Monday, June 21, 2010

TV Dinner

I've been watching a lot of food-related television programming lately. Truth is, I've always been a regular watcher of Top Chef, but this season has particular appeal, with local hero (and one of my favorite chefs) Andrea Curto-Randazzo, of Talula and the newly opened Water Club, on as a contestant. Let me be clear: I hate "reality TV." I like cooking shows. Though Top Chef may skew more towards the former than the latter, there's still enough real cooking going on to hold my interest, and though there are a good number of contestants each season who are clearly Starfleet Red Shirts, it has provided an opportunity to highlight some genuine talent as well.

The season premiere for Top Chef Season 7 was this past Wednesday, and though it didn't feature much of Andrea, she did move on to see another day. If, like me, you didn't get enough Andrea during the episode, you can find some more on YouTube, where she's uploaded a three-minute interview (wine glass in hand) she calls "I'm Just Sayin'."

In it, she gives fellow contestant Kenny Gilbert, a/k/a "Kenny G," yet another nickname, dubbing him "Twenty G" for having won the initial $20,000 Quickfire; considers giving some grief to another fellow contestant, Angelo Sosa, for being cocky, but decides better of it since it was so obvious to everyone; proceeds to give Padma Lakshi a lesson in "Miami 101" for not recognizing the "Miami" in her Elimination Challenge dish,[1] a chorizo-infused gnocchi with slow-roasted pork, calabaza, manchego and orange gremolata, suggesting that maybe instead she should have served a blackened mahi-mahi with mango salsa; and closes out by making me spurt my drink through my nose with a "Jam out with your clam out, rock out with your cock out" sign-off.

(continued ...)

My viewing schedule filled up even more with news that another local, Aria Kagan, was going to be a contestant on The Next Food Network Star. Unlike Top Chef, after one season TNFNS was dismissed from my regular viewing rotation. Where cooking is at least the ostensible focus of the drama on Top Chef, TNFNS is almost unabashedly about TV celebrity for the sake of it. Indeed, the basic goal of the show is to take a "nobody" and turn them into a "Food Network Star." It is almost painfully self-referential, a show about making a show, where the actual cooking often seems just a platform for finding a personality the network hopes will appeal to viewers.[2] It's the kind of star-making that has been so eminently successful, financially if not culinarily, for celebrity "chefs" like Rachael Ray and Guy Fieri, himself the most visible product of the show.[3]

Ironically, though TNFNS itself is apparently a huge ratings success for the Food Network, the track record of TNFNS actually leading to popular cooking shows for its winners is a mixed bag. Other than Guy Fieri, TNFNS has brought us such memorable "stars" as Season One's "Hearty Boys" and Season Two's Amy Finley, both of whom were done after one season; later winners Aaron McCargo Jr. and Melissa d'Arabian both still have programs, but I don't think anyone is mistaking them for the next Emeril Lagasse.

But I've thrown all that negativity out the window for this season. Why? Because I love Aria. Full disclosure: though we're hardly close, Mrs. F and I have known Aria for years, back from when she used to work at Timo in Sunny Isles along with her partner Rodrigo Martinez. She's always been an immensely charming and warm person, the kind that just makes you smile when you see them. And what I find remarkable is how naturally that charm translates through the camera, as she has seemed like a complete natural in the first couple episodes of this season. I also admire her for the chutzpah of her "culinary point of view" (the concept of their proposed show, which each contestant is expected to present and hone through the season), which pretty much amounts to: "Send me around the world to sample the foods of different countries." Screw the old dump-n-stir in some windowless studio - let's start earning some frequent flyer miles! Sadly, the judges seem to have decided that "Aria's Family Dinners" is more appropriate.

So I will try to ignore the goofy melodrama (in three episodes we've already had two contestants go to the hospital - one with a supposed eye injury which was somehow never mentioned again), the dysfunctional personalities, and the whole "visit to the sausage factory" feel of the whole thing, and hope that Aria pulls through.

Meanwhile, the kids are getting in on the action too. Frod Jr. is a big fan of Future Food (on Planet Green), in which chefs Homaro Cantu, Ben Roche and their kitchen compadres at Chicago's Moto restaurant get the geek/cool thing going on in the kitchen and find all sorts of different ways to play with their food. And Little Miss F loves Food Party (on IFC), which is just about impossible to describe, but Pee-Wee's Playhouse meets Julia Child meets Tim and Eric Awesome Show is a start. Only time will tell what kind of psychic mischief we may be brewing.

At this rate, our DVR is going to have more food in it than our fridge.

[1]I always thought, given the overwhelming sponsorship presence on Top Chef, that the Elimination Challenge ought to be sponsored by ex-lax.

[2]This is apparently a greater challenge than it would seem. Some of these people just come off as really unpleasant, and occasionally even possibly mentally unstable. A few seasons ago one of the contestants was revealed to have made up many details of his culinary and military background. As it turns out, it wouldn't be the only time a Food Network personality had fabricated information about their culinary and military background.

[3]Though it's fashionable to bash Guy Fieri as one of the Four Horseman of the culinary apocalypse, along with Rachael Ray, Sandra Lee and Rocco Dispirito, I actually find the guy somewhat charming. He seems genuinely enthusiastic on "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" and occasionally highlights some decent food. On the other hand, I can live a long and happy life without ever going back to his BBQ & Sushi restaurant in Santa Rosa, California, Tex Wasabi's. If you think barbecue and sushi don't belong together, you are correct, and this restaurant will do absolutely nothing to convince you otherwise.


  1. That video doesn't make me want to run to Talula or root for her. They should consider changing the restaurant name to Talula Jersey Shore or Chef Snooki's.

    I like Aria too but that show is awful and unwatchable. I deleted my dvr season pass last night.

  2. Fro'

    Do you & Frolings watch CHOPPED on FoodTV?

    Did you see this?

    Jeez Louise...


  3. I find Chopped way too artificially dramatic to watch, plus the ingredients they are given are often idiotic (cod, peanuts, beets and kiwi!) and the cooking is often pretty weak. I think Ted Allen can actually be charming sometimes but I despise his robotic delivery in that show. So no, we don't watch it (though I remain an Iron Chef fan).

    As for the New Times / Talula kerfuffle: it's pretty ugly all around. I may have more to say about it, but to start, I thought Lee Klein's original post was just sort of churlish, particularly knowing that the Herald had retracted the statement that the restaurant was up for sale.

    Republishing a statement that the original source has retracted is pretty shaky journalism.

  4. Ha!

    Shaky Journalism? The New Times? No WAY!

    I do like Lee Klein. He's funny. But I am always amazed/amused when an internet discussion flames out. Frank Randazzo calling LK a crack head was *interesting* to say the least. This is a VERY small town for that kind of trash talk.

    BTW - liked Chow Down and found Taconteto MUY DisContento...

    Awaiting your reviews.

    : )