Articles by Phil Gallo
Hosting a dinner party in Los Angeles often means having an actor present is hardly a rarity. They come in handy whenever home cooks attempt to re-create a TV show, especially over-the-top ones such as “Iron Chef” where dramatic interpretation is as vital as cooking skills.
A few years ago, a friend of mine and I went to battle — once with foie gras, another time with oxtail – and a few members of a theater troupe enhanced the setting with garish outfits, a smoke machine and lips moving out of sync with the dialogue. We were purists, staging the Japanese version of the show.
The missing ingredient was the music. Unlike others, we didn’t think to call the composer.
“I started to get a lot of e-mails from people, the funniest ones coming from people who knew me and had discovered I was doing the show,” says Craig Marks, who has composed “Iron Chef America” music for nine seasons. “They’d ask me to (burn CDs) because they were doing ‘Iron Chef’ competitions at home or at work for morale boosters. I got calls from fraternities and sororities, schools, religious groups. It was all very unexpected. There were enough of these requests that we got started on the project.”
The “project” is the commercial release of music from “Iron Chef America” and “The Next Iron Chef” on CD and as a digital download. CMS Media released the music in December just as “Iron Chef” was registering its highest ratings in its history. “Iron Chef America: Super Chef Battle” was the Food Network’s third highest-rated telecast of all time with a cumulative audience of 7.6 million viewers.
The release includes the opening themes to television shows, the scene setters that precede the battles and the meditative cues that accompany the tasting segments. The album also includes his composition for “White House Garden — A National Challenge,” an episode that featured first lady Michelle Obama.
Music to reflect global cuisines
There are two aspects of the show — the gladiator-ness of being a challenger, which is mostly featured on the record — and the visually pleasing presentations when you’re watching and listening to the judges. “My goal is to always totally shift gears, to bring out the emotional essence when they’re at the table savoring the food. I go for less specific melodies,” Marks said.
When Marks got the call to join the American translation of the kitschy hit series from Japan, he was busy writing for animation and ESPN’s “Sportscenter.” Making the show American required a cinematic approach to the music — he says the initial inspiration was the scores to “Backdraft” and “Glory” — while incorporating styles from the represented cooking regions such as India, China and Italy.
“The recurring note,” Marks says, “is always bigger, bigger, bigger… It has to be Julia Child meets ‘Ultimate Fighting Championship.’ “
Working in his studio in Chatsworth, Calif., Marks programs and performs all the orchestra parts while also playing the guitars, dulcimer and balalaika. Cellist Tina Guo and Dave Norwoods, on tabla and doumbek, join him. Classically educated and a hard rock fan, he is also involved with a Chicago classical music group, the Fifth House Ensemble, that aims to bridge contemporary rock music, the avant garde and classical music. They have performed his compositions and his arrangements of music by rock bands such as Korn and put that music on programs with works by Brahms, Schoenberg and Korngold.
Not much of that work comes in handy when he puts on his “Iron Chef” gear. “In the most ideal setting I turn off all of my classical training until I get stuck in a corner. Then I turn it all back on again.”
Phil Gallois an entertainment journalist who writes about music, television, theater and film in addition to food and wine.
None of it was made for TV, he says, noting that about 80 percent of the projects filmed had been on the 2010 calendar since the beginning of the year.
The sixth episode of the season, though, is the one that will finally connect Calagione’s beer with cuisine. The episode, still to be scheduled, chronicles the Dogfish Head team consulting on a beer for the Batali-Bastianich food and wine emporium on New York’s Fifth Avenue, Eataly. “Watching them (Mario and Joe) get into the beer makes him hopeful that a lot more foodies will recognize the possibilities.”
We solicited Calagione’s opinion on how to partner food with the beers he offers year-round – the 90 Minute IPA, the 120 Minute IPA, Raison D’Etre, Indian Brown Ale and Midas Touch. (In 2011, they will also offer Palo Santo Maroon).
The IPAs, he says, work best as aperitifs, appropriate for cheeses, especially fatty and stinky ones. The India Brown Ale stands its ground with acidic foods such as tomato-based dishes, making it perfect for spaghetti and meatballs or pizza. Raison D’Etre is positioned as the ultimate steak or hamburger beer. The sweeter and maltier Midas Touch, made with white Muscat grapes, saffron and honey, complements spicy foods such as gumbo and chili.
