Thursday, January 22, 2015

On This Muddy Water: Voices from the Houston Ship Channel

On Wednesday, my husband and I went to see the fourth and last performance of On This Muddy Water: Voices from the Houston Ship Channel, put on by the Houston Grand Opera under the auspices of their HGOco's "Songs of Houston" project. With music by D.J. Sparr and words by Janine Joseph, this program consisted of a series of seven vignettes set on the Houston Ship Channel in order to commemorate its centennial. It was based on hours of oral history records, and accompanied by a Ship Channel exhibit in the adjoining room that in my opinion was a terrific use of space, with looped camera footage and audio recordings throughout.

The performance itself was given by baritone Heath Martin and mezzo-soprano Lauren Pastorek, who were accompanied by only four instruments: violin, cello, clarinet, and percussion (mainly marimba, I think). The instruments were used to great and often unusual effect, producing some very evocative music. By far, my favorite piece was "Let It Roll", performed by Heath Martin, because it felt like I was listening to a seaman. Even while I was still listening to it, I felt a little sad that there's a very good chance I will never hear that piece of music again in my life. Of course, I imagine that this was all recorded either in rehearsal or another of the performances, but it won't necessarily be widely available. I would like to hear the entire program again so I can absorb more, but especially that piece.

I also loved "He Said, 'Nyet!'", a piece for both of the singers in which the American seafarers tried to share Christmas presents, or make that New Year's presents since the Russian sailors didn't celebrate Christmas, with their Russian counterparts. The Russians initially wouldn't accept the gifts because they had nothing to give in return, but someone helpfully pointed out that they wouldn't mind a little of that vodka.... The vignette both started and ended with bits of one of the oral history recordings, which was a wonderful touch. Part of the reason I loved this piece was that it reminded me of being introduced about ten years ago to the concept of shoeboxes for sailors at Christmas. My employer only did that for one year while I was there, but I still remember the pleasure I took in putting together a box of small gifts for some foreign sailor who happened to be in the port over the holidays.

Those were my two favorites, but I enjoyed the rest of the program as well. I did find it a little hard to reconcile the mezzo-soprano role with the rest. I think it's absolutely right and necessary that stories told of the Ship Channel include the women, whether sailors or dockworkers or simply the families of such, but the formality of female opera vocals made this seem, well, opera-like. That's certainly isn't a bad thing in and of itself, but when the baritone was singing, he really could have just been a seaman with a gorgeous voice, and I was able to think of it as more authentic and less of a trained performance. This isn't meant as a criticism of Ms. Pastorek's voice or performance; it's just that the female operatic style was a little incongruent to me within the visual and aural picture I was building. At the same time I would not want to exclude women's stories, so it's a dilemma I wouldn't know how to solve myself.

According to the program, since 2007, "HGOco has commissioned 16 new works along with countless innovative community projects and has reached more than one million people in the greater Houston area." This particular performance took place in the gorgeous Julia Ideson Library, which was restored in 2011 as part of the Houston Public Library. That was my first time in the building and I thought it was stunning.

I am looking forward with great anticipation to October 2015, when Houston Grand Opera will put on another HGOco-commissioned work, O Columbia, celebrating the exploratory spirit that leads us to continue even in the wake of tragedies such as the Columbia shuttle disaster. Paul and I were allowed to participate in one of the development workshops for this opera, and I think it will be stunning.

On This Muddy Water: Voices from the Houston Ship Channel
Music by D.J. Sparr
Words by Janine Joseph
Lauren Pastorek, mezzo-soprano
Heath Martin, baritone
Melissa Wilmot, violin
Erik Wheeler, cello
Eric Chi, clarinet
Lindsey Höhn, percussion

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Top Chef Episode 12 - The Final Battle of Bean Town

Getting down to the wire, with only four chefs left, and one already with a ticket to the finale in Mexico!

The Quickfire

My DVR hiccuped right while Padme was explaining the Quickfire, but I did get that she and guest judge Wylie Dufresne expected the chefs to make a dish highlighting beans and putting them "back into favor," with the winner getting a trip to Napa. The chefs had an hour to work.

Gregory reverted to Asian food, and unfortunately just seems to have lost his groove lately. He made navy beans with sake, ham, avocado, and carrot chips; Wylie found the beans slightly overdone and didn't seem impressed with the sake and avocado combination, while Padme thought she detected some bitterness. George made a take on a Greek bean dish, using a tomato base with chickpeas, cumin, paprika, and pork tenderloin. Padme liked the texture and Wylie liked the spice combination. Mei pushed the limits with her dish: bleak bean corn with chipotles, bacon, and a poached egg covered with pinto bean foam. It looked pretty unappetizing, but the egg was a smart move, because Top Chef judges seem to love perfectly cooked eggs on anything as long as you stick a fork in it and it oozes out over everything. Melissa made a pork tenderloin with bacon butter bean puree, carrots, and fried chickpeas.

