Top Chef: The Cadillac of Reality Shows

Okay, these days, based on monthly payment cost and status, I guess I mean an SUV hybrid.  Or something.

Reality shows have a formula.  Get a bunch of competitive people together.  Isolate them, give them tasks and stand clear for fireworks which will make good, cheesy television.  “Top Chef” does get competitive people together, but humliation and ratcheting up personal beefs are not the number one reason they are there, thankfully, or they would have lost me long ago.  The (mostly young) male and female chefs are supposed to cook really good food under time constraints for picky people.  Kind of like being a parent, come to think of it.  Is that why I love the show?

Tom Colicchio, Perennial Top Chef Judge and Co Host

This season has the contestants cooking their guts out in various parts of  Texas.  In the summer.  Since I grew up there I can assure you the sweat you see on the contestants as they cook is not exaggerated. Prior seasons, in New Orleans, Vegas, Chicago and New York, to name a few, have focused on the cutting edge blend between high end and higher end.  The creators seem to have figured out that these days, chefs going into business (since the winner gets backing and publicity to launch their own restaurant) will do well to offer comfort food.  Texas has plenty of that, with barbecue, Mexican influence,  coastal seafood, oh who am I kidding?

I watch it for the personalities.  Who is going to crack?  Flame out?  Steal recipes?

Somehow, this season is especially loaded with Asian chefs and women who are lasting to the end.  Prior seasons have featured a lot more tattooed chefs and kind of punk chefs.  The class of 2012 is calmer, younger and, maybe due to the economy, very anxious to please.

We shall see how tonight goes with the Final Five.   Once it is Final Four, they are whisked to a fabulous location with even more culinary torture to endure.  For a very good cause.  Their future.

Hot Peppered Pizza on the Highway to Hell: A Review

Los Angeles has an ever-replenishing supply of consumers under 30, aided by the presence of lots of top tier colleges, and, oh yes,  the draw of Hollywood fame and fortune.  Are they eating 3 course meals and sipping $100 bottles of wine?  Not so much.  Pizza?  Yep.   And not Pizza Hut, Papa John’s or Domino’s.

Point of fact: indy pizza joints are popping up in trendy Los Feliz and Silver Lake  almost as fast as wine bars. Actually, they are usually within a storefront of each other. Such is the case with Lucifer’s Pizza, on Hillhurst.  You might not fly such a restaurant name in the heart of the Bible belt, but it is doing just fine where black clothing is de riguer, even for toddlers (seriously!).  The place proclaims itself to be “Damned good.”  Get it?  The hook of the menu is that you get to decide how spicy your pizza will be: “zero,” “medium,” “fiery” or “blazing”.    Go for blazing and fresh cut hot peppers, pickled peppers, and housemade chili sauce will end up on your pizza, which you can order in personal or large sizes.  Sandwiches, wings and salad round out the food choices.

Being in Rome, my dining partner did as a Roman and ordered the spiciest pizza there was, and made it blazing.  I went with zero as I was hungry and if lost feeling in my mouth, what the hell (!) would I eat?    We got some water/Coke out of the cooler (you can bring your own beer and wine; they don’t have a license) and waited quite a long time.  We took plenty of peeks behind the counter; the kitchen seemed to be a little overwhelmed with take-out orders.   We people-watched, seated at our table shaped like a coffin, spurning groups of three or more who were trying to get us two to move so they could have our bigger table.   You’ll pry this comfy coffin from my cold dead hands, hipster.

The thin crust pizzas, a bit greasy with cheese, showed up.    John reported his was very spicy but far from inedible (you’d have to bring food literally on fire to be too spicy for him).  I tried a  pepperoni slice off his which had been soaked in the chili sauce. Hot on its own, never mind the fresh sliced hot peppers all over the pie.   My Sicilian sausage with fresh tomatoes was okay,  but we are pretty sure we were eating dough not made in house.  Dough is a big part of setting yourself a cut above as a pizza joint.

The point in coming here is not necessarily nuanced ingredients, however.  It is about  being guaranteed access to very hot peppers, wearing black, being in a black room and not spending too much money to do so.   Lucifer’s succeeds on all the above counts, but has a way to go to beat Garage Pizza a few blocks away, where they make the dough in house (rumor has it that the chef cut his teeth at Joe’s Pizza in New York!) and slices are ready to go almost instantly, with a wide choice of toppings, too.

Lucifer’s Pizza is located at 1958 Hillhurst Avenue in Los Angeles.


