Overcooked

I think I have “Project Runway” to blame. After season three ended, I showed up at the same time to the same channel, like a lover that is not quite ready to say goodbye. And, like a lover that can always be counted on for a good time, Bravo was there for me. Bravo!

They offered up on a flat silver (screen) platter, a show called “Top Chef.” “Top Chef 2,” to be exact. I watched what happened – drama and intrigue starring the Hunky Sam, the Sexually-Ambiguous Elia, and the Dastardly Marcel!

Because I was missing clothes and a Gunn for hire, it took me awhile to warm to the cast. I found the idea of a cooking show competition kind of goofy for TV – these folks will be judged on precisely what we at home, on the other side of the screen, can’t experience – how the food actually tastes. Unlike, say, Chloe Dao’s final billowy-skirt collection, which could easily be judged as well, billowy, we at home have to rely on the palates of Tom SuperBlueEyes, Padma Sexy-Sexerson, and Gail JustEngaged. They’re funny and articulate, but the audience is still one step removed from participation.

And yet, I became hooked. Cooked.

The hooking was totally under control during Season Three. I eagerly awaited the Miami cast and didn’t miss an episode – treating the finale like the World Series, reminding all to keep the results secret until I could see the TiVo at home. But then… the season ended.

I was lost. I turned to my ever-faithful lover again, and… was oddly left cold. It was a frantic iTunes search that took me to “Hell’s Kitchen,” the FOX version of “Top Chef.” It has all the hallmarks of a FOX show – cheap production value and an exaggerated emotional core. The locus is Gordon Ramsay, a screaming Brit with vigorous blonde hair. Ramsay is tacky and offensive and impossible to ignore, the pre-Bravo!ed Tom SuperBlueEyes Colicchio. Ramsay, rather than encourage, curses out his charges with rancorous glee. Yet you get the sense he wants everyone to succeed and to do their best. So you root for him. Even more than you root for the contestants – even contestants such as the most-likeable Waffle-House-Julia.

I say you root for him above all because when “Hell’s Kitchen” ended, I went on a Diogenes-like search only to find Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares,” which is not a competition but Ramsay’s (and FOX’s) sincere-ish efforts to rehab restaurants in trouble. These restaurants benefit most from the influx of $$, which is rarely mentioned in the make-over notes, but we benefit most from Ramsay’s sassy confrontational nature – eager to help a restaurant and eliminate the problems in the kitchen or management that exist.

Ramsay sounds like he has it all. And yet, one man has not been enough for me. I have resorted to actual words on the page: Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, which some would argue started the chef-as-multi-media-celebrity-phenom. This is the book that warned diners to “never order Sushi on a Monday,” and to be wary of seafood frittatas at Sunday Brunch – words which seismically shifted food consumption in The City.

I curl into bed each night, my back cuddling against a pillow, with a trio of men: Anthony, Ramsay, and when he’s available, Tom SuperBlueEyes. Dominic West understands, and is happy to wait until Dec 4 (one perilous day before I enter a new demographic and one perilous day after a TGW contributor has), when season 4 is finally, finally released. I’ll be delighted to return to the created reality of Baltimore. Until then, I am left with my guides, my seers into a world I know a little about, but understand even less.

Yes, I do eat every day. Food is more a part of my life than say, crime or a morgue. But cooking is a bigger mystery to me than most murders could possibly be. I feel so much more confident around a dead body than I do my kitchen.

Each week, I go to Whole Paycheck and buy, in spite of my kitchenly confidential knowledge about Japanese knives, “Food-To-Go!”: prepared falafel, prepared meatloaf and prepared mashed potatoes. I know there is a way to marry the prepared with the preparation. Sheepishly, after reading Bourdain’s adventures in the CIA, I think I can navigate the skillet in my kitchen. I grab the Teflon-coated pan and drop in the meatloaf. Turn the burner on high. I am cooking!

Good, dear, friends are chefs. They offer advice with a gentle nod of the head – you can cook! And yet, the meatloaf burns. The skillet scars – because it’s on high. I know that. Now. But in the moment, when I’m looking at that prepared meat in the pan, I can imagine what Sam or Elia might do, and then it’s not too far a step to wonder what Tim Gunn might say – the ever-awesome “Make it work!” And so I flatten the meatloaf with my red spatula and stare. Smell the burn. And think about the arson script we’re shooting.

