What is Making Me Happy: Top Chef (again)

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature.

This week: Top Chef…again.

I know, I already talked about Top Chef as something making me happy, but I didn’t anticipate how much I was going to become obsessed with this show. I usually watch the show while exercising and my current workout routine means that it takes me two sittings to digest a single episode, but this week’s episode just grabbed me such that I watched it from start to finish.

This week’s challenge was “Restaurant Wars.” However many contestants are left are divided into teams and challenged to create a cohesive dining experience for their guests in a short period of time. Because of the pandemic restrictions, the challenge this season was to create a chef’s table dining experience where the diners get interact with the chefs making their food and watch the process. In addition to putting pressure on the contestants to work together and work under the eyes of the judges, this format also required the contestants to work the front of the house.

Although everyone on the show is an incredible chef, the randomly chosen teams were unevenly stacked just in terms of technical ability. The one team had Gabe, Dawn, and Sara — three of the people who had consistently been landing at or near the top — and a fourth person, Chris, whose performance had been more uneven, but who had also won challenges. The other team featured probably the odds on favorite to win the contest, Shota, but also one person who was nearly eliminated last week in Maria, one who was consistently near the middle in Byron, and Jamie, who had already been eliminated and won her return at Last Chance Kitchen.

Naturally, the second team crushed the event.

I was prepared for a dramatic, miraculous turn, but I also worried about the first team from the start. Their menu theme was “fish” and while individual dishes were hits, the overall restaurant was a mess. Some of this is because running a smooth restaurant like this is hard and not something you do in two days, but some of it came down to their choices. They collectively agreed that they would do everything collectively. Each person would make their own dish even when it was not quite clear what the preceding or following dish would be because the individual processes didn’t leave time to taste the dishes. They also agreed to collectively serve their guests and clear dishes, which, not unexpectedly, resulted in them often leaving their guests alone.

It was immediately apparent that the second team had people with experience doing counter service. Shota took lead in designing the menu, suggesting that they loosely follow Kaiseki, the traditional Japanese multi-course dinner, but that each dish be a fusion of Asian and Latin cuisine. With that guiding principle in mind, they crafted a menu for a restaurant called Kokoson, itself a neologism from the two traditions, where almost every dish used elements from several chefs and culminated in a hot pot that everyone helped fashion.

Each team member knew their role. Shota managed the back-of-house, calmly and quietly directing traffic and managing the pace. Maria choreographed the front of house, with help from Byron who took charge of clearing the table. Jamie helped out across the board.

The food, from design to execution, had to be excellent, but what so captivated me about them was how they worked as a team. At one point it seemed that Maria was going to get overwhelmed handling the dining room while Shota, Jamie and Byron were ignoring her requests when, suddenly, they appeared and threw in their labor. Shota took overall lead, but he wasn’t a dictator so much as a facilitator. He made final decisions in ways that smoothed the service, but those decisions sometimes amounted to affirming what someone else had in mind like where they were going to plate dishes or setting the deliberate-but-precise pace at which the dishes came out. Meanwhile, each person was empowered to take ownership of their jobs within the team and fact that so many of the dishes were collaborative meant that everyone was tasting each other’s dishes and staying in-sync with the overall vision of the menu.

Things obviously would have been different in another environment where the technical proficiency of your team is lower and the real-world stakes are higher, but, having had a little bit of experience managing a restaurant, I found this performance genuinely inspiring. Shota’s leadership here was exactly on point, but leadership is also made that much easier when a team works together as beautifully as this one did.

I might have only seen eight episodes of Top Chef, but, if I had to pick just one to recommend to someone, it would be this one: Season 18, Episode 8: Restaurant Wars.

What is Making Me Happy: Top Chef

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature.

This week: Top Chef

As much as I like food, I have never been a fan of cooking shows. Baking, yes, and shows that connect food and travel, but not cooking.

