Afterthoughts on “The Taste” Season 3

January 26, 2015

By Karen

Yes, I swore off Anthony Bourdain’s cooking competition, The Taste, after Season 2, but it pulled me back in. But I’m no Bourdainiac like Vanessa, that creepy fan girl on his team who cooked only to please her Tony.

Season 3 wrapped up last week, and I saw it all. Bourdain was a contender, but his last team member, Eric, got knocked out just before the grand finale, leaving it to Ludo and Marcus.

The premise is still ridiculous, but ABC’s pumping the hyperbole, calling Bourdain a “culinary legend” and the show an “international juggernaut.”

Bourdain’s too young to be legendary, but I’ll give him juggernaut. The Taste format is being reproduced worldwide. I hope Tony and Nigella get a nice slice of all that franchising.

What I liked…

  • Bourdain as host. He comes across as reasonable, likable, caring, the perfect foil for tantrum-throwing, trashcan-kicking Ludo.
  • The person who does Tony’s hair deserves an Emmy for confiscating his hair gel and ending the wet, mangy dog look.
  • Marcus Samuelsson. What’s not to like? He’s a cordial, articulate guy with an interesting background who knows his stuff.
  • Gabe as winner. He had the skills and the most favorite spoons. It was a nice touch that the judges allegedly didn’t know the winner themselves until they pushed the last button for their favorite.
  • They let us get to know the cooks better, although I felt like I knew Jen, Ludo’s token home cook, too well. At times I wanted to slap her even more than he did.

What left me wondering…

  • Where’s Bourdain’s wedding ring? He never wore it once, and it’s been missing elsewhere I’ve seen him. I hope it’s just a jiu jitsu thing, now that he’s in training.
  • Why doesn’t Nigella look in a mirror and kill the person who dresses her? In one early episode, her neckline was so low, her bra hung out. By mid-season when she was plumping up, she wore big horizontal stripes. And for the finale, they dressed her in full-on Morticia Addams. Nigella’s got a beautiful face, but she’s voluptuous all over and looks like haggis on legs poured into tight dresses she can hardly walk or sit in.
  • Why is every episode 2 hours long, even after they’re down to a few cooks? Didn’t ABC learn anything from over-milking Dancing with the Stars?

What I still don’t like…

  • Ludo, the once and future douche. He was more dickish than ever.
  • Home cooks pitted against professionals. Once again, Nigella was rendered moot almost immediately because her team of home cooks got creamed. No home cook has ever won.
  • A finale that dragged on for three rounds. Two would have been plenty.

So, I ended this season OK with The Taste, and I’d watch Season 4, although I don’t think it’s renewed yet. But I’ve got a new favorite: Master Chef Junior.

Stay tuned…


“The Taste” Leaves a Bad Taste

February 21, 2014

By Karen

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…

And I lose 16 hours of my life I’ll never get back. (Well, 12-13. I DVRed so I could zip through commercials.)

Last night was the finale of Anthony Bourdain’s cooking competition, The Taste, and two of my three picks to win, Marina and Lee, made it in to the final 3.

The ultimate challenge was to prepare a spoonful each of breakfast, lunch, and dinner in 2 hours. All the cooks had the benefit of coaching by Jacques Pepin. Pepin had earlier picked Marina’s chicken testicles as the winner of a challenge, making her the first home cook to reach the finals.

During that first challenge, Marina was even gracious enough to help Bourdain and Lee learn to use a pressure cooker to prepare tripe, without missing a beat herself.

Eliminated in that first challenge was Jeff, one of the strongest cooks, for a steak. This shocked me because Louise served undercooked lobster but, once again, she skated through.

On what planet does underdone seafood trump a freaking steak??!!

What became the repeating chorus for the whole episode was, “Nobody who plays it safe and makes steak deserves to win.” Remember that.

Now, fast-forward to the ultimate 3-dish challenge.

The dishes were (by my simplified descriptions, omitting the aoli and ramoulade, etc., BS)…

Lee: (B) Parmesan flan with a quail egg and asparagus, (L) Crab cake, (D) Steak with pureed cauliflower.