Brewing is art
Dogfish Head is positioned on the TV show as an out-of-the-ordinary brewery with off-center products. That facet of the company was driven home on Dec. 8 when Dogfish Head announced the 2011 roll-out of 20 beers with limited availability. An ancient ale program of four brews, for example, runs May to September. Three different bottle-conditioned beers are released through the year, one month at a time; the seasonal brews — Aprihop, Festina Peche, Punkin and Chicory Stout – are tapped two or three months at a time with no two available at the same time. Next November, they will release a new beer, Brand X.
Production varies widely, from the hundreds of thousands of cases of the 90 minute IPA to as little as 3,000 cases of 12 ounce bottles of a specialty brew.
Their first brewed beverage was Shelter Pale Ale, made in 12-gallon batches in three small kegs with propane burners underneath that they brewed three times a day, five days a week. It allowed them to try multiple recipes and in 2002, seven years after they started, they opened a full-scale brewery in Milton, Del. In 15 years, they have catapulted from the smallest brewery in the United States to the 38th largest.
The growth that followed the move to a proper brewery was so accelerated that Calagione felt the need to put on the brakes — for three years. Between 2002 and 2008, the company grew annually in revenue by 40 percent as the beer was distributed to 31 states despite no national distribution network and of the 100 or so employees, only seven are sales people.
The TV crews arrived a year into the three-year plan to cut back growth to 20 percent through 2011. All the beer Calagione and his team is seen making is already allocated, a fact that he believes helps make the show a bit more honest and not a chronicle of a beer company planning an expansion.
“Knowing that there is a limited supply of beer, we hope this can be more of a celebration of renaissance of craft brewing,” he says. “We’re one example of 1,600 small breweries, and if we go to a second season, I think we will get to show more of our industry.
“The unwritten message is that brewing is an art form just like music and writing. The global, commercial beer world is dominated by conglomerates with no interest in unique liquids. The success of Dogfish Head is the same as all small craft brewers. We bring business to the human scale — it’s all about having conversations with your neighbors and your fellow brewers. Look at the locavore trajectory of the last five years or so and it’s not coincidental that it aligns with the breakdown of commercial industry.”
‘A good name for a beer company’
Placing that human element into a business environment was one of several story lines in a recent episode that covered Dogfish Head partnering with a surfboard manufacturer, artists installing a tree house on the brewery’s lawn and reminiscing with father about the day, at the age of 25, when he said he was going to become a brewer. They were on a walk in Maine while on vacation and his father, upon hearing the news, looked up at the street sign that read Dogfish Head Lane and commented that it would make a good name for a beer company.
The issue at the center of the episode though is what to do with two tanks of the 120 minute IPA that have failed at the quality control level, resulting in the lost of half a million dollars worth of product. After re-tasting and examining their options, they decide to pour the ale down the drain and then re-analyze their recipes.
“Seven or eight years ago,” Calagione notes, “that would have put us out of business. We always assume there will be some beer that has to be tossed but the budget line for that is not in the middle six figures.
“I had some trepidation is showing that story, but it’s the realities of a small business. Everything does not go in a straight line and when you take on a challenge, not everything works out.”
Brew Masters airs at 8 p.m. on Thursdays. This Thursday, Calagione explores creating an ancient Chinese ale.
At a quarter past 2 p.m. on a warm and sunny Wednesday in August, a double-decker bus is doing laps in the Miracle Mile section of Los Angeles hunting for a space to set up shop and sell a few late lunches. Even with the dining crush completed, 19 food trucks are parked in the five-block epicenter of the city’s latest food craze — gourmet and ethnic truck dining — keeping parking spaces full and meter attendants busy.
It’s crucial on this day for the WorldFare “bustaurant” — they say it’s the world’s first bus-to-restaurant conversion — to find a space in the mid-city area known as the home of E!, Screen Actors Guild and the L.A. County Museum of Art. They have a concert booked: Alejandro Escovedo will be performing atop the bus for passers-by and diners and, as is the custom for mobile food enterprises, the event has been heavily promoted on Twitter and various websites.
That concert, which eventually occurred close to 3 p.m. in front of 5750 Wilshire Blvd., was also being billed as a first. Escovedo, the Texas songwriting legend touring to promote his album “Street Songs of Love,” was booked to perform atop the WorldFare truck, first in Santa Monica near the offices of Yahoo and Universal Music, and then on the Miracle Mile, where they would wind up squeezed between a trucks specializing in Brazilian food and Korean BBQ.