As the number of chefs go down, it becomes a little easier to guess who's likely to be on top and bottom in any given challenge, or maybe it's just that Wylie sort of telegraphs his intentions. That's not a complaint, though -- I'd rather they not try to be cagey on purpose. In any case, it was pretty obvious that Greg and Melissa weren't in the running for this one, and as soon as Wylie said that George might not have needed the pork in his dish, I knew it would go to Mei. I was happy enough with that because I felt like she knew her target audience well for this challenge, and she executed it just right.

Elimination Challenge

This elimination challenge was about innovation, with Padem and Wylie asking the chefs to really push the boundaries and show the next step in the evolution of their particular style of cooking. They gave the chef 30 minutes and a whopping $1,000 to shop, with 3 1/2 hours to cook the next day, which is more than we've come to expect lately. George correctly pointed out, though, that to truly innovate, you have to try cooking something over and over, tweaking it as you go. It's a little hard to hit something innovative in one single shot.

Well, wow. This was a pretty intense challenge. Gregory served first, with a pan roasted salmon in a Tom kha broth (coconut broth), garnished with crispy chicken and salmon skin. It became apparent even before service that the judges were not likely to think this innovative, and I can see why. Padma thought it was delicious and Tom said the fish was beautifully cooked, including the skin, but the innovation just wasn't there. It seems a bit like Gregory just lost his nerve as the season has gone on, which is too bad because he's so very talented.

Melissa served next: seared duck breast with farro, a walnut miso, and pickled cherries. Because she is generally so calm in the kitchen, I feel like I don't know if her dish is going well or not, but there have been so many times now when the judges have used the phrases "perfectly cooked" or "perfectly executed" to describe her food. Gail thought the combination was delicious, especially the walnut miso. Essentially, everyone loved the dish, but only Wylie said that he didn't find that she'd taken a risk. Richard disagreed, and I'm on his side. I think as a molecular gastronomist, Wylie is biased to think that innovation equals technique, in spite of what he said back when he and Padma were describing the challenge. Certainly it didn't sound like the other judges were accustomed to walnuts + miso + picked cherries. Richard clearly felt strongly on this point, because when asked who he thought should win, he reiterated that he thought Melissa's dish was innovative.

George went next. I was a little surprised when George was so upset that Whole Foods didn't have the pork belly he wanted. On the one hand, if I were competing I think I would want to walk into that store with not only a Plan A and a Plan B, but also a Plan C. On the other hand, if the store has had pork belly every single time he's been there before, it's not unreasonable to expect it again. In any case, George stuck with his octopus, and innovated by grinding up the head and making a fritter, in order to serve octopus two ways with two quite different textures. He also made a green apple harisa, something he'd never done before. Not knowing what harisa was, I looked it up and found several definitions that said it was a sauce made with chili peppers or paste, so I wonder if it's appropriate to call what he made a harisa at all. But I guess that sounds better than "apple sauce." In any cases, the judges found the dish overly complex, and Tom found the octopus bitter and unimaginative.

Last but not least: Mei. You know how they say when you have to make a decision and you can't, you should flip a coin, because while it's in the air you'll find yourself hoping it goes one way or the other? I feel that way about Mei lately. I start the episode liking everyone that's left and being open-minded, and then getting to the end and finding that I've really been rooting for Mei all along. And boy, she did nail it tonight. She served a duck curry with vadouvan (blend of spices -- my, I'm improving my vocabulary with having to look up Top Chef terms tonight!) and yuzu yogurt. I haven't the slightest idea how this dish would taste, but I'd be willing to taste it. Gail called it a "breath of fresh air" and Tom found it difficult to describe, but then admitted that's a good thing, plus he liked how the dish changed as he ate it.

Padme then took opinons on who people thought should win or lose. Writing to this point without having watched the winner/loser announcements yet, I'm guessing Mei wins with Melissa a close second, and George goes home. Padma brought up a good point, that they're asking them to take risks yet punishing them if the risk doesn't pay off, and Wylie asked whether you reward good execution or more creativity. My gut instinct says that even though they're not supposed to consider past track record, they know how good Gregory can be and will find it hard to send him home. I find myself hoping that George gets to stay, for being a bit more gutsy. I don't always favor the biggest risk taker, but the absolute last time to take no risks is in the challenge where they specifically ask for innovation, so I really think Gregory shouldn't be rewarded for playing it safe.