Marina: (B) Egg McMuffin with a quail egg, (L) Pork belly spring roll, (D) Short ribs with kale

Louise: (B) Quail egg with tomato sauce, (L) Oyster po’boy, (D) Steak with crispy potatoes and red wine sauce

In the end, Lee lost, Marina came in second, and Louise won. With, basically, steak and French fries.

Nothing against Louise, but she coasted through it all being a relatively mediocre middle-of-the-pack cook. And in the final moments, Pepin stepped in and salvaged her breaking wine sauce.

Marina, on the other hand, was daring, wily, bizarre, cooking things no one had ever tried. She deserved to win. She was robbed.

And poor Lee. He sabotaged himself by going all gooey over fellow contestant Cassandra, who was in the audience for the finale. They even gave Lee and his lady a touching scene backstage, forcing Louise and Marina to watch the lovebirds suck face.

If this mess is renewed for a 3rd season, unless I come down with selective amnesia, The Taste is joining Top Chef as a show I don’t watch. Enough already.


Bourdain Flirts with His Final Frontier

February 12, 2014

By Karen

Anthony Bourdain’s final frontier is ocean travel. Sure, we’ve seen him chugging up fetid rivers, snorkeling, and catch a few stunt fish, but he’s never filmed an hour of TV on the ocean.

At the upcoming South Beach Wine and Food Festival, Anthony Bourdain is hosting “An Evening Aboard the S.S. Wolfsonian” with Azamara Club Cruises on February 21 at the Wolfsonian-FIU Museum. At $1,500 a plate, it’s already sold out, but the proceeds go to the Wolfsonian and the Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management, so it’s all for a good cause.

According to Azamara’s press release, this was Bourdain’s idea, and he got inspiration for dishes from the Wolfsonian ocean liner menu collection. He’ll be overseeing the dinner, prepared by Daniel Boulud, Eric Ripert, and other celebrity chefs.

Bourdain will share hosting duties with one of Azamara’s captains.

Didn’t Tony make at least one transatlantic crossing to France as a child, possibly on the Queen Mary? Unfortunately, true ocean liners have passed into history, and in his career as a globe-trotter, I’ve never heard Bourdain be anything but dismissive of today’s cruise industry.

Could that be about to change?

Azamara is a relatively unknown, more upscale brand of Royal Caribbean Cruises. Azamara has only 2 ships, and its sister lines most familiar to Americans are Royal Caribbean and Celebrity.

Azamara ships are smaller, and feature a casually elegant experience, with an English butler’s services available to suite passengers. Fares are higher, yet more inclusive than mass market lines (most alcohol is included), yet not as inclusive as top-tier lines like Crystal and Seabourn, who also throw in airfare and most shore excursions.

It’s far from the first time a cruise line has used a celebrity chef to embellish their brand. Jacques Pépin is executive culinary director for Oceania Cruises, another top-tier line.

Norwegian Cruise Line has adopted Cake Boss Buddy Valastro and Iron Chef Geoffrey Zakarian to design menus for its newest ships, Getaway and Breakaway.

And even Carnival has a celebrity chef — Guy Fieri. He’s perfect for the line that attracts the diners, dives, and drive-in set.

But I don’t see Bourdain planning Azamara’s menus. I see him as their spokesman.

Speaking of Carnival, who could ever forget Kathie Lee Gifford and Richard Simmons dancing on the decks, singing about “Fun Ships?”

If Azamara could get Bourdain to become the face of their more refined brand, he could potentially kick the whole industry’s reputation up a notch (well, not Carnival’s — he’s only human).

Bourdain could help the cruise industry shift the focus away from its ships being floating amusement parks, back to the time when a sea voyage was considered the most special way to visit exotic places.

I could see Royal Caribbean and Norwegian grabbing that life preserver, quickly following suit to distance themselves from the “Do Whatever — We Don’t Care” attitude they’ve foolishly promoted of late, to the detriment of their ships and their reputations.

