabulous that she might very well have gone up in a fireball during the show.

And there’s Tom Colicchio, beefy as ever, and sporting an open-necked shirt and a necklace with beads. He announces to the chefs, “I’m not your mentor.” Meeeow, Tom. You could just have said, “My name is Tom, not Tim.” Anyway, somebody get this man on bigmusclebears.com.

And there’s Harold Dieterle, winner of last season’s contest. As glad as we are to see him and his adorable double chin, we are again struck mute with horror when we see that he has been struck with the other Plague of L.A, the Flipflop. We’re sorry, Harold, but we could never date any man who wore flipflops, not even you. Thus are hearts broken and illusions shattered.

Padma announces, “Your first quickfire challenge involves both quickness AND fire.” Now discuss amongst yourselves, as Linda Richman would have said. The chefs are supposed to create a dish using the flambé technique, which involves setting alcohol on fire. They set to, while we observe the contestants working.

Pardon me, boys, is that the Chattanooga Choo-choo? Oh wait, it’s only Sam. We know from close-ups that he’s actually wearing a baseball cap, but from a distance it does look to us like one of those gray railway engineer things. Oh dear God, and what’s that thing with lanky pigtails and do-rag? Why, it’s Tart Titass. And thus dies our dream of her giving a make-over to Emily in the dorm after hours. No one who goes on tv in that get-up has any business making anyone over.

Our poor Elia chooses red wine to flambé. Elia, querida, we know you’re trying to flee the paternalism of Mexico, but, really, if you were desperate enough to turn to red wine, couldn’t you have turned instead to the drink of your forefathers? What will Herradura and Sauza say? You, señorita, are a Tequila Traitor.

During the tasting, Marcel is up to his porny ways again, purring to Judge Dieterle as he eats, “Get in there, Harold.” What did we tell you about bossy bottoms?

Sam wins the quickfire challenge. Harold points out that Carlos was undone by the jalapeño that was a garnish, stating that he doesn’t like "nonfunctional garnishes." To which we say, Harold, what about Tom’s necklace?

After the quickfire challenge, the contestants return to the loft and proceed to get drunk, with the winner being Mike, who more than earns his “Beer Bong” nickname.

It’s the morning after, and Beer Bong is at the kitchen table, holding forth like Socrates in an olive grove. “My mama only hit me once, just once,” says our Stockton Socrates-cum-Forrest Gump (oh wait, that’s Elia’s favorite film). Of course, just at that moment, Marcel flits by, unable to resist the easy pickings: “Maybe she should have hit you a couple more times.” Aw, snap, as the kids say.

We love Marcel, but what we hold against him is that he said this like a telenovela starlet, rather than a full-blown villana de telenovela. When he makes his catty comments during the interviews, he always does so while looking up at the camera, as if he were Veronica Lake holding forth from under nonexistent bangs, or Malcolm McDowell under that fedora in “A Clockwork Orange” (Lord knows Marcel certainly has the eyelashes for it).

It’s then that we first really take notice of Marcel’s soul patch, which rather strikes us as a nonfunctional garnish. We debate doing Marcel the favor of dubbing it his soulless patch, as we rather think that would feed his delusions of villainy.

But the bottom line is, we think he is cutting his villainy teeth, learning how to do it right, working up to the time, by the end of the season (we hope), when he will make these pronouncements while stroking a white Siamese cat. In fact, our newest theory is that he is keeping the Siamese cat in his pompadour for just that eventuality.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Opening Discredits

As promised, we have rested, we have pondered, we have polished our lingual Laguioles, and now here we are, lobster fork in hand, to extract all we can from this season's inaugural episode of "Top Chef." We'll begin by reviewing the opening credits, which we think of as the tasting menu, the parade of personalities working last year's motif of confrontational stripteasing to the synthesizer-poached strains of the opening theme. Since we'll be seeing it all season, we might as well get it out of the way.

st up is Josie, who looks like an anime goddess-imp. Josie does her best impression of an old-fashioned Times Square perv, opening her chef’s whites to flash us coyly, then crossing her arms in a manly fashion, the very embodiment of the butch/femme dykotomy. As honorary lesbians (we’ll happily produce our membership certificate and lapel pin upon request), we salute you. You shall henceforth be known as Empress Josiefine (and, luv, the French would do cartwheels over you, since in France they consider a gap in the front teeth to be a sign that you are highly sexed).

