I haven’t watched it faithfully for a few years now – life and work and love and writing this blog and my questionable but continual viewing of the Housewives franchise have sucked up my time – but I’m pretty sure that I’ve been forever changed by Top Chef.
When I saw the first commercial for the show all those many years ago, I remember thinking that a cooking competition seemed an odd thing to televise. After all, it’s not like an avid viewer could taste the food being laid out perfectly on square plates or even smell the drizzle of the balsamic glaze, applied to the plate in the most perfect zig zag.
What could possibly be the draw to judging food from afar? If I watched it while holding a fork, would that action somehow make it all more personally engaging?
The night of the show’s premiere, I left all utensils in the kitchen, even the melon baller that was my very first purchase for the apartment I moved into when I turned twenty-two. (I lived for a month without a couch, but I had a stainless steel melon baller.) And as I began to watch a bunch of strangers in stiff white chef jackets frantically run around a kitchen onscreen, I was almost transfixed. Those chefs were geniuses! They were able to turn shit from a gas station vending machine into haute cuisine. One of them used a cheeto as a garnish! And when the real competitions took place, I saw sleep-deprived chefs do masterful things like create dishes inspired by The Seven Deadly Sins and turn a single scallop into a piece of edible art.
I was hooked. I consumed it all ravenously – and the upshot was that I did it all while not gaining a single pound.
Top Chef is one of those shows like Saturday Night Live that has its format down pat and nothing short of the apocalypse can alter it. Watching Saturday Night Live, you know that even if the sketches following the cold open are, at best, bland, that Weekend Update will be coming up following the commercial break after the first musical number, and Update is usually good for at least one burst of laughter. It’s the same with Top Chef; after the Quickfire Challenge, you know that the main episode’s competition will follow, and even if it’s one you’re not all that into – like the time the chefs had to prepare something like gamey venison for cowboys – the segment following will be Judges’ Table, and that means that I’ll get to watch Tom Colicchio, perhaps the sexiest bald man on the planet, wax poetic on the proper way to plate an olive.
I think it might be Sir Colicchio (I like him so much, I’ve knighted him in my mind) who makes the show what it is, even more than that perfectly paced format. He is direct with the contestants and he sometimes listens to the excuses they spew out while holding his lips in a smirk that rarely comes off as making him look like a prick. He speaks with such authority; I find myself nodding along when he lays into the moron who doesn’t seem to know that a garnish better be something that can be consumed.
There have been, of course, contestants I’ve loved over the years, like that unbelievably handsome guy named Sam who was on season two. I think I’d eat anything handed to me by that guy, but I’d maybe draw the line at eating tongue unless it was his own. And I liked Carla, the kooky one who is now on The Chew and was in the premiere of the revamped version of The Comeback. I had my least favorite ones too, just as intended. Top Chef’s producers aren’t dummies; they know you need heroes and they know that you need villains. The viewer can’t taste the food, not even if you try to lick the screen, so there had better be a stake somehow. And introducing someone like that guy Marcel, the ridiculous chef from season two, is just how you accomplish keeping a viewer engaged by allowing her to cultivate enormous heapings of pure hatred for a person who signs a contract that essentially allows a network to turn him into a character.
It’s like an intricate recipe in a way:
Take a ludicrously styled head of hair that is full of swoops and tragic valleys.
Mix the questionable aesthetic choice with a dash of unfortunate short stature.
Blend the odd appearance with a swagger that makes little sense considering this guy is the worst.
Dice into the concoction the misperception that you can rap like you’re Drake.
Undercook the whole mess while complaining that everyone has hated you your entire life, but it’s not your fault – it’s literally everybody else’s fault because you forgot to defrost the ingredient of self-awareness.
Serve with foam.
The thing is, that guy hasn’t been an official member of the show for many years, but much like that student I had about ten years ago whom I was convinced was a reincarnated version of Satan’s scrotum, I have never forgotten him. I actively rooted for him to fail – and I never missed an episode.
Now that, my friend, is interactive television.
The lessons I learned from Top Chef began to settle deeply inside of me and started to influence my cooking and my baking and especially my plating. I bought square white dishes because I’d learned that the food should be the focal point, not the design of the plate itself, and it was a choice that nicely matched my minimalist style anyway. I watched how the chefs placed each food on the plate and I learned that the old adage was true: you do eat with your eyes first. And most important in my world – one where I am always asked to bring the dessert – was the understanding that mini portions of something wonderful and sweet or savory is far better than a gigantic slice of something bland and simple.
One year on Mother’s Day, I bought my mother mini dessert glasses with teeny spoons so that what she made on our holiday meals could be served in ways that would make her guests gasp with delight.
“I love these so much!” I told her, essentially unwrapping the present I gave her myself. I was just that excited. And since she’s the kind of woman that she is, she bought me the same thing and gave it to me for no reason other than to see me smile a few weeks later, but the set she bought me was even bigger and came with shot glasses to serve desserts in too.