But Azamara has one big hurdle ahead: They’ve got to get Bourdain on a ship.

I’d love to see a Parts Unknown episode filmed on Azamara. He’s always talking about wanting to make each episode unlike anything he’s ever done before. So…?

Wining and dining Bourdain is a good first move, Azamara. Keep it up.


Hooked on “The Taste” in Season 2

February 3, 2014

By Karen

The Taste has seen 4 weeks of actual competition, and I’m hooked. Bourdain, you magnificent bastard. I tried to walk away, but you pulled me back in.

It was a golden TV moment last week when Jacquelyn, that pink-haired POS from Nigella’s team, delivered her coup de grâce by walking off the set — and the show — leaving Nigella teamless. Nice way to repay Nigella for eliminating the clearly more competent Crystal so Jacquelyn could live to cook messily another day.

So now Nigella’s reduced to eye candy. Wasn’t her team also first to wipe out last season?

That’s my one peeve: does Nigella always have to look like Morticia Addams in jewel tones — long-sleeved, low-cut, and tight? It’s inappropriate for cooking and made her attempts to whip her kooky crew into shape seem even more futile than they were.

Even that crazy Sophia Vergara wannabe who was eliminated the first week accused Nigella of doing it out of spite because “Sophia” wore higher heels. I wouldn’t be surprised, after seeing Nigella draped across the backstage sofa as if she’s waiting for someone to peel her a grape, while the men all sit up like adults.

Another must-see moment was when Tony out-maneuvered Ludo with a well-timed can of Spam to win a team challenge. But then Tony had to screw up by using pasta to “go green.” I like the increased focus on mentoring strategies.

You had to cheer when that annoying home cook/blogger Audrey got eliminated after her teammates accused her of not cooking “up to their level.” At least it spared us any more of her delusions of blogging fame.

Ludo’s natural dickishness is being used to best advantage to heighten the drama between him and Bourdain. And Marcus Samuelsson is playing the wildcard extremely well.

And who could forget the sad little cross-team romance between Ludo’s Cassandra and Tony’s Lee? Ludo couldn’t resist flirting with Cassandra (who returned the favor). But in the end, Ludo’s passionate defense of her tasteless falafel couldn’t save her, so now Lee cooks in Cassandra’s memory.

I think my favorite is Ludo’s Marina. You gotta love a woman who sticks to her Asian ways right in Ludo’s face, puréeing pork and boiling beef with mad abandon, and it works. After her, I’m betting on Bourdain’s Lee to place, and his Shellie to show.

All in all, the loosened format does seem to allow Bourdain’s diabolical side to shine, and we know that’s always a good thing.

BONUS…

The Bourdains have new digs, a $3M+ double condo in New York City off Fifth Avenue. For that kind of money, they could have bought the governor’s mansion in Virginia. The Real eStalker published some information about it.

Here’s how the place was configured by a former owner. The bedrooms’ layout is pretty strange, and the galley kitchen is tiny. But it looks like they’ve got lots of room for MMA thrown-downs.

And here’s the actual listing. Tony should prepare himself for lots of mail, now that his address is splashed all over the Net.

Last week, Bourdain turned up on The View, but who I’d really like to see on the sofa is Ottavia, perhaps demonstrating a choke hold on Barbara Walters.

Andy Greenwald at Grantland did an entertaining hour-long audio interview with Bourdain recently that I recommend.

Tony and Ottavia gave a great joint interview to SB nation, where Tony confirmed he’s really embracing jiu-jitsu, and also that’s he’s working on a prequel to his graphic novel, Get Jiro!

I’ve enjoyed the vast majority of Bourdain’s “bus stops,” as he likes to call his various endeavors, but Ottavia never fails to add her special flair when she’s included. She’s becoming quite a personality in her own right.

PS: Congratulations to Bourdain and his fellow producers. The Producers Guild recently gave Parts Unknown the Outstanding Producers Award.