The connection between rock ‘n’ roll and food trucks, subtle to some and obvious to others, owes to the phenomena’s origins when these trucks found hungry customers departing clubs and concerts late at night. The club-going kids spread the word, through Twitter mostly, and soon the truck owners saw social media as the path to branding. Booking Escovedo to do two half-hour promotional sets before performing a proper show at night was a natural in the evolution of the music-food relationship.
“Music and food go hand in hand in building communities,” WorldFare owner Travis Schmidt said after Escovedo performed six songs in Santa Monica. “Anything new is a risk. Putting a performer on a bus is a risk, but we’ve got 75 to 80 people listening. Pretty good for an event put together in three days.”
Schmidt, a South African native who worked in restaurant supply before putting the keys in the ignition of WorldFare in May, sees his entire concept — installing a sit-down eating area on the top level of the bus — as a risk. Cuisine-wise he’s not selling a food as easily identifiable as a taco, burrito or even banh mi; he’s selling variations on “the bunny,” a concept popular among working class South Africans that is essentially hollowed-out loaf of bread stuffed with meat or vegetables.
A cryovac machine, an immersion circulator and a phone
The concept is explained in depth on signs around the camouflage-green WorldFare bustaurant in addition to photo collages and their slogan “taste the love, love the taste.” What is not written anywhere on the bus or its menu is the name of the executive chef Andi Van Willigan. The lengthy part of her resume is as executive sous chef for Michael Mina, a post she held for 12 years during which time she set up 14 of his restaurants including XIV in Los Angeles.
The shorter section of her CV is her work the past two seasons as the red team sous chef of “Hell’s Kitchen,” a job she’ll likely return to when the next season begins shooting in the fall. Schmidt and Van Willigan met during her stay in Los Angeles — she was on the road 270 days a year — and he presented the idea to her when she was starting a Mina restaurant in New Jersey.
“I had an epiphany while I was in Atlantic City: What am I doing? Who will remember me?” she recalls. “And then I talked to him and he wanted to do fish and chips in the bus. I said ‘not in L.A.’ Give me three things and we can talk — a cryovac machine, an immersion circulator and a phone.”
In further discussions the food concept broadened to be more of a “melting pot,” and the marketing angle became focused. They would sell a high-end version of the “bunny,” make workday stops near offices and find apartment and condominium complexes that would welcome their presence as a dinner option at night.
The staples on Van Willigan’s menu are hearty. Her short ribs are cooked for 15 hours sous vide in a homemade Worcestershire sauce; the pulled pork is braised at low temperatures for an equal amount of time then pulled and cooked with homemade barbecue sauce, the secret of which is smoked vegetables. A Thai-inspired chicken curry is mild and coconut-based. There’s a vegetarian option as well and sandwich specials wherein, she says, “I get to have fun.”
On concert day, lunch sales in Santa Monica were on the low end of their usual range — 80 to 120 served — and the Miracle Mile stop did minimal business. But Schmidt had a new collection of fans he might not otherwise reach: employees of Concord and Rounder Records who work on Escovedo’s recordings and the singer’s fans.
Escovedo became a fan, too, greeting Schmidt with a handshake and the declaration “your food is delicious.” Schmidt is negotiating with a performer for a second concert in September.
Phil Gallois an entertainment journalist who writes about music, television, theater and film in addition to food and wine.
There’s no singing for their supper, but Fox has found a way to incorporate the elements of “American Idol” into a cooking competition with “Masterchef.” The competitors’ naivete, unrealized dreams, hard- luck lives and irrational cockiness are all on display in the opening hour of the latest program from Gordon Ramsay, which is an experiment to see if kitchen acumen and professional advice can ferment into a star chef.
Tuesday’s debut of “Masterchef” (9 p.m.) does not dispense much information about how the show will develop, strictly showcasing the efforts of maybe half the 50 finalists. Each gives details of their dishes and presents them to the Simon-Paula-Randy team of Joe Bastianich, Graham Elliot and Ramsay. Winners moving on are handed aprons instead of “Idol’s” yellow sheets of paper; they usually race to a room of waiting friends, family and fellow contestants. The winner walks away with $250,000 and a cookbook deal, but unlike “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Top Chef” or “The Next Food Network Star” there are no business opportunity prizes.