Years and years back I would occasionally watch Iron Chef and a few episodes of Beat Bobby Flay, but always I came back to the deep gulf between the food they prepared and what I ate. More than a matter of techniques, all of these shows built their dishes around an animal protein (fish or meat). While I enjoy the taste of meat, I have never enjoyed cooking it to the point that I phased it out of my home diet nearly a decade ago. The result is that the work to bridge the gulf had never seen worth the effort.

I knew of Top Chef as a cultural phenomenon. I have heard Padma Lakshmi give interviews and listened to people talk about the show, but I had never seen an episode before deciding on a whim to watch this season.

Coming in, I knew loosely what to expect. Each contestant competes in two events each week, a quick fire challenge in which the winner gains immunity for the week and/or a bonus like an advantage in the main event or money. At the end of each episode, one chef is eliminated from the show, shunting them into the Last Chance Kitchen mini-show (more on this in a minute). I also knew that Top Chef would find ways incorporate the setting (Portland, OR), albeit modified for the pandemic, and that the show has diversified its culinary standards over the course of its run.

What I didn’t know was whether I would still be left cold for the simple fact that most of dishes are far from anything I would want to make.

I could do without the corporate tie-ins and a few heavy-handed reality TV edits, but I have found Top Chef utterly delightful to watch nevertheless.

In part, I think the fact that my own cooking has matured in the past few years has put me in a better position to appreciate the skill of the contestants. They are far out of my league in terms of skill and technique — as proprietors and executive chefs, I would hope so — but I can recognize echoes of foods that I make at home now in a way that was not always true. But I was also turned off by the competition side of reality cooking shows. What I like about Great British Baking Show isn’t merely that I make some of the recipes, but the camaraderie among the contestants. They want to win, obviously, but they are also willing to help each other plate a dish rather than hide ingredients from each other. At least in this season of Top Chef I am recognizing that same atmosphere among the contestants. Yes, personalities can clash on team challenges and some chefs are cut to come across as anti-heroes, but only in the mildest of senses.

I can’t speak to the history of Top Chef, but I suspect that this was not always the case. From what I gather, the show started out with lots of contestants who were classically-trained sous chefs and challenges that required them to perfectly execute classical techniques. The result was competition with a harder edge. What I see in this season, by contrast, is a slate of executive chefs and urging from the judges to cook their food. They are still aiming for perfect execution, but what that looks like varies because of the range of food that comes to the table. Multiple chefs bring Mexican food (Maria, Gabe), one is interested in scientific approaches to food (Avishar), one whose professional training was in Japan (Shota), and another who primarily brought Sicilian flavors (Sasha). One seems to use yogurt in most of her dishes (Sara)—to name just a few. I suspect that this emphasis simultaneously makes the food more personal and intimate and reduces some of the direct competition because they are cooking from different backgrounds.

I like to say that most of my favorite podcasts are the ones where I feel like I’m hanging out with my friends chatting about whatever is going on, even if I’m not actually saying anything. I want the same sense if I’m going to be watching reality TV.

Top Chef does a lot of this work, but my favorite part has been Last Chance Kitchen.

As contestants are eliminated, they are shunted into the side competition where they can compete for a chance to return to the show. Each ten minute episode consists of a head-to-head competition that pits the previous LCK victor against the person most recently eliminated in a short challenge judged by Tom Colicchio. Winner stays on, the loser goes home. Two things make these episodes particularly engaging. First, the challenges riff on what caused chefs to get bounced from the competition. When one person served raw chicken, the next challenge requires them to serve a raw protein. When someone serves rubber chicken, they have to gamble on how many parts of a chicken they can serve. Second, though, the eliminated chefs don’t actually “go home,” but stick around in the Last Chance Kitchen, where they cheer on the two people competing. Basically, I get the sense that everyone there is rooting for everyone to make great food. They’re disappointed not to win, they’re also happy to continue to hang out.

