Friday, August 7, 2009

Vegans Are Scary to Top Chef Masters

This woman strikes fear into the pure, pure hearts of Top Chef Masters everywhere...

Last week, I watched a program I'd never seen before. I'm not much of a TV person, though I admit that I did get a little tipsy from gorging on it after our six-week technology freeze at home from late May through June, also known as The Great Blackout around these parts. I also know that people who don't partake in the televised arts can be insufferable in their puffed up, snorty abstinence of it ("I haven't owned a television in twenty years!") so I take what I think is more of a balanced approach, which is that most of it is time-wasting, stupid trash that causes brain rot (see? I'm nothing if not balanced) but that there are nuggets of gold here and there if you are willing to sort through it. Generally I'm not willing as I have other things I'd far rather be doing. My mother still doesn't understand how a daughter of hers could be so indifferent to television, especially when this child grew up on Saturday morning cartoons and Happy Days just like all the other kids. I think it happened over my college years when I didn't have a television and was perfectly happy living life without one.

In addition to being sort of annoyed by TV in general, I don't have whatever gene or inclination within to be interested in any shows within the competitive reality oeuvre (and not just because I'm a snob - although I am, proudly) but I happened to tune in last week to Top Chef Masters on Bravo. I had heard that the actress Zooey Deschanel would be on the program, and that these highly regarded chef-y dudes would be challenged to create a meal for her. My interest was piqued because somewhere or other, I gleaned that she is a vegan.

The intersection of the starched white jackets and egotistical mien usually associated with serious chefs and a vegan client throwing a wrench into the bacchanalia promised to be interesting and it was. I live in a "food town" and the foodie culture here alive and well: people will travel all over the city to discover an out-of-the-way, obscure little restaurant or rare ingredient and the successful chefs are lauded to almost mythic proportions. I love food and cooking myself but I think that the adulation of this upper echelon chefs to be, frankly, very silly. Why should those who strive to create delicious dishes (seriously withdrawing my vegan orientation here, of course) be revered more than any other creative professional at his or her peak? The celebrity chefs here seem to exist in some sort of shiny bubble of protection and exclusivity formerly reserved for the once-in-a-lifetime geniuses. I think that with the rise of the Food Network and foodie culture in general, the chef as precious god-figure has really taken root.

On Top Chef Masters, highly regarded chefs from around the country compete in a series of cooking challenges week after week until the most masterful of all top chef-ery is crowned. There is a panel of mostly dour judges who give points for these competitions and one chef is told the dreaded catch phrase, "Please return to the kitchen and pack your knives," at the end of each episode (I'm extrapolating wildly here, based on my viewing of Top Chef Masters once). Anyway, there was some sort of stupid cheeseburger competition before the interesting part of the show, which I will totally ignore other than to note that when you make an avant-garde-y cheeseburger soup with ketchup croutons, it's apparently not so much of a crowd pleaser with the panel of barely-able-to-avoid-crotch-scratching dudes who judged the first competition. Sorry, artsy lady chef! Oh, and Morgan Spurlock of Supersize Me, apparently on another PR goodwill mission to prove that he likes meat, damn it (and so do industrial agriculture critics Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, don'cha forget it!), was part of this first panel of judges. Morgan's still working that wholly unattractive handlebar-mustache-turns-into-a-mini-beard thing.