Passion for cooking ‘a very positive sign for America’
This could well mean that “Masterchef,” in the end, is not a cook who can work a line or design a menu. It just may be the person you want inviting you to their house next Saturday for dinner.
Bastianich, speaking on a Fox conference call Friday, said he was surprised by the “incredible amount of emotion and passion vested (by the chefs) into what food says about them. When you do this for a living you get jaded and don’t realize there is so much passion for cooking for people who don’t do this for a living. That really struck home for me. … It’s a very positive sign for America.”
The three restaurateurs were selected, Bastianich and Elliot said, for their personalities as well as their backgrounds. With editing — there is no live element, at least not yet — the personalities are magnified. Bastianich, whose Italian restaurant empire includes shops with Mario Batali and his mother Lidia as well a line of wines, is the stern, no-nonsense judge who appears to have higher standards than the others. Chicago chef Elliot is the easy-going guy in the middle, the one who sees promise in tasty dishes that are visual messes. And Ramsay is the cheerleader, goading each of the chefs to do better than the last one who presented well.
“I don’t have to try to be overly nice,” Elliot said in response to the Paula Abdul comparison. “For the most part that’s who I am. I try to inspire.”
Would-be chefs from backwater towns and big cities
On the premiere, it takes awhile for anyone to show they have any skill, inventiveness or connection to culinary culture. Mike Kim, a waiter from Redondo Beach, Calif., who shows up with his two brothers, enters contritely and then delivers great television by starting with a flambe. It’s no Beavis & Butt-head moment — his duck ssam wraps look delectable and receive raves from the three judges. It astonishes Kim, creating the joyful response that has historically held viewers captive.
A parade of folks from backwater towns and big cities display their wares, most of the dishes at odds with their presentations. The unattractive ones get winning marks in taste, the gorgeous plates usually are found wanting. In each case, there’s a heart-tugging story to give viewers a rooting interest.
The show is produced by Ramsay’s One Potato Two Potato company, the team behind his “Cookalong” special, but one that has no connection with “Hell’s Kitchen” or “Kitchen Nightmares.” It’s the kinder, gentler arm of Ramsay’s domain — no doom ‘n’ gloom voice-over, no overly dramatic music or excessive repetition of the last segment’s key moments. The music is friendly, even gloppy, and Ramsay would rather dismiss a miscreant rather than dish out verbal abuse. It would cut into the amount of time he can spend inspiring the folks he believes in.
Phil Gallois an entertainment journalist who writes about music, television, theater and film in addition to food and wine.
Credit: Courtesy of Fox
Bob Tuschman was promoted to general manager of the Food Network just a short time before the “Next Food Network Star” attracted the network’s largest audience for a debut episode in its history.
With 12 years at the network — he started as executive producer of the early series “In Food Today” and was most recently senior vice president, programming and production — Tuschman has seen firsthand the evolution of the network. He also has programming and production responsibilities for the newly launched Cooking Channel that is also owned by Food Network’s parent, Scripps.
The new job means Tuschman will have responsibilities in business development, digital, marketing and culinary activities, balancing the needs of viewers whether they be cooks looking for Tuesday night dinner plans or folks looking to bring Eastern flavors to Western kitchens. Those subjects — along with competition shows, the Cooking Channel slate, taco trucks and booze — were covered in a recent interview.
Digital, meaning online and mobile content, is now part of your domain. When do you develop the digital side? Is it side by side with the development of a show?
The relationship between digital and programming is very intertwined. We view the digital world as the other arm of our programming. It’s part of the viewer experience, either online while watching or after watching. We think about what we can do online to enhance the viewer experience. It’s very much a part of our development of new programming.
Obviously it‘s crucial in the “Next Food Network Star“ show.
This is a show that people feel passionately about. They’re voting as they go along and they’re very vocal and not shy about expressing their opinions when they disagree with us or are not happy with something we have done. We have a live chat now during the show with my fellow colleagues answering questions. We like to have a close dialogue with our viewers and this is a good way to do that.
That one was easy to single out because it needs that closeness with the audience, it requires feedback to work. Does it make that kind of show more desirable, knowing you have an audience you can communicate with?
It’s ideal because people feel so passionately. Our talent, like Guy Fieri and Bobby Flay, is up for (the online dialogue). Because of the passion for Food Network as a brand, we have a way to reach out to viewers. They tell us they don’t want it to be a one-way experience.