I’ve had that set for a while now, and I used it for the first time this weekend. It took me days to figure out what I would make, and I knew this wasn’t going to be a standard baking session for me, but an elaborate one. I did research. I made lists. I figured out how I’d transport what I made so that I could get to where I was going without the entire thing falling apart. I almost did a dry run in the car to see how it would all shift when I rounded a corner, but I decided to remind myself that I was not out of my fucking mind instead.
I started with the baking itself. I made three cakes: red velvet, dark chocolate and a light vanilla. I actually let them cool in the way I never really managed to pull off because I’m usually too excited to start the whole icing-decorating thing, but this time I was too busy to wreck my cakes.
There was mousse to make.
I bought heavy cream. I have but never in my entire life even looked at the section in the supermarket where the heavy cream resides, but this time I sought it out and I stuck some in my cart. There was a red cow on the carton. I only drink fat free milk and I always have. The cartons in my refrigerator are never red. Just the bold color itself felt odd to see.
I started with the white chocolate mousse and I melted chocolate and then I beat the heavy cream and the whole thing was like a science experiment that I didn’t fail. Let me tell you, if the science experiments I had to do when I was in school involved whipping heavy cream until those elusive “stiff peaks” formed instead of sticking a pin in a dead frog’s pancreas, I might have become a doctor.
The lemon mousse was what almost derailed it all. I’m a clean-as-you-go kind of cook. There’s maybe nothing I hate more than a messy kitchen, so I would pour the cream and then put it back in the refrigerator and I would sift the sugar and return it immediately to its proper space in the pantry. But at some point, surrounded by three cooling cakes and a mixer that sprayed shit all over me, I was all but covered in whipped cream. It sounds like it could have all been a very specific fetish film come to life, but there was no time to slap on some heels and bend over.
I had heavy cream to beat.
Add one teaspoon of lemon extract to the cream and the sugar, the directions on my iPad instructed, so I opened up my newly purchased extract and carefully poured a teaspoon of it into the mixture. Except I wasn’t careful enough and a flood of it poured out, half of the bottle now floating in the cream.
Fuck me, I mumbled out loud, shaking my head at the mistake. What I should do? Could this much lemon extract actually kill someone? Would I be seen as liable?
There seemed not a whole lot to do, so I decided I was going to move forward and claim that the recipe was for a double-lemon mousse to explain the overwhelming tartness. But when I then had to add the vanilla extract, that’s where I screwed the whole thing up. I poured it in and looked down at the bowl, puzzled. Why did my vanilla extract smell like citrus? Does vanilla extract go bad? How long had mine been on that spinning spice rack? And then I looked at the bottle closely and saw I’d just dumped orange extract into the mixture by mistake.
When had I even bought orange extract? What the fuck else was in that spice rack? Marjoram? Why had I purchased marjoram? What is marjoram?
I contemplated for more than a mere moment that maybe there were two personalities living inside of my home and the one who bought the orange extract must live in the kitchen. If she really exists, she can at least mop a little more frequently – that’s all I’m saying. But I looked at my supposed-to-be-mousse-that-won’t-kill-you and I knew I had to start all over. And I remembered that some of the contestants on Top Chef sometimes had to toss things aside and begin again – like that time they had to make breakfast on the beach for surfers and granules of sand kept getting stuck in their eggs – and I felt a kinship with real chefs who had dealt with real issues, ignoring that I was a girl with no training, little patience, and I’d have to lose a bet to the phantom who resided in my kitchen to ever wear a chef’s outfit and sensible shoes.
I started all over. I remixed the cream and the sugar. I made sure I had the right kind of extracts. I poured like I had just been stopped for a sobriety test – carefully and slowly. I sliced a fresh lemon and I squeezed it and I made sure that no pits got in. And I whipped that fucker until it had the constancy of a cloudy lemon wet dream.
I cleaned up and refrigerated the two mousses in airtight canisters. And after I showered and scrubbed every ingredient off of me and straightened my hair until it was sleek and shiny, I reentered my kitchen and carefully laid out my glasses and began putting in all together. I made sure the cake layer was even and only took up half of each glass so that I could pipe the mousse in and still have room for a garnish. And yes – my garnish would be edible.
I salute you, Tom Colicchio!
The assembling took longer than I expected, but eventually I had rows of red velvet cake topped with white chocolate mousse and dark chocolate shavings. Turns out that though I have about three hundred pairs of shoes, six zillion bras, and a set of lobster crackers in my home, I somehow never bought myself a grater so I made those chocolate shavings using a vegetable peeler. Then came the chocolate cake shots with the white mousse and topped with a perfectly ripe raspberry. I finished it all off with the lemon mousse that had almost bested me – my very own tangy white whale – and I used it first in shot glasses topped with a sprig of fresh lemon zest and finally I completed my endeavor by layering vanilla cake with the lemon mousse and I topped the whole thing with edible golden pearls.
It was exhausting, this kind of baking and presenting, but there was something wonderful about setting it out later for some people I wanted to impress.
‘Tis the holiday season, after all. A girl’s gotta make herself stand out from the crowd.
Now if only Tom Colicchio would come over and help me dry all these fucking dishes…