After the first challenge, a bright-eyed Zooey is introduced in a video greeting and with her, a list of impossibly draconian restrictions on the meal these top chefs are to prepare for their big competition of the episode. As horror slowly washes over their tired, top chef faces, Zooey cheerily - almost apologetically at times - informs the gathered competitors that she is a vegetarian who does not consume dairy or eggs. One such chef, Art Smith, mutters contemptuously and with the gasping tone of a dime store detective who just discovered the perpetrator of a heinous crime, "A vegan!..." Art, you shouldn't behave so foreshadowing-ly snippy if you expect to win this competition. He even slams his fist on the counter upon uttering the dreaded "V-word," which I'm pretty sure is the sound heard 'round the country when we vegans disperse and determine whose home we will invading for Thanksgiving dinner at each year. Oh, wait, back to Zooey and the chefs: did she mention that she is gluten- and soy-free as well? Well, she is. Ha ha! Horrorstruck, their eyes glaze over as they mentally flip through recipes and fling them over their shoulders, one after the next. Except for one. While four out of five top chefs look as if they were suddenly stricken with the Swine Flu, Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill is the exception. He is not daunted by the unique challenges of this competition as he seems to be a preternaturally peppy sort, one who might be similarly galvanized by a hangnail, a toe stubbing. (Oh, and speaking of Bayless, I have a personal story about him at the end. Hang in there!)

Art Smith, however, is having none of Rick's annoying cheerfulness as he's in what can best be described as a snit. He is Southern, he reminds us throughout, and he specializes in comfort food. He doesn't know of these high-falutin' Hollywood actress-y ways! After all, food is love, his mama taught him, causing me to imagine him at his mother's side in the kitchen, his grown up head on a little child's body, which is always how I visualize adults as children. "I cook a lot of fried chicken and macaroni and cheese," he says in an interview painted thick with the foreshadowing brush of failure. "I'm thinking to myself, what am I going to do?"

So this is where I get annoyed. (Okay, admittedly I was already annoyed by Morgan Spurlock's facial hair landscaping.) If you are an artist, especially enough of one to be competing to be named a Master by a tribunal of dour-faced judges, shouldn't one be invigorated by such challenges? Art Smith was a personal chef to Oprah Winfrey for years and is now a successful restauranteur in Chicago but apparently he is not one for straying beyond his comfort zone. While Rick Bayless happily trilled on about the starring role of vegetables and grains in traditional Mexican cooking, which is what he is known for, Art looked more and more vexed by the challenge. Apparently to Art, for whom food is love, if it can't be battered and deep-fried or at least enveloped in melted cheese, it ain't love. Again, putting aside my vegan sensibility - which I pretty much have to shove in the closet kicking and screaming at this point - and just analyzing this attitude from the perspective of a creative artist, I find it hard to be sympathetic to poor Art's plight.

One of his fellow competitors, a smirking Italian-American chef, likened this particular competition to cooking with one hand tied behind his back. This is reminiscent of the uproar some of Chicago's most haughty chefs during the ill-fated foie gras ban of a couple of years ago, when the withdrawal of fatty duck liver påté - a single ingredient - left them feeling artistically constricted. I do understand that for someone to whom cooking means familiar animal products (meat, cheese, milk, eggs), it might seem daunting, especially when coupled with the gluten and soy restrictions, but then, after that initial freak out, you know what a creative master does, right? She takes a deep breath and starts imagining options. Slowly, she starts to build on each one until she has imagined something that could be interesting, and then she takes parts from one idea, fuses it with another, removes parts, modifies it again, realizes with a flash that she can add this element that will pull it all together, and another will make it even better, and, finally, she might have some nervousness, but she is captivated by the idea, even excited by it. This is known as flow, the creative process researched and described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and the mark of a true master, I think. One might be considered very accomplished at what he does well, but unless one can challenge himself beyond this limited sphere, I don't believe that artistic genius is at play. And protest all you want about your family or ethnic traditions and your creative expression needing to remain unrestricted but this is the truth and those who work in creative fields know it to be so: sometimes the more you narrow in your focus, say by removing ingredients from a chef's common repertoire, the more expansive it becomes. Like Ms. Deschanel, I am a vegan with soy and gluten restrictions for health reasons, and while I do understand that it is occasionally a pain, I also know that it is eminently do-able. As with supposed limitations, mine have caused me to look beyond my familiar zone and, well, be more expansive and creative. Because of this, I can see that there are so many more possibilities than the ones I was once familiar with. Want to get out of a creative block? A surefire way, to me at least, is to impose some restrictions on myself. This is paradoxical, I'm certain, but once I do that, the possibilities really open up in front of me.