While “Next Food Network Star“has found hosts such as Guy Fieri, is there any sense that it should generate a star who could dominate the ratings? Instead, you have a competition show that is consistently your highest rated show. (The Season 6 premiere attracted an average of 2.5 million viewers, 1.3 million adults 25 to 54, according to Nielsen Media Research.)
They’re not quite equivalent because (“Next Star”) is a one-time-a-year event show. You have to look at it with a different eye from a week-in, week-out show. Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-ins and
Dives”‘ is the No. 1 show after “Next Food Network Star,” but since (“NFNS”) is on only once a year, the anticipation is much higher. It has a different kind of viewership. “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” is
on four nights a week so it would not have the same impact as an event show.
How does the presence of the Cooking Channel affect the types of shows the Food Network will do in the future?
It won’t affect specific shows on the Food Network, but it will allow us to do a broader range of programming and to find different subject areas, different stars and different chefs. It doesn’t mean Food Network is going to do less instructional cooking shows. Our Saturday and Sunday block that we call “In the Kitchen” stays an incredibly strong and important day-part for Food Network.
It’s the backbone for so much of what Food Network is about in terms of helping viewers with cooking. We’re going to be able to play in a much wider field with the addition of a second outlet. The same team that books and produces shows for Food Network is also doing that for Cooking Channel. When we get an idea for a show or find a new cooking talent or get a pitch, we can decide if something is better for Cooking Channel than Food Network.
You have been there from the start, experiencing that brand loyalty from about 10 to 12 years ago. But there have been changes, most noticeably after that first wave of stars. What do you see in the current kitchen shows that‘s different from four or five years ago?
I think we’re looking for broader diversity of talent and topics. We had a large wave about five or six years ago with hosts who appeal to home cooks — people like Rachael Ray, Giada De Laurentiis, Ina Garten (aka “Barefoot Contessa”). We’re always going to have the home cook in mind, but we’re starting to bring shows for people who are slightly more advanced in their cooking than the average home cook. “Alex’s Day Off with Alex Guarnaschelli” or “Secrets of a Restaurant Chef” — we think of them as Cooking 102. We hope to always be adding in more shows, more cuisines, more personalities to appeal to a growing audience with a wide range of cooking skills and interests.
As you expand, though, it seems that you would want to connect with current trends, whether it‘s the fusing of Latin and Asian cuisines we‘re seeing in California or the adventurous cooking done in Chicago at a place like Alinea. How do you gauge what‘s new and hot and what can translate to TV?
We distinguish between the trends that appeal to home cooks and are things people want to replicate in their own homes versus the restaurant trends. On Cooking Channel, there’s the show “Unique Eats” that profiles a lot of the most cutting-edge restaurants that are setting the trends. But that’s not necessarily for people sitting in their kitchens trying to figure out what to have for dinner on Tuesday night; they’re not thinking about Asian-Latin fusion for their kids that night. We’re not focusing on the week-to-week or month-to-month trends. We really focus in on solution-oriented cooking information, help people with their time, with their money, with ideas and inspiration. We don’t need to follow the trends that pop up every few months, but there are shows that might profile a trend. We’re covering food trucks in August with a competition show. That’s a very fun way of incorporating food trucks, telling people what they are about and putting them in a very entertaining format.
Anything else on the schedule that‘s a reaction to current trends?
On Cooking Channel, we’re putting in more ethnic cuisines. introductions for people looking to expand their palettes. There’s an Indian food made easy, French food at home, the spice goddess,
Caribbean food made easy. The Cooking Channel is where we think we can explore a lot of different cuisines that maybe not everyone is trying to master, but there are enough people in our viewership that we want to satisfy.
Other channels have broadened the palate by bringing in a travel element. So many of them become about the bizarreness of food rather than the culture of food. That‘s my interpretation, but how do you draw the line so it‘s not the tabloidization of food?
We want to cover food in all its aspects and all its glories. At times we will look at the most extreme aspects of food, but we do it in respectful ways. We have a show that’s coming back for its second season in August called “Extreme Cuisine” with Jeff Corwin. He does travel the world. He does explore some very exotic dishes, but it’s not “Fear Factor.” It’s meant to use food as a window into the culture he’s exploring. We’re always trying to find hosts who are smart, curious and respectful.
The other fringe element is alcohol. It seems like that subject has been tough, whether it‘s wine or cocktail trends, to translate on TV.