UnFoodie Bakes Beans

January 15, 2014

By Karen

I think it’s a New England thing to eat pork and beans with eggs for breakfast, and my father likes to do that. Beans are a great source of fiber, which I worry my parents don’t get enough of because my mother seems unaware of how important it is and doesn’t like or prepare many dishes that contain it (like beans).

So instead of letting Dad eat mushy canned beans, I make him some from “scratch” — dried Great Northern beans soaked in water overnight. But you can use any type of bean.

Beans1

For this batch, I used 1 1/2 bags (24 oz.) because I wanted to keep some for myself.

After soaking the beans in cold water at least 12 hours, they more than double in volume, but they’re still hard. You have to cook them before you can do anything with them. Trust me on this, I once tried making this dish in a crockpot without precooking the beans, thinking they’d surely soften in 8 hours, but I was dead wrong.

Before cooking, replace the soaking water with fresh cold water that submerses the beans an inch or two. Then boil those suckers for 30-45 minutes, until they’re soft. You can add salt to the water, but I don’t usually because I’m trying to keep them healthy. The pot can be covered or uncovered; if the water gets low, add more. Here they are cooked and drained…

Beans2

While the beans were boiling, I microwaved and broke up 8 slices of cooked bacon from Costco. It gives the beans porky flavor without so much fat.

Beans4

I also diced and sautéed a large onion with 2 cloves of garlic until they were soft. And preheated the oven to 325°.

Beans3

Now it’s time to throw the bacon, onions, and garlic onto the beans.

Next, I added molasses, mustard, ketchup, and BBQ sauce. These were the brands I had on hand…

Beans5

As for quantities, I usually eyeball it, but ballpark would be 1/4 cup each of molasses and mustard, and 1 cup each of ketchup and BBQ (although you can go heavier on one of these last 2 if you prefer either one’s taste. I added more of both after I snapped this picture).

Beans6

Mix it all together gently to coat all the beans, but try not to moosh them. At this point, I transferred them to my soup pot for baking.

Beans7

Cover the pot and bake for an hour to give all the ingredients a chance to “get happy,” as Emeril would put it.

A 1/2 cup serving of plain beans has only 70 calories, yet 13 grams of fiber (that’s 2 Weight Watchers® Plus Points) and is very hearty. I’d guess everything else in them adds maybe 30 calories per serving, tops.

These beans freeze well and can be reheated in the microwave. I ate mine as a healthy, almost fat-free, guilt-free side dish with dinner every night for a week.


Trying to Acquire “The Taste” Again

January 9, 2014

By Karen

An opportunity for a preview of Downton Abbey on January 2 trumped the premier of Anthony Bourdain’s cooking competition, The Taste. Unfortunately, I hadn’t programmed The Taste on my DVR, and then ABC took its sweet time making it available On Demand, so I’m a week late to this party. But last night I caught up on the first 2 hours not because I loved the first season, but because… well, how should I say this?… my name is Karen and I’m a Bourdainiac and I couldn’t NOT.

Let’s start with the positives…

Was it me, or did selection seem a bit less cruel this season? I even enjoyed seeing the 2 most arrogant douchebag hopefuls (one of which spent 6 whole minutes preparing raw tuna) get rejected.

New judge Marcus Samuelsson is a vast improvement over the personality-free Brian Malarkey. I don’t know anything about Samuelsson except that he has 6 James Beard awards, but he’s lively and a good foil for the other three.

Bourdain seems to be going more after Ludo Lefebvre and his chronic dickishness (which Ludo calls “passion”). And is Ludo laying the French accent on quite a bit thicker this year? Half the time, I could barely understand him. He’s making Eric Ripert sound like a Midwesterner.

Now…

That circle jerk of an introduction to the judges, with Nigella gushing that Bourdain is “the Mick Jagger of food.”

That metaphor would make a little sense only if Mick Jagger were renowned as the world’s foremost LISTENER to music.

