Thursday, August 28, 2014

COLUMN: Top Chef

I'm beginning to notice a disturbing trend amongst my friends. Maybe it's because a majority have moved away to larger cities in lands afar. Perhaps their career paths have led them into different social circles. Heck, maybe it's because we're all getting older and our interests are evolving.

One thing's for certain though: An alarming number of my friends are becoming foodies.

A buddy of mine from college recently threw in the towel on a burgeoning IT career to go to culinary school. He's now working his way up the literal food chain of Chicago sous chefs and is happy as a clam (unless you count the clams he now steams for a living.)

Another friend of mine just took to Facebook to debate the superior growing season of 2011 that led to the uncommonly high quality of pinot noir from the Oregon region. This from a guy who I'm pretty sure in college ate nothing BUT Ragu spaghetti and once drove me mental on a road trip by subsiding on little more than bag after bag of Corn Nuts.

Still, I won't knock his newfound love of fine cuisine. Last year, his girlfriend entered Sutter Home's Build-A-Better-Burger contest and walked away with a free trip to California and the grand prize of $25,000. She was even a contestant on an episode of "Chopped" last season. I just want to know where it all came from. It sure wasn't from our formative college years, because those were mostly spent in fast food drive-thru lanes.

The real reason I harp about this, of course, is that I'm a tad bit jealous. I feel like my friends have all joined a club that I don't get to be a member of. The most exciting culinary development that's happened in MY life is Taco Bell's breakfast menu.

I'm the only human being I know capable of ruining a frozen pizza. Once I went hungry because I thought frying an egg was beyond my skill level. On one special occasion, I seriously thought I could impress a girl with my home cooking finesse by pouring a can of chunk ham into some Hamburger Helper (or, knowing my budget back then, Panburger Partner) and covering it with parmesan cheese. The sad truth is that I STILL think Chunk Ham Panburger Parmesan Surprise is a pretty tasty treat to this day.

Along the road of life, somehow my friends managed to evolve beyond "Peel back film. Stir entree. Replace film and continue microwaving for one minute. CAUTION: Contents will be hot." But if there was a class or something, I sure missed the sign-up.

I may not know how to wield a spatula, but I'm pretty good with a TV remote. That's how I discovered that Hulu recently added "Top Chef" to its streaming service. Here was a world of endless possibility. Not only could I entertain myself with a TV show I had yet to binge on, but after a few episodes, I should be a cooking expert, no?


I've now watched 3.5 seasons of "Top Chef," and I love it. Watching a room full of egotistical bitchy chefs snipe at one another while slowly wilting under pressure is top notch entertainment.

What "Top Chef" doesn't teach you, though, is how to cook. At least not human food.

Most of what these chefs come up with barely resembles food. It's more like marginally edible art. You don't hear things like, "Here's some spam I fried up. It's pretty yummy." It's more like, "What we have here is a braised bison quarterling in a reduction of mango bacon chutney compote atop some pureed cauliflower and ginger root gastrique resting upon hearts of palm that I infused with an emulsion of eucalyptus and caviar. Enjoy." Come on, that's not even English, is it?

Some of the food comes out so weird that I wouldn't even know how to EAT it, let alone cook it. What's broccolini? Why do half the recipes involve something called hiccoma which is actually spelled "jicama" and is, apparantly, a Mexican turnip? The judges rave about flavor combinations while I get mad when the corn touches the mashed potatoes in my TV dinners.

How can these competitions be judged with any true accuracy? Aren't there some foods you just like and some foods you just don't? I hate onions and peppers and mushrooms. You could serve me the world's greatest onion, pepper, and mushroom medley ever created and I'd still spit it out because, well, eww.

And maybe there's the problem. Every season, they do one or two challenges where the chefs have to make some complicated dish and then serve it to average Joe schoolkids or firefighters or whatever. And the losing chef always says the same thing: "I can't help it if these people don't have refined enough palates to appreciate my dish."

So that's it, then. It's not that you're a bad chef, it's that all of us common folk are bad EATERS? It's MY fault? Is a refined palate truly what happens after you've grown to appreciate the intricacies of fine cuisine? Or is it what happens when you're SO pretentious that you're able to convince yourself that weird stuff tastes good?

I'm pretty much cool with the palate I was born with, thanks. We need a cooking show for people like me. Just get a bunch of clueless dudes who can't cook, put them in a kitchen, and then the first challenge should be, "Microwave a hot dog!" It's a show people could appreciate AND maybe actually learn something other than "pretentious people are pretentious," which seems to be the takeaway from "Top Chef." Besides, I'd love to know how to microwave a hot dog without the thing splitting apart and having little hot dog innards come oozing out the middle like alien babies.

I may wear many hats in life -- writer, consultant, DJ, music nerd, couch potato -- but it doesn't look like "foodie" is in the cards for this guy. Still, I'm going to keep on watching "Top Chef" because it's fun to watch snobs fight over souffles. And who knows, maybe I'll eventually learn a thing or two. Perhaps some mango bacon chutney compote is exactly what I need to elevate Chunk Ham Panburger Parmesan Surprise to the next level.

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