I don’t know how to say this without just saying “we love alcohol.” Clearly alcohol is a part of many people’s food experience. We encourage our hosts to make cocktails or wine pairings when they want to. We have “Drink Up” with Darryl Robinson who explores the world of cocktails. It’s a little harder for a weekly show on Food Network to look at, say, just wine. It doesn’t necessarily lend itself to television on a full show daily basis. It’s certainly an important part that we want to get at, so we encourage all of our chefs to explore it as how to have a party or what to drink with dinner on Tuesday night.
Kings of Leon, a band featuring the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, and My Morning Jacket get the headlining slots at this year’s Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival, which will be placing a heavier emphasis on food and wine for its third annual outing.
The festival, which will be held Aug. 14 and 15 at Golden Gate Park, will feature food from more than 20 local restaurants and suppliers, among them Asqew Grill, Let’s Be Frank, Maverick and Yats. Among the wineries participating are pinot noir hotbeds DeLoach Vineyards, Peay Vineyards, and Copain Wines, cabernet sauvignon producers Hess Collection, Murphy-Goode Winery and Silverado, zinfandel champs Ridge Vineyards, Preston Premium Wines, and Bedrock Wine Co., and Rhone specialists Bonny Doon Vineyard and Unti Vineyards.
Food and wine will share the bill with the Strokes, Phoenix, Social Distortion, Levon Helm, Al Green, Gogol Bordello, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, Janelle Monae, Vieux Farke Toure, the Temper Trap, Budos Band, Dawes and others.
Two-day tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. Wednesday, and single-day tickets become available at 10 a.m. Sunday. Lower-priced “eager beaver tickets” sold out within a day when they went on sale May 7.
Now in its third year, Outside Lands has celebrated the four pillars of Bay Area culture: music, food, wine and technology. On the tech side, Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications is a partner for this year’s event.
Restaurants set to participate in the festival include:
- Andalu: Serving sliders and crispy mac & cheese.
- Asqew Grill: Serving cilantro lime chicken skewers Texas BBQ chicken skewers, portobello mushroom skewers, Asqew Grill’s famous ribs.
- Charles Chocolates: Serving organic s’mores, French-style hot chocolate, and frozen hot chocolate.
- El Huarache Loco: Serving authentic Mexico City food.
- Evergood Fine Foods: Serving sausage sandwiches (pineapple, Louisiana hot link, Italian, chicken apple) and Cajun corn dog.
- Farmerbrown’s Little Skillet: Serving fried chicken, mac & cheese, heirloom watermelon slices, mini pecan pie, and red velvet cupcake.
- Full of Life Flatbread: Serving wood-fired flatbread pizza.
- Gordon Taqueria: Serving chicken, beef and carnitas burritos.
- It’s-It Ice Cream: Serving It’s-It vanilla, mint, cappuccino, and the original ice cream sandwich.
- Let’s Be Frank: Serving 100 percent grass-fed beef hot dog, family-farmed pork bratwurst, and pasture-raised turkey dog.
- Maverick: Serving Cincinnati BBQ pulled pork sandwich.
- Mission Minis: Serving gourmet mini cupcakes in aztec chocolate, ruby red velvet, and cinnamon horchata flavors.
- Namu: Serving Korean tacos, chicken yakitori, and loco moco.
- New Ganges: Serving samosas, chicken curry plate, and Indian vegetarian plate.
- Pacific Catch: Serving Hawaiian poke, Baja shrimp ceviche, and sweet potato fries.
- Philz Coffee: Serving handmade coffee blends brewed one cup at a time.
- Pica Pica Maize Kitchen: Serving arepas, maize’wich, and cachapas filled with a combination of shredded beef, pulled pork, ham, black beans,plantains, cheese or vegetables.
- Split Pea Seduction: Serving farmto-fork soups, salads and sandwiches.
- Ti Couz: Serving sweet and savory crepes.
- Yats New Orleans Original Po’boy: Serving duck and venison sausage jambalaya, BBQ shrimp po’boys and snowballs.
Phil Gallo is an entertainment journalist who writes about music, television, theater and film in addition to food and wine.
Fifteen months ago, Gordon Ramsay could be heard screaming a single syllable over and over at his kitchen staff while members of the media and other guests were waiting to be served. Now I finally know what the word was.
And I know why he was saying it.