Some of what I’m enjoying about Top Chef could be a fluke of this season given the pandemic logistics that it was produced under. The judging table this season has a lot of former contestants on it, which I gather gives the show a different feel that may or may not continue under normal circumstances. Even so, I am hooked.

What’s Making Me Happy: Country Music

This is an occasional series following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment. I use some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

I grew up listening to a lot of country music, both the recent vintage from the 1990s and classic artists like Johnny Horton. To this day, I regularly put on country albums or songs when I want to scratch a nostalgic itch, so I was thrilled to learn that the latest Ken Burns project is the history of country music, now airing on PBS.

The first episode of the series explores the origin of country music and the associated instruments, including the fiddle, the banjo, and the acoustic guitar before turning to examine the first stars of the genre, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. The second episode continues the story westward to Texas during the Depression.

Burns makes a couple of specific choices in the first episode that make it one of my favorite installment in any KB documentary.

Burns chooses to identify all of the talking heads––an all-star mix of writers, singers, and musicians from Merle Haggard to Roseanne Cash to Ketch Secor to Rhiannon Giddens to John McEuen––by their state rather than by their job, profession, or title. Although he goes away from it for the second episode, this decision makes country music a national genre rather than uniquely Appalachia and underscore the power of place. At the same time, it underscores other themes of the episode such as how groups like the Carter Family came from rural Appalachia, others, like the Atlanta factory worker Fiddling’ John Carson, consciously adopted a rural aesthetic––a presentation that the record companies later encouraged their stars to do.

Another thematic point that I appreciated in the first episode is how Burns explores intersection through its connection to the Blues and early Jazz. Some of this was negative like Henry Ford anti-semitic diatribe against jazz that accompanied his decision to sponsor country dances of his youth, but much more was neutral or even positive. Burns examines how A.P. Carter (the problematic character behind Sarah and Maybelle Carter) acquired music for the group, including from black churches and how Louis Armstrong performed on Blue Yodel #9 with Jimmie Rodgers.

In addition to the substantive intersection between these genres, Burns also explores the power of the record labels and radio stations (complete with John R. Brinkley and the station he created to promote his xenotranplantation procedure that restored male performance by putting goat testicles in humans). In Burns’ telling, the earliest record labels that put out country music were the labels that put out music for ethnic minorities. The original Grand Old Opry radio show on NBC, by contrast, followed immediately after performances classical music and opera.

Suffice to say, I am not disappointed. This is a recognizably Ken Burns production, complete with Peter Coyote and slow panning shots of old pictures, and, for all of its detail, there are points where he has to leave out the complexities of early pioneers in order to tell the story of the people whose contributions most shaped the genre. The second episode largely picks up where the first one leaves off, but gave back a couple of the subtle points like the identification of people by place. Nevertheless, the first two episodes are a richly-textured story of a genre interwoven with the currents of American history.

What’s Making Me Happy: The Good Place

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

This week: the T.V. show The Good Place, created by Michael Schur (just put out on Netflix).

Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) is dead and in the afterlife, greeted by Michael (Ted Danson), the architect of the community, and introduced to her soul mate Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), and her new neighbors Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and Jianyu Li (Manny Jacinto). This is “The Good Place,” heaven, she is told, where she will be rewarded for all the good deeds she did while alive. The problem, of course, is that Eleanor Shellstrop wasn’t a good person while alive. In fact, she was a prickly, callous narcissist. There are reasons for this, including a dysfunctional childhood, but by wanting no part of genuine relationships, Eleanor went through life as an amoral jerk. Now, surrounded by “good” people, Eleanor wants to change, and so her ethics-professor soulmate Chidi takes her back to school even though the situation causes a constant ethical dilemma.

Then there are Tahani and Jianyu, also soul mates. Tahani is the less-accomplished child of a wealthy and influential family, with famous “friends,” while Jianyu is a Buddhist monk who took a vow of silence….or possibly a not-yet-successful amateur DJ from Jacksonville. Really, this pair is no more perfectly matched than are Eleanor and Chidi.