I am not meant for the kitchen. I have wonderful guides – Tom, Tony, and Ramseykins – but they will have to stay in my bed, multimedia presentations ever there to offer advice and vicarious learning. But I would rather be in an actual morgue than the autopsy that my kitchen has become, a place where I return to pushing the buttons on the microwave and scatter grounds in the bottom of a coffee pot and call that cooking.

22 responses to “Overcooked”

  1. LP says:

    I got hooked on Project Runway too, but mostly because Heidi Klum is so beeyootiful. “In fashion, one day you’re in! The next day, you’re aout!!” Ah, Heidi. No one can make the fearsome world of fashion sound so inviting. It almost made me want to go shopping, just to please her. Then the commercial breaks would snap me back to reality. The real one, I mean.

  2. brooke says:

    I’m only slightly ashamed to admit that I was hooked on both Project Runway and Top Chef. Every Wednesday at 10:00PM, you would know where to find me.

    I can’t decide which one I liked more (probably Top Chef), but in terms of divas, I’d have to side with LP – Heidi Klum could kick me out of fashion whenever she wants. Padma was really interesting when she was married to Salman Rushdie, but now that she’s just another reality show host, she’s a bit of a bore.

  3. My significant other loved Hell’s Kitchen. I’m not fond of the way Ramsey screams and rants at his contestants when they’re just goofing up like they normally do, but he thinks the contest is fascinating. He missed the last episode and didn’t get to tape it either. Who won the last season? I was rooting for Rock myself. He seemed the most human to me.

  4. Ruben Mancillas says:

    Wendy, I loved Kitchen Confidental. A Cook’s Tour was pretty good too. But that No Reservations show Bourdain has on the Travel Channel frustrates me because there isn’t enough cooking featured. Has anyone dared to try and read one of his novels?

    Adriean was all set to get into Project Runway, we had most of season 1 tivo’ed, and I pulled the plug. Heidi was purty enough and all but I just felt stretched too thin as far as reality shows went-maybe I’ll give it another try. Any particular season we should start with?

    Brooke-I’m with you on Padma. Not sure how much of a sexist or literay starf’er by association that makes me but without Salman as a hook they might as well get any other generic model, right?

  5. trixie says:

    what i have learned is that i am willing to watch (at least a few minutes of) just about anything, as long as it’s tivo’d so’s i don’t have to watch commercials. those reality shows are so studded with commercials, it drives me berzerk.
    i haven’t watched it with much dedication, but i liked LA ink and rock of love was endlessly entertaining.

  6. Beth W says:

    I really loved watching Project Runway because I identified with the designers, their egos and the way they talk about other designers. It’s the only reality show in which I would want to participate. Heidi Klum is really a non-factor on the show. She doesn’t do anything. Tim Gunn however is wonderful. I think he would be a great mentor. I tell myself to “make it work” all the time.

  7. Miller says:

    I am not shamed to admit that I’m a tv junkie and religiously watch (well, tivo and then watch) every show you’ve mentioned. My favorite is Top Chef–I’ve watched it from the very beginning. I really think that the first season was the best, but I haven’t been dissapointed since. As far as Padma being “any other generic model,” she had published a couple of cookbooks and had a cooking show of her own before joining Top Chef, so there’s more to her (for the show, anyway) than merely being Rushdie’s ex.

    The best part of Kitchen Nightmares is the gratuitous shot of Ramsay changing out of his street clothes and into his chef’s coat every episode. The man loves to expose his pecs.

    Has anyone watched Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern? It’s on after No Reservations. I quite prefer it to Bourdain’s show. Still not as much cooking involved, but the shock factor keeps my interest, not to mention the breathtaking locations.

  8. Miller says:

    *ashamed

  9. brooke says:

    #4, #7 I wasn’t implying that Padma wasn’t capable of writing a cookbook or hosting a show (or that she was just a generic model, which she isn’t). Rather, I was just opining that I find her boring, which was mitigated to a degree when I discovered she was married to Rushdie. Now that they’re divorced, she went back in the ‘boring’ category.

