Carla Hall Goes From “Top Chef” to Cat Food

July 20, 2011

By Adele

Top Chef All-Star Carla Hall has parlayed her experience pleasing finicky Tom and Padma into a gig with Purina Fancy Feast® cat food.

I’m serious.

Carla is the guest judge in the Fancy Feast® TasteMakers contest, where humans and their cats concocted new flavors for Elegant Medleys®. Purina will go to any lengths to avoid just putting more meat in the can.

You know what that means. Unless the contest is rigged, Carla is going to have to EAT that stuff to make her decision. I hope, at least, they give her a fork.

Purina limited entries to a check-off list of acceptable ingredients (including CARROTS. and acini di pepe pasta. Ha!), so the 1,656 submissions quickly start to look alike if you flip through them.

The 5 finalists all have a protein with variations on wild or long-grain rice, spinach, and — get this — tomato FLAKES — steeped in “savory broth” or “classic gravy.”

Purina omitted the most OBVIOUS ingredient that would have made their contest truly special…

Ground MOUSE.

Here’s a video of Carla explaining the contest.

If you click to the second video, Purina’s chef says they watch “restaurant trends” for inspiration.

Translation: They make their cat food appeal mostly to HUMANS so they’ll shell out big bucks for minimal protein padded with spinach or carbs, and drowned in rich-looking sauces — the only thing the cats will like and lick off. The rest goes down the disposal.

Ka-Ching! for Purina.

The TasteMaker winner gets $10,000 and a year’s supply of Fancy Feast®. Purina is donating $1 for each vote to Adopt-a-Pet.com, up to $25K. You can vote once a day until August 8.

For the record, after heated debate (because that’s just how we roll), Cats Working voted for Purrrfect Sushi, inspired by rescue cats Wasabi and Ginger. It’s yellowfin tuna, shrimp, wild rice, and classic gravy. The one thing we all agreed on was that we’d spit out the rice.


Congratulations, Top Chef Richard Blais

March 31, 2011

By Karen

What a relief! The producers let Richard Blais and Mike Isabella cook without playing any childish sabotage games.

Well, almost. The kink of having them assemble potluck kitchen staffs from among the losers could have been disastrous. But neither of them got stuck with Marcel, and Mike caught Jamie on a day when she was in the mood to cook , so it worked out.

And Richard beat Mike fair and square, although there were moments I feared Mike’s that pepperoni sauce would top Richard’s grainy first batch of foie gras ice cream. Even though pepperoni sauce sounds more appealing to me than liver ice cream. Who in hell, besides cats, would want that? Especially as a dessert? Yeecchh!

As much as I’ve grown to loathe Tom and Padma, they did the right thing. Mike has had his moments, but Richard was obviously and more consistently superior in both innovation and execution.

In the after-show festivities, poor Fabio Viviani wasn’t chosen “Fan Favorite.” But if he had to lose to anybody, I’m glad it was Carla Hall. I can thank Fabio for my new Nutella addiction.

There’s still a reunion show to come, complete with an uncomfortable Real Housewives-like exchange between Colicchio and what’s-her-name, the first cheftestant out who told the press Colicchio’s a sell-out.

And over at America’s Next Great Restaurant, I’m still rooting for Joseph Galluzzi and his Saucy Balls, although his menu put him in the bottom 3 last week, and this week’s promos indicate he may jump the shark going gangster. But if he goes, so do I. I’m meh on the other concepts and judge Steve Ells’ nerdiness is starting to annoy me.


Top Chef Finals Take a Nasty Turn

March 16, 2011

By Karen

Top Chef spared no expense to fly the last 5 all-stars to the fabulous Atlantis resort in Nassau in exchange for the privilege of misleading, sabotaging, endangering, and utterly exhausting them.

In the Quickfire, the cheftestants went head-to-head with the winners of their respective seasons, cooking outdoors in the sun (why?) on several nonworking burners. Carla couldn’t finish her rice, and Padma pounced on it as incisively as when she revealed to the nation that Target doesn’t sell coconuts.