The reference was to undercooked fish that had been brought to the pass for the seventh season opener of “Hell’s Kitchen,” which will have its premiere Tuesday. The restaurant had been quiet up to that point, a good 90 or so minutes spent mostly consuming wine and bread while waiting for appetizers and entrees. As we learn in Tuesday’s opener, chefs on fish stations were struggling more than others on that first night, overcooking the scallops, undercooking the halibut and having no idea how long it takes to cook salmon.
This followed a series of incidents, all of which make it into the opening segment, that include a chef not knowing the difference between crab and lobster, one placing items into a cold saute pan and another starting a risotto with the stock first. Chefs are booted from the kitchen, the people cooking your food change duties, and a dish intended for your table has been dumped in the garbage.
Guess what? No diners are aware that any of these mishaps are occurring.
Chaos in “Hell’s Kitchen,” for real
In the past, “Hell’s Kitchen’s” producers have invited media to finales and shows late in the run — episodes that are likely to have a complete service. The seventh season starts with a media frenzy that’s staged but does actually include five or six food writers based in Los Angeles, myself included.
The show making it to air Tuesday is a frenetic version of what actually occurred. The new cheftestants entered on a red carpet with some of them playing up to the “media” presence. A few of us remarked to each other, “Do they honestly believe this is real?” And “yes” became the consensus answer.
Upon introduction, much was made of the number of places from which these chefs hail — Maui, Hawaii; Philadelphia; Chicago; New York. Let’s just say that, as a group, they were not chosen based on any glamour shots; this is still not “Top Chef.” Just based on the tattoos, hairstyles and physical girth, they looked like a group of people who do not back down from arguments, an idea reinforced by the season’s promos.
We media types returned for that first service, having heard Ramsay vow that the blue and red teams — as always, split between men and women (yawn) — would complete the service. First time ever. And, yes, they succeeded. It took three hours to get apps, entrees and desserts, but they accomplished the mission, for our table at least.
We did as we were told — order various items and avoid ordering two of anything. And it was delivered in fits and starts. Of the four meals I have had in “Hell’s Kitchen” — one of which was a finale in which the loser’s food was often inedible — this was the best overall food, though I could see someone sending back my medium rare Beef Wellington for being much too rare.
Gordon Ramsay, the manic drill instructor
Like most seasons of “Hell’s Kitchen,” this one starts with the boot camp approach that Ramsay takes, scorching the chefs’ egos and self-esteem through intimidation and, in this case, sleep deprivation.
He’s an antsy guy, and he does little to hide it. Standing around between takes, he folds his arms and bounces, muttering “c’mon, c’mon, c’mon” while his expressionless sous chefs flank him in at-ease stances. When Ramsay can’t take it anymore, he becomes gracious and starts extending thank-yous to everyone for being patient. Then he returns to bouncing.
But once the cameras’ red lights switch on, Ramsay is in “go” mode. His energy can be felt from the dining room, even though the chefs seem mighty far from any of the dining tables. It just takes that one vocal explosion to thicken the tension, to unnerve the diners and, in a perverse way, give them the dish they most wanted to be served — a taste of intimidation. “Raw.” He said it a few times, the dining room getting quieter with each exclamation. It definitely altered the restaurant’s vibe.
From the first “signature dishes” the chefs whip up, Ramsay says he gets a good idea who will be standing four, eight or 12 weeks down the road. Credit the producers with masking it well. There is not a season of this show that does not feel as if he is surrounded by a class of incompetents with only two or three chefs worthy of consideration. Who those chefs might be is anyone’s guess at this point.
Phil Gallo is an entertainment journalist who also writes about food and wine. His first book, “Record Store Days,” was published in April by Sterling.
Photos from top:
Chef Gordon Ramsay introduces the chefs to the press during the premiere of “Hell’s Kitchen.”
Ramsay challenges a cheftestant named Andrew.
Credits: Patrick Wymore / Fox.
Regular viewers of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” live with considerable travel envy. See him sharing kitchen confidentialities with chefs in Spain, Chicago or Sweden and being a fly on the wall feels insufficient. You want to be there. Now. Watch him make his way through Asian city streets and the mind starts conjuring ways to become his driver or Sherpa. Odds are, dear viewer, you’re even willing to schlep to Buffalo, N.Y., or the woods of Maine in winter to try the local fare.
Bourdain is the common ground, but it’s the people who guide him who become the heart of the stories. As food shows settle in on the weird, the quick and the competitive, Bourdain has cornered cultural edification, shining a spotlight on places such as Medellin, Colombia, making its gastronomy sound as rich and alive as that of Tuscany.