    #6 I agree with you regarding Tim Gunn. He’s awesome. I was a little worried when Gunn started that other show, since I thought he might be leaving PR, but thankfully that’s not the case. I also really enjoyed watching the designers try to work out their designs.

  10. Matt C. says:

    I was hooked on Project Runway from the first time I heard the concept!

    Seattle supposedly has the highest viewer numbers of the show in the country. (outside of NYC, I think.) The boyfriend HATES Heidi and openly whines about her marrying his beloved Seal everytime he sees her. It was this hatred that kept him away from the first two seasons but now he’s hooked in spite of her and himself.

    The two of us went as Laura and Jeffrey for Halloween last year. (yes, Laura had a beard!) But it was CRAZY the reaction we got from fans and we even ran into a Heidi & Tim Gunn couple so the four of us had to hang together for a few rounds.

    Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style is WAY TOO smart to succeed in it’s current format. Which is sad but inevitable.

  11. Miller says:

    Brooke, my comment was in response to Ruben’s comment, not yours, which is why I was specifically responding to the generic model comment. I definitely agree that Padma is pretty boring in the personality/charisma department, except that I find her overwhelmingly more attractive than Klum. (Not that Klum isn’t hot; I’m just more of a dark and handsome type.) I was just stating that as far as a judge for a cooking competition goes, she’s arguably equipped.

  12. Mark says:

    Hell’s Kitchen is over the top compared to Top Chef, and I don’t like that they’ve sacrificed the actual cooking for the reality-showiness, but I do love Gordon Ramsay and his yelling. If you get BBC America they show lots of reruns of the Kitchen Nightmares he’s been doing there for a couple years now.

    Marco Pierre White also has a new book out. Both Gordon Ramsay and Mario Batali worked with him early in their careers. It’s not the most fleshed-out autobiography ever, but a fun read nonetheless.

  13. ruben mancillas says:

    models publishing cookbooks and/or having cooking shows in the first place is a problem for me.

    it’s like jessica seinfeld’s cookbook or every other hollywood star suddenly publishing a childrens’ book.

    i like it when show’s let their judges be as vapid as need be-give me the original Iron Chef anytime. we used to watch it with with the subtitles and the usual panel of sulking young rock star or athlete, aging George Hamilton-esque movie star, and giggling starlet or singer couldn’t be beat. they would always stay on message-the surfer said that everything reminded him of the ocean, the artist mentioned that the colors on the plate were like a pallete, etc.

  14. TC says:

    I read that Padma Lakshmi annoyed the Top Chef crew by smoking too much weed. Also, here is a picture of her playing an alien princess on Star Trek.

  15. brooke says:

    Miller, I totally agree with you regarding Padma’s capabilities. She’s clearly qualified. I also admire her for not hiding the prominent scar on her right bicep — being a model with disfigurements takes balls. And with #14’s input, I have to say her character is filling out rather nicely. Not just a generic model indeed…

  16. WW says:

    I was wondering: where does that scar come from? Too much Star Trek? And she is WAY so much better than Mrs. Billy Joel.

    And Matt C — any pics of your Halloween costume from last year?

    Writing this, I realized I watch cooking shows like other people watch cop shows, I think — lost in the mystery, eager to watch the twists and turns (in the pastry dough).

  17. Miller says:

    can you imagine how delicious–rather than ridiculous–Hung’s smirf-like village would be if you were high?

  18. Miller says:

    um, smurf. i can’t believe i misspelled smurf.

  19. cynthia says:

    project runway and top chef are the best

  20. TC says:

    According to a 2006 Guardian article absurdly titled “Beautiful and Damned,” the scar is from when her mother accidentally drove off a cliff in Malibu with her in the car when she was 14. Then a tree fell on the car. Bad times.

  21. WW says:

    PS, Kate: Rock did win. But Julia won my heart…

  22. Thanks, WW.

    Hey, Miller, perfect timing. I was Smurfette for a Halloween party last night.