Next up is Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, gray-haired, bristle-coiffed, skull-and-bones-adorned, patriotically-neckerchiefed, and giving us his best military salute. Jawohl, mein Herr. Or is it, Aye, aye, Captain Jack Sparrow? We truly love the red-white-and-blue ‘round your neck, and the pairing with the Pirate Collar. It's so South of Market; we just wish we knew what pocket you wore your hanky in. You shiver our timbers and make us wonder whether you're going to prescribe a round of "The Star Spangled Banner" or rum, sodomy, and the lash. You shall henceforth be known as the NeckerChef.

Then comes Sam, giving us his best Blue Steel and fiercely doffing his chef’s whites (à la Tom Cruise on that Vanity Fair cover circa Mission Impossible 2) to reveal a black t-shirt reading “Don’t Give Up the Ship.” O captain, my captain, fear not. We can see that you’re calling for seamen who’ll go down with the ship. You shall henceforth be known as Captain Nemo.

Then there’s our compatriot Elia, unadorned except for a halo of curls, fierce, hands on hips, confronting the camera directly. No stripping for her. She’s like Jesusita en Chihuahua meets Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo. You shall henceforth be known as Frida Bandida. Mija, tu sí que tienes huevos, pero no rancheros ni revueltos, and we admire you for it, and love it cuando te pones como agua para chocolate.

And then there’s Frank. At first glance, we sense a Sicilian teddy bear, and think of nicknaming him the Bambino Bear. But then the combination of his Bravo bio, his official “Frankie the Bull” nickname, the lighting and cinematography (so reminiscent of “Gladiator”), and his threat to Marcel to beat him so badly that his mother won’t recognize him, made us realize that our noses did not deceive us, and that the whiff of unrepentant stereotype and Eau de Goombah signaled the arrival of none other than Joe Pesci. Hey, Joe, if you wanna go by Frankie the Bull on this show, tha’s ok by us.

Next up is Emily, her lips drawn tight, having trouble unbuttoning her chef’s whites, more librarian than chef. According to the Bravo bio, “she describes herself as foul-mouthed and ill-tempered” and “likes to think she is one of the guys and can't stand prissy girls.” Ooh aah, we say, ain’t she butch? We get your code, Mary Cheney. But perhaps she’s just a reluctant voluptuary. Honey, would it kill you to wear a little concealer from time to time? The whole turnip-with-bags-under-her eyes thing just doesn’t work for you. Until further notice or makeover, you shall be known as Butch Cassidy.

And here’s one of our sunshine kids, solid, humpy Cliff, our very own Valrhona Bear who reduces us to a mere fondue. We’re too distracted to think of anything else to say.

Then we see that Joe Pesci is not the only celebrity contestant this time around. Can it be? Yes, that’s Suzanne Somers! Oh wait, why does it say Betty? Alright, Chrissy, have it your way. Hellzapoppin, saucy blond Betty is popping out of her chef’s whites, doing the Sherman Oaks shimmy. Our retinas are immobilized. Henceforth, you shall be known as Spice Rack.

And wait, who’s that, doing the sexy reverse strip tease, his hair teased too, and just this side of marcelled? Why, it’s Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius. Wait, no, it’s Marcel, his head a veritable meringue, the "hair apparent" to last season’s Stephen Asprinio, who now relinquishes to Marcel the “There’s Something About Mary” Award for Overuse of Hair Products. Well, there’s definitely something about Mary, er, Marcel, whose bio says that “he tends to be bossy in the kitchen.” The bossy bottom raises his meringued head once again.

And there’s Stockton’s finest, Michael, looking hempy, not humpy, and throwing in the towel (or is it his chef’s whites?). Honey, we would do the same. Henceforth, you shall be known as Beer Bong.

Then it’s Mia, fierce in her José Eber cowboy hat. It’s clear that the woman knows her way around a weave, a branding iron and a Patsy Cline record, and is probably pretty handy with a wet belt and a rolling pin, too. We can see she’s a woman unafraid of lard and buttermilk and bacon. We decide on the spot to worship and submit to her.

Now comes improbably emaciated pastry chef Marisa, the brittle queen of pâte brisée, trying desperately to imitate E!’s Giuliana DePandi and throwing her jacket over her shoulder in her best Sear’s Catalogue pose. She doesn’t appear to have the requisite attributes, but given the way she presents herself, the only fitting nickname for her is Tart Titass.

And there’s Carlos, Miss XaXa’s idea of a hot, oozing medianoche (made with pulled pork, just the way she likes it, and garnished with a big pickle). Miss XaXa points out that Carlos has seized the lapels of his jacket, and is pulling back and forth, the jacket straining over his back like a chamois buffing a car under the sun of Hialeah. We remind Miss XaXa that Carlos is married, and gay, but she doesn’t seem to care.