And .... while I was right that the women would be on top and the men on bottom, I got the specifics all wrong. I can't really quibble with either decision because it's so close at this stage. I did think Mei's dish was more innovative than Melissa's, but Melissa's was clearly perfect. And George's octopus did look pretty charred while Gregory's dish was apparently delicious. So Mei, Melissa, and Gregory go to Mexico. I should note that I haven't been watching Last Chance Kitchen so I hadn't known it would be down to Doug and George until I saw that tonight. We'll see what happens.

Random Notes

-- I would like to have seen more of Richard Blais this season. He's nice and sensible and rather adorable.

-- I'm not a huge fan of Wylie Dufresne. He was on Top Chef Masters twice, and the first time he was flabbergasted by how difficult the time management was. The second time, he still seemed caught off guard by it, and he said specifically how much harder competing was than it looked when he was on the judging side. But it feels as though he's forgotten again. This probably isn't fair of me, though, because we only see a small percentage of the actual conversations that go on.

-- I loved that one of the guests at the judges' table was a Harvard physics professor, who has guest chefs come in to show that cooking is really science.

-- I was thrilled that they gave the chefs more time and a big budget, but they should not have been so crowded on the cooking line. That's no way to make chefs create fine dining experiences.

Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: I don't like to eat pork, but on flavor profile, I think George's bean dish would have appealed to me the most. Of the elimination dish challenges, I think I'd go with Mei's dish.
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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Top Chef Episode 11 - Sous Your Daddy?

Sometimes I think every single episode of Top Chef is an up-down, up-down experience for me -- which of course means it has to be five million times more so for the chefs themselves! After seeing the previews for this week's episode, I went into it feeling very apprehensive for the chefs, especially Mei, at having to rely on their family members as sous chefs. I was also initially bummed at the lack of a Quickfire Challenge. Then I felt better when Padme explained that the Elimination Challenge would not be "elimination" after all. None of the chefs would go home as a result, but the winner would go directly to the finale in Mexico.

But as the episode went on, I felt that Melissa and Gregory had a huge advantage over George and Mei -- which was odd in George's case because his father owned a diner. But it became immediately apparent that his father, whom he calls "Mr. Tony," is not only opinionated and strong-willed but also somewhat biased against high-end cooking. And Mei ... her brother Harly can't cook, nor do the two of them get along terribly well. Contrast this with Melissa's mother, who can't tell her enough how proud she is of her, and Gregory's sister, who seems thrilled to be there.

It wasn't until Melissa was going over the to-do list with her mother that I realized I should also have been thinking about what that was like for the family members. From what George and his father said, it sounds as though the family members weren't told they would be cooking. Even if they were, I can't imagine they were told they would be the only one with hands on the dish they would have to prepare, as opposed to just chopping some veggies for their chef. I so would not want to be the parent or sibling who went on the show thinking I was there to say "hi" and eat some great food, only to end up being the one who screwed up their kid's/sibling's opportunity to get a definite ticket to the finale. Sigh....

Was I too quick to judge? Considering how well the contestants did overall, maybe so. I was especially surprised by how well received both Mei and Harly's dishes were. I was worried that she was being too harsh with him and that he was going to become defensive or overly nervous, but somehow it all worked out. He clearly was nervous (his tendency to keep laughing at everything reminds me of how nervous I was at my wedding.... I kept doing the same thing), but he came through. And Mei's dish looked phenomenal. I don't have a lot of experience with raw seafood -- I've tended to keep the the "safer" forms of sushi, i.e. tuna and salmon -- but I would love to try her dish. Even with coconut in it, and that's saying a lot.

Gregory and his sister Jessica were up next. The judges really liked her tomato-watermelon soup with lightly sauteed shrimp, but they found Gregory's fish a tiny bit overcooked, as he'd feared they would, and Tom said that unlike most of Gregory's dishes, this one wasn't "clean and bright." Earlier in the episode, Gregory had said that he was going away from his usual bright acids and lots of herbs, and trying more for an umami dish. I wonder if his lesser familiarity with that kind of flavor profile worked against him.

