Wednesday, December 22, 2010

In the world of TV cooking competition shows, REALLY wanting to win REALLY isn't a substitute for self-knowledge and REAL focus


Wolfgang Puck, offering us his version of Sachertorte, believes we can make "one of the world's greatest chocolate desserts" -- see below.

by Ken

Whew! With episode four of Top Chef's All Stars season scheduled for tonight, I'm almost caught up on the earlier ones, as part of an intensive pull to polish off the finale of Fox's Hell's Kitchen season (which featured a poor talent pool even by HK standards, didn't it?) and the first three episodes of The Learning Channel's new Cake Boss: Next Great Baker with Buddy "Cake Boss" Valastro. The experience has reinforced a couple of observations I'd been thinking about for a future post, from watching, these shows as well as Food Network competitions like Chopped and Ultimate Recipe Throwdown:

* It's amazing how unknowing most of the contestants are about both their own skills, which they tend to overrate, often wildly, and those of their competitors, which they correspondingly baselessly downplay. Now part of the learning process is precisely this matter of coming to understand strengths and weaknesses, both our own and other people's. It just strikes me that an astounding number of these people are way far back on the learning curve.

It comes out in all sorts of ways, not least in weirdly whacked-out responses to criticisms from the judges. Now there's a measure of subjectivity in judges' opinions, but these are generally highly competent professionals, and when a panel like this tells you unanimously that your dish has little or no (or poor) flavor, or that it's ruinously oversalted or seriously undercooked, etc., etc., it's kind of a delusional reaction to declare, sometimes to the judges' face, that "I stand by my dish" or "X just doesn't like me" or "they just don't get my originality" or "they've got it in for me."

On Cake Boss: Next Great Baker one of the bakers was assigned to produce carrot-cake cupcakes, and turned in something that looked to have the texture of dry little meatloaves, in which, as Buddy and his brother-in-law Joey (the oven guy at Carlo's Bakery) and even we could see there was no more than a smattering of carrot shreds in the batter. I can't imagine it tasted like much either, and as the guy muttered about how much his customers love his carrot cake, I was giving him the benefit of the doubt, figuring that under the pressure of the competition and the cameras he'd just blown it. But no, when Buddy ranked his crappy cupcakes in the bottom two for the challenge, he turned belligerent and ranted about how much carrot cake he sells and he's never had any complaints until Buddy's. Whoo! I guess you have to give the guy credit for finding that many customers who like crap carrot cake.

And then, from people at a significantly higher level of the profession, there were the consecutive flaming departures from Top Chef All Stars of Elia and Jen. We know from their previous seasons that they're both extraordinarily talented cooks, and the judges made clear that they know that too. But that wasn't what they were judging; they were judging the food in front of them, which not only wasn't up to the standards to be expected in this highly competitive company but apparently just wasn't very good at all.

When Elia was eliminated so embarrassingly early in the competition, it was understandable that she was highly wrought, and I suppose we could accept, maybe even respect, her standing by her food and insisting that judges or no judges she's not going to change it. But there was a really nasty spitefulness to it, and no recognition at all of the possibility that her dish simply wasn't very good. (It was an extremely clever challenge, by the way: Each contestant had to remake the very dish for which he or she had been eliminated in his/her original season.)

But Elia went quietly compared with Jen -- yes, lovely and talented Jen, whom I had been looking forward to seeing give us a consistent demonstration of the culinarily adroit, poised form she showed through the first half of her season -- who underwent a meltdown after being told by the judges that her braised pork belly, although well-seasoned, was textural moosh and the hard-boiled egg crumbled on top of it had no taste. I didn't taste it, of course, but there was no disagreement among the judges on either point, so it was bizarre to have her insisting quite belligerently that it was "a great dish." (By the way, in a candid-interview insert, competitor Casey -- a teammate of Jen's on that challenge, wasn't she? -- says she sampled Jen's dish and it tasted like "wet bacon." Think about that a moment: wet bacon. A great dish?)