I don’t hold Bourdain accountable for such silly hyperbole, although I hope it still makes him wince. He’s riding the wave, hanging out and having fun with accomplished working chefs and being allowed to coast on 13-year-old laurels, which he readily admits where never in the same league.

I didn’t pay much attention to who got picked because there’s no sense in forming attachments before the herd-thinning gets serious. Tony’s team includes some dysfunctional misfits he personally identified with and hopes to whip into a juggernaut. Some of the other judges’ picks seemed capricious, and I suspect more for dramatic potential than love of their food.

And somebody claimed one androgynous cook strongly reminiscent of the first season’s winner.

The actual competition begins tonight. Now it’s on my DVR because if ABC continues its relentless bombardment of No!No!, UNICEF, and ASPCA commercials, which I was unable to skip on On Demand, I’ll definitely end up hairless, with a child and a puppy.

But I don’t know if I’ll ever get past the show’s basically ridiculous premise — a taste.

Who the f**k sits down to a meal and decides whether it’s good or bad by jamming every freaking thing on the plate onto one forkful and cramming it in their mouth?

I think what The Taste ultimately accomplishes with its little white spoon gimmick is to diss each component of all the cook’s efforts and to honor none.

THIS JUST IN…

Bourdain is apparently in the process of opening some sort of international food market in New York City.


Falling in Love with Lisbon, Part 1

November 14, 2013

By Karen

Lisbon has never been even on my short list of dream destinations, not because I have anything against Portugal, but because we hear so little about it. But that’s where Royal Caribbean’s Vision of the Seas began its repositioning transatlantic crossing on Oct. 28, so off I went…

Bom Dia, Lisboa!

United Airlines’ inhuman scheduling resulted in a 23-hour odyssey from Richmond, Va., to Lisbon on Oct. 26-27, including what became the Layover from Hell in Newark Airport.

I’d flown from Richmond to Newark mid-morning, and night had long fallen when they announced my TAP Portugal flight to Lisbon would be running LATE.

But I give credit to TAP for hospitality (United should take notes). Each seat came with a little pillow, earphones to the seatback TV, and a big blankie. They also served an unexpected hot dinner (fish or chicken — is anybody stupid enough to eat airplane FISH?) and a continental breakfast.

During trip prep, I’d tried to master some key Portuguese phrases, like…

  • Por favor (please)
  • Obrigada (thank you)
  • Desculpe! (sorry!)
  • Bom dia, Boa noyte (good morning, good night)
  • Fala inglês? (Do you speak English?)
  • Ondé e a casa de banho? (where is the bathroom?)

As it turned out, I only used obrigada (a LOT). Most of the Lisboans I met spoke English and were amazingly cordial.

The driver Lisbon Taxis provided didn’t speak English, but this man met my 6:20 a.m. flight, waited an hour for me to get through Immigration, and was all smiles. He got me to my hotel (through solid fog) and, the next day, to the ship — at exactly the times and prices promised (his honesty and diligence meant a lot, as you’ll see).

As a woman traveling alone, this gentleman made me feel safe, and I considered him my first “friend” in Lisbon.

I could have taken the Metro to my hotel a lot cheaper, but I would have passed under Lisbon and missed seeing famous Rossio Square. Later, when I was exploring, I discovered the Metro would have entailed schlepping my suitcases up 5 long flights of stone stairs reeking of urine.

Hotel do Chiado stands on a steep, narrow cobblestone street 4-5 blocks from the Tagus River (and looks nothing like the pictures on its website). I had reserved my room months ago, but the front desk staff was apparently well-practiced in fleecing desperate Americans (and Brazilians, they told me), who typically arrive early.

It was about 8 a.m., but check-in wasn’t until 2 p.m. So after 24 hours on the road (with zero sleep), they suggested I roam the streets for another 6 hours.

I asked the desk clerk to lock up my luggage somewhere, but he walked off and left it unattended in the tiny lobby about 15 feet from a glass door to the street while I freshened up in the banho.

I know crime waiting to happen when I see it, so I parked myself beside my luggage until the desk guy returned. It was tempting to go postal, but I decided not to be an ugly American and instead politely asked him when the shops would open.