Art folded. I don't know how to factor in the inhibiting aspects of being filmed during the competitive process, but let it be noted that grace under pressure was not Art's strong suit. He went the safe route, which to him was preparing the dessert (couldn't he hear me screaming at the TV to do anything but dessert?), and he decided that it was appropriate to purchase pre-packaged rice ice cream (again, more screaming at the TV as that stuff is foul beyond belief), dress it up with some puréed strawberries to make it all nice and sloppy and soupy - I mean, to ribbon through the ice cream - and accompany it with a vegan version of his family's peanut brittle recipe. There was a general consensus that the brittle was delicious but the ice cream soup was a failure, not only because the main ingredient tasted gross but also because it was store bought. In the end, he was on the chopping block with Anita Lo, the only female chef left in the competition and one who specializes in pan-Asian cooking but could only put together a lackluster dish of oily eggplant and that vegetarian pantry cliché from the 1970s, brown lentils. In the end, the grim-faced tribunal of critics gave Anita one-half more of a point, probably because she at least prepared everything on her dish, and Art was let go. He told the judge-critics that, yes, he knew how to make sorbet, but "I want(ed) to make it right." How exactly does this inspire confidence in your skills as a chef?

Last, a couple of remarks by the judges that simply cannot go without a counter remark. First, Gael Greene, a famous New York critic who apparently slept with Elvis and wears hats indoors (boy, would my Great Aunt Rose not approve) drolly said that the vegans at the lunch table were thrilled by the meal because "...God knows what they get to eat." Oh Gael, Gael, Gael. Yes, because a diet that includes all the vegetables, grains, fruits, legumes, herbs, nuts and seeds produced on this green earth and all their various, infinite permutations is simply too limiting. Second, Jay Rayner, the pompous food critic of The Observer. said that he was impressed by the food overall because, "...In my experience of vegan food, it is usually a symphony of beige." This take down is so easy I shouldn't even bother, but I have to get the last word, even if it is on this blog seen by perhaps three people. Really, Jay? You mean that fish, chicken, eggs and dairy impart so much dazzling, vibrant color to a dish? If someone mentions beige, this is what I think of, you know, like as opposed to pomegranates, bell peppers, chile peppers, adzuki beans, rainbow chard, radishes, melons, broccoli, red and golden beets, dozens of varieties of tomatoes, carrots, corn, oranges, mangoes, kidney beans, apples and on and on. And you know the color that is on a dish made with animal products? Well, Jay, that comes from plant foods. For someone so confident in offering his views, you wouldn't think he'd walk into such an obvious trap.

And now for a little closing story: my son and I were at Chicago's wonderful organic Green City Market six weeks or so ago and saw Mr. Rick Bayless as, unbeknownst to us, we happened to be seated in the area where he was going to be doing a cooking demo. We were just sitting there in the shade, my son eating a baguette and strawberry jam, when this crowd started gathering around, gobbling up all the seats and then forming in an arc around the stage. I was watching all this, wondering who on earth could cause such a stir among our normally mild-mannered, too cool for school populace when I saw that Rick Bayless was up on the stage, working with his assistant, unpacking and prepping for his demo. Camera phones came out, people started doing that annoying photographing with a cell phone thing. Anyway, he begins to talk, this and that about regional Mexican cooking, and a volunteer from the market starts handing out copies of the recipe he would be preparing. More cameras clicking, more glazed expressions of adulation. Anyway, blah blah blah, regional cooking, Mexico Mexico Mexico, traditional, regional, blah blah blah, I'm a really nice guy, if a shade or two dweeby, when all of the sudden, he pulls out this, well, for lack of a better word, absolutely vile, severed goat's leg. It's all there, undisguised because this is Serious Regional Mexican Cooking. The Green City Market shoppers are nonplussed because they mostly worship at the altar of Foodie-ism and many would suck the marrow right out of that goat's leg on the spot if Rick told them this was a traditional Mayan delicacy. Not so much my son. He gazed upon that proudly brandished goat's leg and he responded how any sane, non-sadistic newly-minted seven-year-old would: he loudly and unapologetically said, "Eeeewwwwww!" Star-gazers near us whipped their heads around all Regan-from-The-Exorcist-style to behold who had uttered such rude disapproval and it was a weird moment, because as I was internally calibrating about 3% embarrassment and 97% pride, the crowd decided they couldn't quite direct their ire at the little boy with the big saucer eyes, so they directed it at his mother instead. I smiled and shrugged. And that is my personal Rick Bayless story.