George and his father did better than I expected, and here again I felt that empathy for the family member more. It seemed to me like Mr. Tony may have felt pretty intimidated, not just by the fact that almost every other person he encountered that day was a high-end chef or professional foodie, but also because of a slight language barrier. And your average diner owner isn't necessarily prepared to find himself on national television one day out of the blue. In any case, I was glad to see that fahter and son seemed to get along fine in the kitchen and that the judges liked the dishes. The only negative comments were that the appetizer could have used a little bit more salt, and that Tom felt the mircogreens on George's lobster and sunchoke entree were unnecessary. One of the judges called the sunchoke puree spectacular, and everyone seemed to agree.

Last but not least, I was thrilled with the way Melissa and her mother, who is named Alice, pulled off their dishes (especially after hearing how Melissa's father has no interest in her career -- can you imagine not going to your kid's restaurant?). It was also nice that Melissa had her mother make something remembered from her childhood. And boy, if the judges said that the lobster was cooked absolutely perfectly and then said that the vegetables were still the star of the dish, well, I want that woman living in my house and cooking my vegetables!

After those comments, I figured Melissa was a shoe-in, but then the extended judges' discussion made me wonder if it would be Mei. I was glad the family members were there to hear the results (I would not have been glad to have them witness an elimination, though). In the end Melissa won, which I thought was great. I hope the judges said more to George and his dad that didn't happen to make the editing cut, and I hope they reminded Mei again how wonderful her dish was.

Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: Melissa's for the veggies, but Mei's for the broth with the raw seafood.

Note to Melissa: I hope you're studying up on Mexican food! And I would advise that you be mentally prepared for an immediate Quickfire elimination at the finale. Yes, I realize this is all in the past by now, but I like to pretend it's real-time.

Side Notes:: First, tonight's episode had an extended preview of Tom's upcoming show, Best New Restaurant. I still haven't quite made up my mind, but I'm a little inclined to skip it. For me, the joy of a show like this is seeing people do well, and for this competition involving sixteen new-ish restaurants, I feel like there's going to be too much setting them up to do badly. Heck, established restaurants get things wrong occasionally; new restaurants are likely to do it a lot. And the whole hidden camera thing is a turn-off for me. Plus it looked like they're going to slam the restaurants, unannounced, with VIP diners. I don't think I can take the stress levels of watching that!

Second, don't you just picture Padme's entire life as getting to wear glorious clothes, eating the best food in gorgeous outdoor settings, and being the one who gets to make the toasts with the high-end wine? Good thing I like her so much, or I'd have to hate her! Of course, she's the one who always has to deliver bad news, and there's been many times when I think she felt that keenly. Which is one of the reasons I like her so much. She loves seeing the chefs do well as much as I do.
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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Top Chef Episode 10 - For Julia & Jacques

This is late -- the next episode of Top Chef is tomorrow -- but I got home from a week-long trip to Phoenix with a bit of a stomach bug, and, well, watching a food-related TV show on the DVR just wasn't appealing. I finally felt a bit better this afternoon and so here are my belated and briefer-than-usual comments (*) on the episode.

The Quickfire

First, sometimes I just wish the show was all Quickfire challenges! They're fun, they're quick, there's too little time to get wrapped up in drama.... And they have so much scope for creativity. I've never watched Andy Cohen's show, in part because I think Top Chef is probably the only Bravo show I watch, but I find him very personable. So I was glad to see him and his former college roommate, Dave, as guest judges for the dorm-room ramen-noodle Quickfire. Instead of letting the five remaining chefs use the usual pantry, each chef got only the instant noodles and a bag of food, some of it partially eaten leftovers, from a college student. Fun stuff!

However, I do have one little quibble. Once again, instead of drawing knives, we had Padme choosing who got to pick their student/bag of groceries and in what order. It is not a coincidence that the first three chefs picked the three women students, and the last two were stuck with the male students. Seriously, who is likely to have a better stocked fridge, a male or female college student? If the chefs had drawn knives, their order choice would have been random, but Padme picked Gregory first and of course he chose the most mature looking of the three women, exactly who I would have chosen. It is clear that Gregory is Padme's favorite (she also named him to pick his literary influence first in last week's episode!), and I admit that the advantage he was given here was more a potential advantage than one that actually ended up panning out, but it was still there. Please, Top Chef Producers, have the chefs draw knives!

That aside, I thought the chefs were both creative and good-natured about this challenge. (I love Harold Dieterle, winner of Season 1, but how he would have hated this challenge!) And that's part of why I like Quickfires: especially when immunity is not at stake (which I imagine they would have preferred to the $5K at this point), the chefs can have more fun. I loved how much Mei was laughing as Gregory was describing his pizza-broth-ramen to the judges. She looked like she was having fun. They all did.