It’s the passion of the sidekicks, though, who pump the blood in these stories, and the opportunity to relive a Bourdain adventure with one of his former guides should not be passed up.
When the opportunity arose, courtesy of a friend, I didn’t have to ride rickety watercraft through a jungle or take part in any of the butchering or drinking rituals common to the show. This was a tour of a section of my hometown, Los Angeles, a re-creation of an episode from the third season that focused on Thai food.
‘The mayor of Thai Town’
Our tour guide was chef Jet Tilakamonkul, whose name has been shortened to the more palatable Tila for professional purposes — no matter how much it upsets his mother. Bourdain, on the broadcast, referred to him as the unofficial mayor of the six-block area in Hollywood known as Thai Town. He has taken over the duties from his father who runs Thai restaurants in Orange County. (He has other unofficial titles: The Food Network’s “Secret Life of … Fiery Foods” referred to him as the culinary ambassador of Thai food in America.)
Experienced with TV from a show he did for Korea, not to mention the many guest spots he has done over the years, Tila was surprised by the efficiency of “No Reservations.”
“I had never been involved in a TV show that was so ready to go,” Tila said of his “No Reservations” experience. “They aired seven minutes, but they only shot 35 minutes. Usually to get that much they shoot for two hours.”
Thai Town is where Jet’s parents opened the Bangkok Market in 1972. It was the first Thai market in the country, and it is where Tila, now running Wazuzu at Steve Wynn’s newest resort, Encore Las Vegas, heads for authentic Thai tastes.
Thai eating tour in Los Angeles
The starting point was Yai restaurant. As Tila showed Bourdain, eating Thai in Hollywood means venturing from one strip mall to the next, shunning the Americanized dining halls with “A” ratings from the city health inspector and opting for the smaller joints with “B” hanging in the windows.
Tila basically taught the crew how to order beyond Pad Thai in a good Thai restaurant, guiding us through various spice levels and instructing us on how to use condiments to get the acidity and smokiness a Thai cook gets at home.
The difference between northern (land animal-based foods) and southern (more seafood-based and the spiciness is more acidic) was spelled out as plates arrived, including a catfish salad with green apple slaw in which the “fish” resembled a sheet of luffa or dried, tan tripe. Fortunately, it was far tastier than either.
Deep-fried catfish with a stunning chili oil followed. Steamed seafood curry arrived with a declaration from Tila that it can be “seen as life-changing.” Wild boar in house curry, which did not appear on the menu, was a favorite dish for half of the eight diners. Soy-sauce stewed pork with Thai basil earned the sobriquet of “my final meal” from Tila.
The desserts we watched Bourdain consume on “No Reservations” were served at the next stop, the bakery stuffed with ponchi, grilled sticky rice, fried bananas and crepes filled with the sweet and savory. Bourdain raised the issue of saltiness in the show. On this day at least, it was not that evident.
Noteworthy eateries in Thai Town
Tila, who has to balance authentic Thai flavors and pleasing tourists in Vegas, paused in a mall parking lot to point out places of note. He has no commercial interest or sentimental attachment. His mission is to increase understanding of the cuisine and restaurants with specialties that might be overlooked by first-time visitors. Ruen Pair gets the nod for its mango salad and pork jerky, not to mention its 4 a.m. closing time. Ganda, a steam table restaurant, is singled out for its fried meats and homemade charcuterie.
The reenactment continued at the Thai market he visited with Bourdain, where Tila pointed out what he has dubbed the Thai trinity — galang, kaffir limes and lemongrass — and where Tony bagged on Rachael Ray. With our group, Tila reinforced a comment he made to Bourdain about the cultural identity of Thai cooking, noting it was his grandmother who commanded the kitchen when he was young, and it was she who taught him.
“There are no good books because they all want to take shortcuts,” said Tila, after a walk through a produce aisle afforded him an opportunity to distinguish differences among coconuts, basil types and various peppers. “It’s a cooking style that you’re brought up in.”
It’s a convincing argument, one that lends considerable credence to Bourdain’s show and his basic point that food is the root of culture. Now if only I had a friend living in Buenos Aires. I’d love to re-create that Argentina segment.
Phil Gallo is an entertainment journalist who also writes about food and wine. His first book, “Record Store Days,” was published in April by Sterling.
Photo: Chef Jet Tila at Wazuzu. Credit: Courtesy of Jet Tila