I’ve been a fan of Michael Schur for some time, and while I’ve not seen Brooklyn 99 and am not that fond of The Office, I am hugely fond of Parks and Recreation. On a joke-for-joke level I still prefer Parks and Rec, but in terms of an overall show—characters, plot, pacing, feel—The Good Place is spectacularly good. Organized into chapters, the first season builds upon itself in a clear narrative arc guided by a singular question: will Eleanor be allowed to stay in the good place?, but with a conclusion that perfectly sets up a second season.

Beyond an avalanche of jokes, visual and verbal, highbrow and simplistic, is the warmth of The Good Place. The main characters bond over the course of the thirteen episodes, developing genuine emotional connections that become their own form of torture in turn. More than that, though, basic premise of “The Good Place” is a sort of gamification of life crossed with an eternal Match (dot) com, with points accrued or deducted for most every action, but the demerit system in particular is meant to be its own layer of jokes. There is no malice intended for any of the listed items, but the overall message about living a life that helps other people is most welcome. The viewer is invited to ask whether people can improve themselves, and while it may not be of much use within the immediate context of the show, the answer it gives is an unambiguous yes.

All in all, The Good Place is a warm, funny, clever show, and easily one of my favorite things I’ve seen this year. With season one binged in less than a week, I’m excited to see where season two goes.

An observation about the Marvel Cinematic Universe

I’ve consumed most of the recent Marvel content, mostly because it is available and easily watched. Calling it a drug would be too dramatic, but as far as televisual media goes, there are parallels. Some of it is good, some is pretty bad, but there is something that bothers me about the entire extended universe project: there is too much emphasis on the cataclysmic event.

Other people have written on this topic and accurately noted both that the movies are pivoting from this trope and that the material has often been strongest when dealing with the fallout from the events rather than dealing with the events themselves. However, my specific complaint has more to do with the TV show Agents of Shield. The show essentially deals with the relationship between normal people and mutated people. This season’s arc had to do with the unleashing of “Hive,” a being that can control people with mutations–and is the powerful being associated with the Devil that Hydra had been trying to bring to earth. His scheme involves a massive bio-weapon that would destroy humanity. The scrappy heroes have to fight against this thing that is much more powerful than they are. As one would expect, this leads to all sorts of tension and human stories, which, in a vacuum, work. But this narrative isn’t taking place in a vacuum. It is taking place within a larger cinematic universe.

Agents of Shield as a show about the events taking place in the shadow of the ECU movies works. It is a universe that has to grapple with increasing numbers of super-powered individuals and there are many more stories to be told there than simply reducing it to an “imminent doom” arc, but, after a season of doing just that, Agents doubled back down on the action, while nominally being a step down from the movie stories in terms of both resources (for production) and power level (resources and powers to apply within the story). The movies and the shows are doing different things, but still professing to overlap, which, in turn, leads to a dissonance and strains credulity.

The Hearth and the Television

One of my favorite weeks when teaching US History since 1865 is when we get to discuss the 1950s and the American family. One of the exercises I have the students do is to analyze the Simpsons from the perspective that the eponymous family is a representation of the 1950s nuclear family. I ask the students leading questions in order to reach this point, dad (works), mom (stays home), two and a half kids, etc., etc., and one of the final issues we come to is what the show considers to be the central room of the house. There is often a bit of hesitation on this point until I ask how the credit sequence ends, to which there is an immediate chorus of “in front of the tv!”

This semester I gave a lecture on the topic of the ancient Greek family. Along with the delineation (and gendering) of space, one of the traditional talking points on this issue is that the household is defined by its hearth. This is borne out in myth with the representations of Hestia and the ideologically charged declarations in literature about the sacredness of the hearth. And yet the sources for burning in the archeological record vary and there is rarely unambiguous evidence for a stationary or permanent hearth. Similarly, lease agreements from Olynthus indicate that buildings were not disposed of as complete units, but individual rooms could be leased out for domestic use. I don’t find this revelation to be particularly surprising, but it is notable that some of the rooms allocated for domestic use show no evidence of a hearth. Thus the hearth that makes the home may be symbolic rather than actual.