I actually expected Gregory to win this, because I thought his dish was pretty darn inventive. No quibbles with Melissa winning, though; considering that Andy said he and Dave both love cheese, her dish was perfect for them. George was a good sport about the hideous bag of ingredients he had to work with, and he turned it into something that I can see might be appealing for late-night drinking munchies. I actually thought Doug's dish was more appetizing than the judges seemed to think; I could see it being offered at an upscale ramen noodle restaurant, especially the ones where you hand-pick the ingredients you want with your noodles. I also thought Mei's dish didn't look bad considering what she had to work with; at first I really thought she would end up making a high-end Asian dish that would have wowed the judges, but maybe the combination of ingredients wasn't right. (I have to say, I'm also leery of leftover seafood/sushi -- I hope that wasn't more than a day old when the student brought it in from her fridge!)

Elimination Challenge

This too was a nice challenge that I enjoyed -- I mean, I didn't become truly aware of "food" until I was in my late 30s or even early 40s, but even I know Julia Child and Jacques Pépin! I think it's a testament to Top Chef that so many accomplished chefs are willing to appear as guest judges. I tend to think it's not just for publicity, but also because Top Chef really is one of the classier competition shows.

Anyway, I have to say that after seeing all five dishes, if Mei didn't win this challenge, I might have had to stage a revolt. I like Gregory so much too, but the judges said it: if both dishes were perfectly executed, the one that put a little something new into it really should be the winner. You have to reward innovation, as long as it's done well and/or logically and/or respectfully (depending on the field). Otherwise things just stagnate. I was really thrilled for Mei and her Duck a l'Orange. I was also glad Gregory's dish was so well-received. Since he doesn't normally cook heavy food with butter, he really did manage to pay homage to Julia's cooking and legacy by preparing his Coq a Vin so perfectly.

One thing I don't quite get: if you are having Jacques Pépin on the show and really want the chefs to be able to create dishes that do justice to Julia Childs, why give them only three hours one day and one hour the next? In fact, why split up the cooking over two days, which they do often on the show? I'm sure there's a reason for it, but surely most high-end dishes are not improved by sitting overnight half-prepared? And since Julia's cooking was about mostly heavy proteins that need a long, long time to cook, why give them a total of only four hours? Why not six hours straight in one day? Can you imagine how much better Doug's, Melissa's, and George's dishes would have been if they'd had enough time to cook their proteins the way they knew they should? I get the novelty of 20-minute Quickfire Challenges and the 24-hour Restaurant War challenges, but I can't see anything to be gained by giving the chefs inadequate time to feed not only Jacques Pépin but one of the most intimidating line-up of guest judges I've seen on Top Chef in a while. (Apropos of nothing, I really like Dana Cohen.)

There you have it. Before hearing the rest of judges' table, my thought going in was that George would likely be the safe one, as his protein didn't sound quite as off as Melissa's or Doug's, both of whose sounded pretty unappetizing. Melissa seemed to have a sliver of an advantage as her vegetables were pronounced so lovely. So I wasn't surprised when Doug was sent home. Sad to see him go, because I really like him, but I can't argue with the verdict. I'm not sure it made sense to me that he chose to cook whole loaves of Foie Gras; I think he wanted to make a big statement on the plate, but I think that if he'd sliced the foie gras and been able to see how well it was or wasn't cooking, he probably wouldn't have gone home.

I'm a little unsettled at the preview for tomorrow's episode. It's one thing to bring on the contestants' family members to taste the food, but to have them there in the kitchen, getting in the way, at this very late stage in the competition? Seems a little misguided to me.

On one last side note, I haven't made up my mind whether to watch Tom Colicchio's new show, Best New Restaurant. On the one hand, I like Tom, and Bravo does good food shows. On the other hand, I think I prefer watching chefs at earlier stages in their careers, and I'm not sure I will enjoy the drama that opening and operating restaurants brings, as opposed to the initial cooking and concepts behind those restaurants.

Chefs I Particularly Liked This Week: We're actually getting down to too few to make this a thing anymore. I like everyone, including George (more than I expected to). I'll miss Doug. I think it's really between Mei and Gregory, and I like them both a lot. But Melissa and George may have surprises in store for us. Melissa in particular has the technical skills, especially with veggies.

The Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: Probably Gregory's Coq a Vin. I would say Mei's Duck a l'Orange, but I'm a little afraid of duck as I know it's a fattier meat and I find the texture of fatty meat offputting sometimes.

(* yeah, that "briefer" part didn't really work out, did it?)

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