And there’s Ilan, this year’s model of cute Jewish boy from Long Island, with his adorably passé fauxhawk, which Hedi Slimane and Maddox Jolie have long ago abandoned, and the little milk teeth all in a row and the adorable mini-cleft in his chin, like a crimp at the edge of a piecrust. A line cook at Casa Mono, él sí es muy mono, and our casa at Snarkshire Moors is his casa.

Finally, tellingly, there’s Suyai, the blowsy, blond, bulimic Brit, unable to button her chef’s whites. Nicely played, Bravo, depicting the girl with body issues as too fat to fit into her clothes. Even worse for the improbably-named Suyai, she bears an unfortunate resemblance to our very own Medusa, Rachael Ray, though if it came right down to it, we can see Suyai beating down Rachael Ray with a rope-soled wedgie (which we and millions of others would pay good money to see).

And that’s our cast of characters. Let the games begin.

Friday, October 20, 2006

If It's Bled, It Led

Little Democratic Whines: Storming the Château d’Yquem

Today's New York Times brings us another of their wry, "Oh the French they are a funny race" stories, this one about the decision by Paris' low-key, gay Socialist mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, to auction off close to 5,000 of City Hall's prized bottles of grands crus, the Château Petrus, Romanée Conti and Château Margaux wines that make oenophiles' hearts beat faster with cupidity.

The Times piece speaks of "offended oenophiles" ascribing political motives to the cost-cutting move, and quotes food historian and former Gault & Millau restaurant critic Anthony Rowley (such a French name, n'est-ce pas?) crying, “It’s demagogic!” and "propaganda" and putting forth the theory that Mayor Delanoë “thinks it is fashionable and modern to serve little democratic wines.”

You can practically hear him saying these words in his best Charles Laughton voice, which rather makes the point that he sounds more like an American version of an English parody of a Tory than he does like a real Frenchman.

The only other "offended oenophile" the Times could muster up was Bernard Bled, the Jacques Chirac chief of staff who put together the municipal wine cellar in the first place (fun fact: "bled" in French is slang for Podunk or Hicksville). The Times quotes Bled as "sniffing" that “There’s a puritan side to this. I was always an epicurean,” once again turning him into a sort of caricature.

If you turn to the French press, however, the reaction is a little different. The conservative Le Figaro, the sort of newspaper you would expect to see foaming at the mouth à l'Anthony Rowley, has a rather straightforward account of the auction, the unexpectedly high prices, the money raised for the city's coffers, and the official reason for the sale.

In the end, it's up to the leftist Le Monde to restore to Bled his true dimension as a Frenchman. The Le Monde article doesn't mention Rowley, or, indeed, any "offended oenophiles." Rather, it quotes Bled as casting aspersions on one of the Mayor's official reasons for the sale--the possibility that a sudden flood ("crue" in French) by the Seine would damage the wine ("crus") in the cellars, which are located at the river's edge at City Hall, the Hôtel de Ville. In the sort of witty aphorism the French favor, Bled says, "La crue n'est pas l'ennemi des crus." The flood is not the enemy of the grands crus, and if the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit.

God forbid we should turn into foodie versions of Jack Shafer, the resident press and Times scourge at Slate, but it does seem to us that the Times is putting its finger on the scale, and all for the sake of a good chuckle based on stereotypes. Well, it appears to have worked, as the piece has quickly made its way onto the list of most e-mailed articles.

New York Times
Le Monde
Le Figaro

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Miss XaXa's First Reaction: I Shaved My Legs for This?!?!?

Well, I was wrong, wrong, wrong again!

After Season 1 of "Top Chef," I turned to Charlus and said, “Could any Hostess, anywhere, ever be a bigger bore?”

Of course at that time, I was referring to the hostess with the mostess, Katie Lee “Glossiest Hair Ever” Joel. Gawd, I LOVE her hair!

Ok, so back to what I was wrong, wrong, wrong about. Even new hotstess (hostess + hottie) Padma Lakshmi couldn’t save the show! From the ultra boring cast this season to the boring challenges! Even my Harold as guest judge was boring me to tears! Oh, but he is still SO cute! You know, cute in a brooding, mysterious, I-might-do-boys kind of way.

Even Padma looked bored beyond all belief, from her perfectly coifed head of hair right down to her fur-boot-covered toes. Bypassing the hideous scar on her right arm of course (yes, yes, I know it's from a car accident, but boring Miss XaXa is a no-no). I mean, the show was so boring, so bland, so vanilla!