Before she headed off, screaming and cursing, she insisted on camera back in the stew room that head judge Tom Colicchio must be punishing her for arguing with him. I guess she had no way of knowing that Tom in fact admired her spunk in sticking up for her food. The problem was that the food doesn't seem to have been very good. Again it probably wasn't a factor in the judges' decision but still didn't reflect well on her that when Tom criticized the decision to have her team's numerous dishes all served on one plate, where it all blended together, she snapped back that she assumed the judges were smart enough to ask for additional plates if they wanted them. Talk about Missing the Point 101!

Well, it was certainly crackling television!

Less dramatic but still pretty loopy has been Fabio's near-threateningly voiced indignation at judge Tony Bourdain, insisting repeatedly that he understands criticism of his food but won't allow himself to be made fun of. Now Fabio under control is one of the most amazingly charming individuals you will ever see (and also an outstandingly talented and skilled cook), but this nutjob version of Fabio was, again, simply out of touch with reality. As we all know, Tony Bourdain can be tart, and there's no question that he really, really hated the dish that Fabio had served, and made no effort to conceal it. But I heard nothing he said that could be in any way misunderstood as a personal comment about the cook -- it was all about the food, which it was generally agreed was terrible. And that, after all, is what Bourdain was there to judge.

(We might also mention the astonishment that many of these contestants have when judges say anything negative about their food. It seems to come as a rude shock that anyone might ever be less than enthralled by their offerings -- again, a serious gap in their knowledge of themselves, and also of their place in the big world around them.)

* My other observation, which is more mundane but possibly weirder, is how many of these contestants have gotten the idea that really, really wanting to win constitutes a qualification for winning. This has become standard among the contenders on Chopped and Hell's Kitchen. On the latter, for example, when Gordon Ramsay asks each week's candidates for elimination why they should stay in Hell's Kitchen, almost all of them now tell him how badly they want to win. For many of them it's the only reason they offer Chef Ramsay as to why they should be allowed to remain -- because they wanna.

Now I think I have some idea where this comes from. Occasionally on one of these shows you'll see one of the judges challenging a contestant as to "whether you really want to win." And the meaning is clear enough, I would have thought. They're questioning whether the contestant is really committed to the competition, whether he or she is really engaging all his/her talent and skills and determination to the challenges. And that certainly is a legitimate question.

But to many of these folks it clearly hasn't occurred that "wanting to win" matters only if it involves (a) having the necessary talent and skills and (b) applying them with the maxim focus and determination they're capable of. I got an especially sad example of this watching a rerun of a second-season Ultimate Recipe Throwdown show I'd seen before, in which near-miss contestants from the first season were invited back and given a second chance. There was a sweet, earnest young woman, who clearly cares about cooking and has accomplished much given her limited training and experience. She had been devastated when she lost the first time, as if her life was over, because she was counting on the cash prize to enable her to attend culinary school.

Which would have been nice, I'm sure, but there are other ways to acquire training besides winning prize money on a TV game show. There are cheaper schools, including community colleges, there are wage-slave jobs at the apprentice level. I'm not saying it's easy, but the notion that your entire future as a would-be chef depends on winning Ultimate Recipe Throwdown is, even allowing for her youthful innocence, crackers. Now she was back for her second chance, and she was even more desperate, having had her dreams delayed a whole year, she explained, by her failure to win the first time. As badly as she wanted to win the first time, this time she really, really, really wanted to win.

In this case, though, really, really wanting to win would have started with choosing recipes that might impress the judges but that she could execute in the necessary time under TV-camera pressure (which, after all, she'd already experienced once!) and then preparing and gathering and focusing herself mentally and physically to really execute those recipes. Instead, she floundered amidst her too-ambitious (and in some respects culinarily arguable) dishes and made a steady stream of mistakes. In tears again after her second loss, now sure that her life was ruined because she still hadn't won the money for cooking school, she sobbed in despair that she'd given it everything she had.