For the Elimination, the chefs were told they were cooking for Bahamian royalty and logically assumed bluebloods would expect high-end fare. They planned accordingly with lamb and lobster and fantasized about working in a palatial kitchen for a change.

But the police escorted them to a nondescript fish restaurant where a bunch of nobodies in colorful costumes were dancing on the sidewalk. Ha, ha! “Royalty” was the “King of Junkanoo,” Bahamian Mardi Gras.

They had to cook in the restaurant’s cramped, ill-equipped kitchen, only to see 2 ½ hours of prep work go up in smoke — literally — when an unused deep fryer ignited. They evacuated while their food was marinated in fire-extinguishing chemicals.

With a shrugging “shit happens” attitude, Colicchio told them to go right back and start over from scratch. The show must go on.

They were tired, they’d had a bad scare, and they had to return to the same sucky kitchen. Any idiot could have predicted the results.

The judges must have still rankled from the excellent dishes served across the board the previous week because they were in full backlash, hunkered down in one of the restaurant’s booths like a bunch of mean girls. Eric Ripert even joined in, albeit with a few gratuitous swipes at fairness.

The only adult at that table turned out to be the King of Junkanoo.

At one point during the disappointing dinner, Gail and Padma wondered aloud if the chefs might be “a little disheartened” by the night’s events.

Let’s see… being flat-out lied to about the diners, having their food ruined in a senseless grease fire, consigned to cook in yet another craphole, or being forced to make their dishes twice?

Ya THINK?

If any judge dared to say anything even halfway complimentary, he or she was immediately drowned out with nitpicky bitching.

I have never wanted so badly to hit each of them upside the head with a skillet.

In the end, they hated EVERYTHING. The King of Junkanoo, who seemed to mostly like the food, must have felt like a total idiot.

Colicchio began the elimination by dismissively conceding the challenge was “tough,” but assured them the rest would be. Then he had the nerve to ask why they didn’t all rethink their dishes — once they realized they’d gotten a total screw job on who’d be eating them — while they were waiting to hear the outcome of the fire.

I’m sure Colicchio is a real prince in person, but if there were an Emmy for “TV’s Most Sadistic Prick,” he could win it (with stiff competition from Jillian Michaels on Biggest Loser).

To every chef’s credit, nobody blamed the the show’s obvious failure to prepare. That would have been unsportsmanslike. But it was open season for the judges to tear up food that miraculously came out as well as it did in spite of every effort to sabotage it.

Padma was offended by the sweet apple chip garnish on Carla’s pork. Gail was irate that her portion of Carla’s pork was raw, although that piece seemed to be a one-off. This was after Carla had tried in vain to deep-fry, then grill it BECAUSE THE KITCHEN DIDN’T HAVE A FUCKING OVEN.

Sweet potatoes put Carla’s dish over the top, and the judges’ unanimously damned it as “too much like a dessert.”

To hear them tell it, you’d think Carla slathered pork in chocolate ice cream and Nutella with Hershey’s sauce on top.

Tiffany also made pork. Ripert thought it should have been “more complex” and Gail found it “unmemorable.” Tif’s sides were dirty rice, curried slaw, and tomato jam. Ho-hum. THEM again?

Gail kvetched that Mike’s chicken was dry. Ripert thought Richard’s cannelloni was “too soft,” but it was another one-off complaint.

Antonia put pork in her polenta, which Gail said turned the pork into “mystery meat” like school cafeterias serve. (Spoken like a true mean girl.)

In the end, Mike’s dry chicken won and Carla went home for being too sweet.

I’ve revised my prediction for the final challenge. The remaining chefs will be presented with a larder stocked with rotting produce, decomposing meat, and bug-infested starches. Padma will purr, “Your final challenge, chefs, is to use these ingredients to prepare a dish that’s fresh, healthful, and delicious.”

I would love to see the final 3 get the last laugh by poisoning every judge just a little, even though Padma undoubtedly would relish the chance to puke off a few more pounds.


Ottavia Before Anthony Bourdain

November 14, 2009

By Karen

Morgan gets full credit for putting me in the right place at the right time to meet Ottavia. We were in a cavernous ballroom of the Ronald Reagan Building. The Food Fight stage was on a high platform with two small tiers of seats before it, off to either side. Morgan staked out the second row, house right. I think Ottavia and I spotted each other simultaneously.