Of course, this doesn’t mean I won’t be watching the entire season without leaving my chair, as I don’t think I’ll be able to peel my eyes off Carlos! Muy caliente!

Oh, and let’s not forget about my ongoing crush on Tom Colicchio! I’ll help him “craft” his “steak” anyday!

Oh well, when I have more energy, perhaps I'll talk about Mia and her frog-hunting fetish. "A hunting we will go! A hunting we will go!" I can’t help but think of the frog “round-up” scene from The Triplets of Belleville. Oh great! Now I'm hungry. It's time to get the ammo and make my way to the pond.

First Reaction: We Are Not Amused

Miss Xaxa, being a fiercely independent woman, will have her own take on last night's premiere episode of "Top Chef: Season 2," but the Amuse-Biatch will deign to quote Queen Victoria and say, "We are not amused."

Just as our various degrees taught us to do, we will, of course, extract meaning, narrative cohesion, and bitchery from the show as if extracting meat from lobster claws, but such in-depth analysis will have to wait for a moment of leisure, as some of us still toil in the fleur de sel mines to earn our daily pain rustique.

We won't deny that some small part of our reaction may be due to the lateness of the hour, as well as lingering resentment from the "Project Runway" finale. We retire to our canopied Directoire bed at a sensible hour, what with the fleur de sel mines awaiting, and our policy, applied equally to dating, is this: If you're gonna make us stay up until midnight, it had better be worth it. Sad to say, this episode did not so much as stir our crème anglaise, though our vice anglais is another matter.

Which is why we will say this much as concerns the very raison d’être of this blog: at least this time, we won't have to make any "top" chef cracks about the gay contestant, as it looks like Carlos' portobello (and he is bello, isn't he?) is grilled on both sides.

Monday, October 16, 2006

That Girl

We had a bit of a mad cackle reading the featurette on "food fiend and model-actress" Padma Lakshmi in yesterday's Los Angeles Times. The story presents Padma Agonistes, torn between her desire to see the second season of "Top Chef" do well and her fear that it will do just that, because then "people will only see me doing that, and they already know me like a model....Will no one ever hire me again because they'll say, 'Oh, she's that girl?' "

We sympathize with Padma in her battle against that-girl-ness. We know her like a model, too (which, honi soit qui mal y pense, has no Biblical connotations whatsoever). But we want to reassure her.

Padma, luv, posing seductively in a fitted chocolate-brown dress with a pile of Rainier cherries in the general vicinity of your nether regions, and posing prostrate in a silver bikini and silver stilettos, surrounded by crustaceans with their claws rubber-banded together, and with a gathering of male cooks (their own claws not rubber-banded at all) ogling your own tureen of lobster bisque and pondering cockles and whelks--well, that's exactly the strategy to ensure that people don't think of you as "that girl."

Friday, October 13, 2006

28th Most Beautiful Lady in the World!

'Semicelebrated Hustler' Tops Semicelebrated 'Chef'

While wandering the empty rooms of Withering Depths, our manse on the Snarkshire Moors, and letting the breeze tiptoe, Tiny Tim-like, through our Spanish-grandee tresses, we heard, over the summer, that Mrs. Billy Joel, la Signora Katie Lee Joel, would not be returning to host the second season of Bravo TV's "Top Chef."

We were aghast.

As even the most inveterate haunter of Applebee's knows, a good hostess in the front of the house can go a long way toward making or breaking the dining experience. It was true that Mrs. Joel didn’t exactly start the fire, but what would “Top Chef” do without her?

Who could replicate her vacuous, bovine stare; the placid, near-immobile expression that bordered on expressionlessness, except for those brief flashes of lucidity when she revealed that she knew how out of her depth she was, a veal calf on its way to meet Joël Robuchon but paralyzed by Valium and inertia? (We theorized that the tranquillizers had been slipped into her lip gloss; how else to explain that obscenely lustrous mouth that would have sent both Andrea Dworkin and Billy Joel into paroxysms, albeit of a different sort?). Who else could so rock the combination of chandelier earrings and Payless-worthy footwear?

But then we heard the glad tidings. Mrs. Billy Joel had been replaced by Mrs. Salman Rushdie. In other words, Bravo had, in the parlance of Candace Bushnell, traded up. A 3 series had been exchanged for a 7 series.

It made perfect sense as a template. Successful, older, pudgy, unattractive man weds comely, ambitious younger woman—a tale as old as tarte Tatin.