I offer the television as the object that has this same ideological potency in the modern American household. One extreme example is illustrative. In the pilot of the AMC show Madmen, Don Draper taunts his mistress for having purchased a television despite her insistence that she didn’t need one, with the result that she throws the offending device out the window of her apartment in the Village. Draper is mollified by the exchange, but his return home at the end of the episode (as it is meant to) offers a striking contrast. Not only does he return to a house where there is a wife and kids, but they kids are watching TV and Draper settles in with them—-because a television is something that you have with your family, not with your mistress.

As an addendum, I still think even in our decentralized media environment there is something to the television holding symbolic weight as a place for family, whether that is an actual place in a household or something that can be alluded to in fiction. The range of portable devices on which one can watch the shows themselves signify something else, but the television as a place and object continue to carry this weight. In turn, the violation of this communal aesthetic, such as the image of a single person repeatedly watching shows heightens the sense of obsession, perversity, or trauma.

Hudson University

I have mentioned before that I have something of a soft-spot for (often) ridiculous television dramas. Some I legitimately like, others feed bad habits without demanding anything of me in return, including not requiring money. The latest addition to my routine has been Blindspot, an FBI, spy mystery that revolves around deciphering tattoos on Jane Doe’s body and, by extension, figuring out who she is and why she came to the attention of the FBI. Usually I wish they would do more with this sort of character story rather than using the same hook for a new semi-procedural of discovering and then resolving corruption throughout the city. This week’s episode traipsed into a cliche that sits on my list of pet-peeves: the college campus.

One tattoo is revealed to contain significant digits for Hudson University’s highly lucrative football program national championships and seem to point to NCAA scholarship violations, so the agents wander to campus to speak to a coach who denies any knowledge and, on their way out, stumble across a school shooting. It turns out that the shooting is perpetrated by former (and current?) players who have rigged many several doors in a (student center?) building next to the football field with explosives and are now marching through the building with assault rifles in order to kill the coach because he molested them as children; the scholarship violations were hush-money to keep the scandal under wraps. The story is a clumsy retelling of the Jerry Sandusky saga at Penn State garnished with the school-shooting epidemic.

There is a lot that could be unpacked about the inconsistencies of the story. The shooters insist they are only after the coach, but nevertheless rigged doors in a student building with explosives. The coach evidently goes into the building a lot, but this sort of hand-wavy treatment of the college campus is frustrating. The student center of this fictional school contains a) cafeterias, b) classrooms, c) an auditorium, d) labs, and the whole thing is set particularly close to athletics facilities. At a small school this could certainly happen, but at a school large enough to have a nationally-competitive football program it is highly improbable. Instead of offering any sort of specificity, the writers offer vague snapshots of “college” and expect the viewer to be able to fill in the gaps. This is not particular to Blindspot, and Hudson University is a common setting for a large number of television shows when they need a stock-college.

At some level, though, this is a function of the medium. College is still a fairly ubiquitous experience for most people in America and that school is a convenient setting for a story rather than the point of the show, so vague snapshots suffice. Nevertheless, the preponderance of these snapshots help perpetuate stereotypes about the academy. (Perhaps office shows perpetuate stereotypes about offices, etc, but these shows seem to dally with the academy in a way similar only to entertainment industries.)

I don’t like how colleges are portrayed on TV, but have only one, tangentially related suggestion. Even if none of these other stereotypes are resolved, can we at least move them to a more believable location? The last time a New York school with a football program won a national championship was Army, in 1946. The show wants to be set in New York for a variety of reasons, but also to tap into the national obsession with football–two things that hardly go together.