Again, of course, emotions are raw and explosive under such tension. I'd like to think that that sweet young this had the courage to watch the aired show, and saw that no, contrary to what she thought at the time, she hadn't given it anything like her all. Even apart from the likelihood that one or more of her competitors was actually a better cook at their respective stages in their lives, meaning that quite likely even if she had given it her best effort, she might well not have been good enough to win that day, the fact remains that she screwed up at every step of the way, from conception through execution.

Really, now! Say, aren't these supposed to be "reality" shows?


I really, really hated the first season of Food Network's Worst Cooks in America, in which Anne Burrell and Beau MacMillan supposedly took on the task of teaching two teams of certified-zero-skilled cooks some basics but instead proceeded -- unless what happened off-screen was radically different from what happened on -- to teach them, basically, nothing while treating them, basically, with sneering derision and insouciant unconcern. It was such a disgraceful exhibition, showing disrespect not just for the human beings entrusted to them but for food and cooking in general, that I'm amazed either of them has had the courage to show her/his face in public.

But no, Worst Cooks in America is back for a second season, debuting Sunday, January 2, with only a half-change of cast: Beau is gone, replaced by earthy Englishman Robert Irvine, who has been performing all those feats of real-deadline mass-catering derring-do on Dinner Impossible. It will be interesting to see how Robert handles the assignment, given all the no-nonsense real-world on-the-job training we've seen him give to countless cooking zeroes assigned to him as mission "helpers" over his seasons of Dinner Impossible.

Meanwhile, Anne is back for season two. Since she clearly does know her way around the kitchen, I'm hoping she approached this season as a mission of redemption for last season's shocking exhibition. The likelier reality is that she and the producers think what she did last season was okay, maybe even a triumph. Is there no shame?


I'm not planning to try to make one -- for one thing I would probably wind up consuming the whole damned thing in less time than it took to make -- but today's e-recipe from ArcaMax Publishing featured regular ArcaMax contributor Wolfgang Puck's version of Sachertorte, "a rich, beautiful Austrian layer cake that's one of the world's greatest chocolate desserts."

Wolfgang explains that one reason he calls his version "Wolfgang's Sachertorte" is that he uses bittersweet chocolate rather than the traditional cocoa powder, believing that the cocoa butter in the chocolate "yields moister results and even more intense chocolate flavor." "To tell you the truth," he writes, "I've found some of the slices of Sachertorte I've eaten in Austria (I won't say where) to be a little dry for my taste." The recipe even includes toothpick-method instructions for cutting the single layer in which the cake itself is baked, in a nine-inch springform pan, into two layers.

One thing I've found with Wolfgang's Tribune Media Services-syndicated recipes is that they aren't for show. They're meant to be used, and the Sachertorte, while involving a fair amount of time and labor, looks to be within reach of even the average-skilled baker.

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At 6:37 PM, Blogger Ray Radlein said...

I don't watch Hell's Kitchen, but my wife and her mother do, so I catch bits of it here and there; and from what I've seen and heard, it seems to me that HK is starting to attract and select contestants whose purpose there is more to compete on Hell's Kitchen than to, you know, be the best cook there is.

At 7:27 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Ray, it has seemed clear from the start that the HK producers have had "drama" in mind more than culinary talent, meaning a heavy emphasis on "characters," but there have always been a few pretty good cooks in the mix, and with a couple of darker horses coming along in the course of the competition, there'd be some actual talent clustered at the end. This season, not so much. I can't imagine that either of the finalists would normally be considered a candidate to be head chef at even a moderately serious restaurant.

Meanwhile, the "drama" component didn't seem any more or less this season. I wonder if maybe the producers now have enough other projects going that this one goes pretty much on autopilot.


At 7:40 PM, Anonymous sebastian said...

I never "got" Worst Cooks in America. The judges were rude and acted incredulous at the terrible cooking as if these weren't contestants who explicitly beat out tons of other people to compete on a tv show called "Worst Cooks in America". The food is a disaster? Well, no shit. What did you expect?


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