He said, “Since this is Sunday, everything is closed. But we did have one no-show last night, so there’s one room available now. It’s a ‘slight’ upgrade from yours and will cost another 50€.”

Sold!

(American Express magically transformed that 50€ into $101 on my statement — when the euro was trading at about $1.33. Go figure.)

Here’s what an “upgraded” room at Hotel do Chiado looks like…

HotelChiado-room1

And for a hotel that boasts fantastic city views, this was mine…

HotelChiado-view

On the other hand, I think they gave me my first encounter with a bidet, not that I used it…

HotelChiado-bidet

And a shower with a demi-door…

HotelChiado-Shower

The shower’s back half was wide open, so I had to stand carefully to keep water from splashing out. On the other hand, this shower was palatial compared to the ship’s, so I’m not complaining.

With home base secured, I ventured into the supposedly deserted Sunday streets with my camera in search of sights and lunch.

Lisbon-street

EVERYTHING was open.

I walked the tiled, pedestrian-only Rua Augusta toward the Tagus, passing under the Arco Triunfal into the vast Praça do Comércio…

Lisbon-Praca

It teemed with tourists, all taking the same photo of Dom Jose I.…

Lisbon-DomJose

It was lunchtime as I strolled back Rua Augusta toward my hotel…

Lisbon-RuaAugusta

 I chickened out on the food stalls there, which had stacks of dough-covered mystery meats sitting in unwrapped piles on the counters. I did take a quick turn through the Museum of Modern Design that, in addition to much outlandish-looking Scandinavian furniture, had a 3-bowl like-new Tupperware set (with covers unwarped) from the 1950s.

My hotel occupied the 6th and 7th floors of a multi-story mall called Armazens do Chiado, which has a food court.

Lisbon-Armazens

The Armazens is the building at the end of the street

I’m ashamed to say I actually considered lunch at McDonald’s there because I had a big dinner coming (little did I realize just HOW big!) and “fast food” elsewhere consisted of heaping plates of ground beef patties with sides of sausage and French fries, topped with a fried egg.

Instead, I played it safe at Capri, a pasta bar with fixings and sauces. The cook and cashier spoke no English, but with much smiling and pointing, I ordered. When it was time to pay (7.90€ for more pasta and shrimp than I could eat, with beverage), the cashier suddenly seemed apprehensive, but beamed when I handed her a 10€ note.

Perhaps she’d had bad experience with Americans who think the dollar is universally accepted?

After refueling, I set off down the Rua Garrett toward Largo do Camões and was lucky enough to catch this candid photo of the famous Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa lounging amid tourists outside Café A Brasiliera…

Lisbon-Brasiliera

Nearby in Largo do Chiado, I caught Antonio Ribeiro, a monk-turned-poet and satiric dramatist who once lived there. He looked happy…

Lisbon-Ribeiro

I wandered into a gorgeous, bustling bookstore that occupied many rooms in an old building, and didn’t realize until researching for this post that Rua Garrett is a hub for Lisbon’s literary types.

Circling back to the hotel, I saw some unique buildings. This one with the ornate friezes in the façade is condos or apartments…

Lisbon-FriezeBldg

In Lisbon, tiles aren’t just for bathrooms. They slap tile everywhere…

Lisbon-TileBldg

That concluded my daytime sightseeing. I’m prone to sensory overload, so I’m not one to tear around, trying to see everything. I was perfectly satisfied making myself familiar with the Chiado.

Little did I know a few hours later I’d be totally Bourdaining and seeing more of Lisbon through the eyes of a local than I could have ever imagined.

BTW, a terrible storm hit Europe that weekend, and the rumor on the ship was that several hundred passengers missed the boat. The day I sailed, Oct. 28, Portugal made world headlines when a Brazilian surfer named Carlos Burle caught a 100-ft. wave.

Here’s video of it from the UK Guardian, and Burle talking to Anderson Cooper on CNN.

Here’s pure video of his wild ride.


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