We made our way to the library at Withering Depths, upholstered in morocco and peau de soie, to do our research. One had, of course, heard of model-actress-tv hostess-cookbook author-arm candy Mrs. Rushdie, née Padma Lakshmi. One remembered the New York Times article written by Guy Trebay in ink made of equal parts vitriol and grudging admiration, the one that referred to Padma as a “semicelebrated hustler,” the one that began by relating a conversation overheard at a fashion show:

"Can you believe that's Salman Rushdie's wife?" said Person 1, a man, referring to Padma Lakshmi, who was, at that particular moment, posing agreeably for a paparazzi mob.

"Look at her," said Person 2, a woman seated beside him. "It's like she's on display."

"She's like, 'Shine on me, shine on me,' " added Person 1.

"Very smart," said Person 2.

"She?" said Person 1.

"He," said Person 2, definitively.

Most intriguing, n’est-ce pas? We went on Padma’s official website, and there, in the section devoted to updates for the faithful and tidings for the acolytes, we found this:

“6/3/05 - Padma is the 28th most beautiful lady in the world! That is, according to England-based Harpers and Queen. Check out the July issue now.”
How we loved the locution, that touchingly colonial "lady." Oh, and the exclamation point!

And then we found out that in 2001, she played Sylk, the shampoo-monikered diva rival to Mariah Carey in the not-since-“Showgirls” cinematic masterpiece “Glitter.” On a failli mourir.

Our pulses aflutter, we were scarcely prepared for the clincher. Padma was the author of an award-winning cookbook entitled—are you ready for this?—“Easy Exotic.”

Easy? Exotic? Edward Saïd be damned, those are exactly the qualities we look for in a mate. Curse you, Andy Cohen. Once again, you and Bravo have read our minds. We can’t wait for October 18.

Amuse-Biatch Book Report: Gael Greene

We are reading a memoir by famed New York Magazine restaurant critic Gael Greene, Insatiable: Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess, and we are quite sad to have to report that we are very dissatisfied indeed.

The pedigree and the title seemed promising, but once we got a look at the cover, we knew we were in for trouble. As you can see, it features a souped-up odalisque adorned with every vulgar visual cliché about female sexuality, viz. the papaya, the kiwi, and the pomegranate. These prove prophetic--the entire book is a vulgar cliché.

The back cover carries a blurb from, of all people, gossip columnist Liz Smith: "Gael Greene is the best food writer since the late M.F.K. Fisher. I predict a runaway hit for INSATIABLE, which has all the sex (plus food) that the law will allow. I simply couldn't resist it."

I mean, Liz, honey, we love that fact that you're from Texas and a blonde and a goodtime gal and a 90-something lesbian, but you and good writing, much less food writing, are strangers to each other, as proved by your own effort in the genre, Dishing: Great Dish -- and Dishes -- from America's Most Beloved Gossip Columnist (oy, and the title! I would have gone with something along the lines of Dull as Dishwater or Dull-Ass Dish). A good Texas chili recipe does not make you A.J. Liebling.

It isn't so much what Liz Smith says as that fact that she is saying it that crystallizes what is wrong with Insatiable. The other blurbers are Sirio Maccioni, Tim Zagat, and Bobby Flay. Need we say more? This book is about the gossip of food, the celebrity of food, but fails as gossip and as food writing (though we will give her credit for a few bons mots, such as "soup opera," which we are stealing).

We really wanted to like the book; we swear. We certainly respect Ms. Greene, but the writing is not very good, and the whole book is sloppy, with poor copyediting (a food book that discusses fois gras is enough to bring on both a crise de foi and a crise de foie). We get to hear about her allegedly torrid encounters with Elvis, Clint Eastwood, and Burt Reynolds (and she brags of once seeing an issue of Time Magazine only to realize she had slept with both of the men on the cover). But there's no sensuality, no passion, in her rather limited descriptions. It's just belt-notching, and just as unattractive in a woman as it is in a man.

Trying to give us a bedroom and dining room romp, she makes adultery seem joyless and desperate (which it may very well be), and in the end comes across as an elderly aunt who's a bit of a lush and a perv. Get Helen Mirren or Jeanne Moreau to show her what true sensuality in an older woman looks like.

No one ever had to spell out for us the connection between food and sensuality. Trust us on this one. And here at Amuse-Biatch, we're all in favor of intelligent, empowered women who are in touch with their sexuality. In fact, that's pretty much the only kind of woman we consort with.

However, there's a difference between being a sensualist and being merely slutty. It's the difference between getting it and getting some. Gael Greene admits that she has never found food better than sex. That should come as no surprise. Based on Insatiable, it's clear that, no matter how much she got, she just doesn't get it.