Before I knew it, she and Tony had joined us. Ottavia greeted me with a big smile and a hug. Tony kissed my cheek. I apologized for basing my first impression on the Miami Ink clip. She laughed, agreeing that she looked like a “grinning idiot” (my description) because of how they cut the episode. She was dressed to relax in Miami, not be on TV, and understood how people got the wrong idea from her bare midriff.

She told us reading Cats Working is part of her Internet routine, and greeted Morgan and Cindy like old friends.

Tony brought up Winnipeg Bob’s recent visit to Les Halles, and told us waiter Tim, depending on his mood, will tell customers outrageous “revelations” about Tony, like he’s undergoing a sex change.

Before Tony left us to host the Fight, we got this group shot:

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(L-R) MorganLF, Karen, Anthony Bourdain, Cindy (Photo - Cindy)

Ottavia graciously posed with me to prove there are no hard feelings with Cats Working:

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Karen with Ottavia Bourdain (Photo - Cindy)

We were pleasantly surprised when Ottavia asked us to save her a seat because she was “alone.” She and I chatted for the next several hours.

Now, I must sincerely thank Ottavia for her company. I’ve said before I’m not a foodie. If she hadn’t kept me distracted, I’d have found some gourmet delicacies on toothpicks and poked my eyes out.

Watching people cook on stage is the PITS. Camera people constantly stood in front of the chefs to project their actions onto a big screen behind them. The judges, who included some of my faves, chef Eric Ripert and past Top Chef contestant Carla Hall, were seated far upstage, hidden from our view.

Three hours of watching smoke rise live from pans, with the actual food on TV, is not my idea of entertainment.

Now back to Ottavia…

She grew up in a small rural community of about 2,000 in, I believe, Italy’s Lombardy region. She loves animals and had chickens, rabbits, and “usually about 10 cats and always a lot of kittens,” and explained that spaying and neutering weren’t priorities then.

After high school, she began to study medicine and would have pursued it after moving to the States, but we require an undergraduate degree first. Her credits didn’t transfer, so she took a new direction in the restaurant business.

She met Eric Ripert working for him at Le Bernadin.

When she learned her favorite cat in Italy had died, Ottavia happened by one of those adoption events held by the North Shore Animal League. She saw a black kitten cowering “back in the corner of the cage” and decided they needed each other. She named him Lupetto.

Ottavia said she would love to have more cats one day when they move to a larger place, but she doesn’t know when that will be.

At age 28, Ottavia was working 14-hour days at the Geisha Restaurant in New York City and felt she didn’t have time for a relationship, but she didn’t want to be alone either.

She’d read Kitchen Confidential, saying, “Everybody did, it was like the Bible for us.” And she caught Tony once on No Reservations, “in Morocco or somewhere like that,” while she and a girlfriend were looking for another Travel Channel host they liked (sorry, I didn’t catch the name).

But Bourdain was still nowhere on her radar. She said, “I never thought I would get mixed up with a celebrity.”

Tony and Eric Ripert were good friends, and Ripert’s wife thought Ottavia and Tony might be a good casual match because Tony was on the road so much.

Ottavia made it clear to me that when she met Anthony (she uses his full name), he and Nancy were long separated, although not divorced, and he’d been dating. There was no overlap whatsoever with their meeting and his first marriage.

It took Tony a couple of months to follow up and contact Ottavia, and he did it via e-mail around Thanksgiving 2005. Their first date was that weekend, a very late night of drinking and smoking (she also had a 2-pack-a-day habit), so Ottavia was feeling rough the next morning and declined when Tony called and asked her out again that night.

He didn’t call again for about a month, but when they finally had another date, something clicked, and they became a couple.

While Ottavia and I were talking, Tony kept casting worried glances our way from the stage. At one point, he stood downstage in front of us and signaled her to button her lips, but she ignored him. I wonder what he was afraid she’d tell me?

Next: Becoming Mrs. Bourdain


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