So television, Top Chefs, Morgan Spurlock's facial hair, foreshadowing, the creative process, failure, my son's first review of Rick Bayless. Life is like this sometimes...


  1. I watched that show, too, and found myself (though not a vegan) giggling and clapping at the pained expressions on the face of the ironically named "Art." I also shook my head at that chick's gloppy looking sad brown plate.

    I did read Gael's comment differently than you did- I thought she was talking about the pathetic excuses for food you vegans and we vegetarians have to endure in more restaurants. (If you don't know what I mean, come to Ohio.)

    And as for Rick? I feel really protective of him! I taught his sweet daughter back in Chicago and so got to hang out with him occasionally. I can say that what you see on TV (and when wielding a goat's leg in a park) is what you get. He's an absolute doll. And his food? To die for... and he always provides lots of veg-friendly goodies. I guess you could write him off because he eats me@t, but I'm sure glad you didn't write me off back in my flesh-curious days. :D Plus, his other restaurant, "Topolobambo" is just lots of fun to say!

  2. Danielle!

    So nice to hear your ovo-lacto-y response! ;) ;) ;)

    Oh, Art...I think he just needs to sit down with a big bowl of coconut milk vegan ice cream, soy whip and dark chocolate syrup and have a little pity party for himself. Oh, and, yes, that sad, quivering brown plate of depression. All the beautiful, vibrant vegetables in the world she could have chosen and she decided to go the drippy vegetarian café circa 1973 route? Please, woman!

    I have to say, I think with Gael Greene, it's her permanently droll tone that gets to me. (Oh, and those bangs and the ever-present hat.) Her attitude, at least in my original interpretation, is very common amongst foodies towards vegans. Just, "Oh, those poor creatures with their miserable palates and wilted carrots at every meal." I have to say, maybe I'm very spoiled - yes, I admit that I am - at the fantastic vegan choices available at local restaurants. I never feel like I just have to suffer through a meal and, frankly, the restaurants here don't generally offer sub-par options unless they want to go out of business soon. There are too many others that would happily accommodate a vegan diner.

    Last, Rick. I do get the impression that he is an overall, very sweet man. I think that he has done a lot of meditation or something to be so Zen, and, the one time I met him face-to-face, he was extremely friendly, humble and gracious. He's sort of like a Top Chef version of Ned Flanders but with as many pompous jerks that there are in the food world, I can get with that. Sorry if I sounded mean towards Rick, but that goat's leg was repulsive and mostly I was just having fun with his public-private demeanor and persona. Plus his dish on Top Chef looked by far the most pleasing to me. I would've gobbled up his tamales like a crazy woman! I also liked that he could roll with the punches and not be a prima donna in the least. I don't write off meat-eaters. Some of my best friends are meat-eaters. ;) But, hey, I've got to live up to the name of my blog.

  3. Thanks for this post. I haven't seen the show yet, but I hope to at some point.

  4. Thanks, Stephanie. This is beyond being rife with spoilers, though, as you know. I would be interested to hear your thoughts!

  5. Great analysis, Marla! (I came over from I didn't see the episode, but it's cool to see that Zooey's using her popularity for good. Rock on!

  6. Oh, you're son's response is so brilliant and classic "kid". :)

    Whenever we have tours with kids, they just get it, I mean really get it and it doesn't matter if parents are omni.

  7. Wow. One more reason to love Zooey. Thanks for sharing this. :D


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