Sly’s in Carpinteria: A Gem Worth the Drive

Maybe you have a distant memory of going to a “fancy” restaurant when relatives were in town or a cousin was off to college. There were white tablecloths, a jacketed waiter and “continental’ specials. The kitchen somehow came up with kid’s plates that weren’t on the menu, and the staff had been there forever. Oh, yes, and the adults could order a handmade cocktail for the occasion. It was family-friendly in a kind of stuffy way. You dressed up a little and Shirley Temples were a house drink.

Very few such places exist any more, but Carpineteria, yes, that little town 10 minutes south of Montecito and lacking an upscale hotel, pier or restaurant scene of much description, has one. It’s not in its 60th year of operation, however, only its third, helmed by James Sly, a long time chef who made Montecito’s Lucky’s steakhouse what it is today. You kind of only find this place if you live near there or someone tells you about it. And don’t worry, it won’t be closing due to lack of interest. Sly’s ( has its followers who make sure the place is not empty. Here is where you’ll get Blue Plate specials of American classics like pot pie and meat loaf every night of the week, very good steak (hand cut and aged in house), locally-sourced wines, produce and breads. Their grilled artichoke is delicious and straight from Castroville, of course.

The low key town means low key rent, one suspects, and thus a lot more value goes on your plate than you might expect. No, it’s not cheap, but it’s not crazy pricewise either. We took our 6 year old there a couple of Sundays ago and enjoyed the aforementioned artichokes and herbed scallops to start. My husband had his favorite Bloody Mary, ever, and perfectly pan-roasted chicken. I had the prix fixe menu of the day, which had a Gruyere souffle, a more than decent steak with a carrot puree, and a petite tarte tatin to finish. My souffle was fallen, I must say, and the waiter blinked a bit when I asked about it. (Update: From James Sly: “The soufflé suissesse is unmolded, and served in cream, baked with gruyere over.” So it turns out that the souffle wasn’t fallen after all. However, that waiter should have known that.)

Sounds much better than fallen! It’s baked in a half inch deep mold.
He said it came that way. Hmmm. Well, it tasted good. And it was $34 for all three courses.

As a more than decent home cook, Top Chef addict, farmer’s market shopper and all-around food enthusiast, I am well aware most restaurants use shortcuts to streamline operations and pare costs. It’s an admirable business model – if you don’t care that the food be special and personal. Sly’s does indeed care about special and personal. On a brunch visit, we asked how they get the artichoke just so. We were advised how to steam them using vegatable broth for 45 minutes, chill them in the fridge for at least an hour, trim them properly and then grill them. I’m not so sure Morton’s, McCormick and Schmicks’ are doing it that way or would take the time to tell us about it.

The Los Angeles, and, casting the net wider, southern California, food scene is really world class these days. You can get well-made food from eager culinary grads who’ve cut their teeth in New York, Paris and Miami. You want deconstructed Italian, cutting edge Vietnamese, fusion Korean? Seriously amazing.

But no frills delicious is much harder than that. Deceptively simple is all about showcasing ingredients and adding salt, pepper, butter, herbs and a huge dash of service. Sly’s has it.

By the way, one of the Bloody Mary’s key ingredients is fresh squeezed juice of a whole lemon. As for the rest, sorry, you’ll have to go to the corner of Linden and Seventh in Carpinteria for the recipe.

Bad Food is a Sin!

Start a fire in a safe place, put some meat on a stick with an herb you found in the local swamp, share it with your fellow hunters and maybe you just started the first restaurant. If they ate every last shred off the stick, you had yourself a winner.  You cooked well.   And you also invented a ritual, and maybe even a religion.  Let’s call it life’s short, bad food is a sin.   if you lived in caves and hunted all your food, indeed life WAS short.   Eating well mattered.

So it’s deep in our genes to care, but not so deep in some, apparently, as there is a lot of mediocre food out there.  The mystery is why does anyone do something so important so badly?  Airplane food, school food, prison food (I assume) and many a gloppy suburban casserole come to mind with a shudder.  it’s simple. The common thread to good food is caring, miles more than knowledge of knife technique or saucing.

Well not much is harder than simple excellence.  The perfect little black dress should not be so hard, nor a delectable vanilla pudding.  I mean it’s 4 ingredients.    But it is, and they are.  How about bread, which is 3 ingredients, theoretically,  and then a cooked egg which is one ingredient.  What the hell happens in the hands of some cooks?  Like my mom, who could make eggs dry on one side of the pan and runny on the other.    God love her, food was just not her forte.    And in fact, she lived on black coffee, cigarettes and canned tomato soup.

So to cook food well, you have to care, and caring is a big risk, because someone else may not care about what you did at all.  Caveman Mog, the restaurant critic, started that particular anxiety for caveman Foggle, the chef who poached an ostrich egg instead of boiling it.    Foggle left off the salsa, Mog’s personal favorite.    Mog spread the word and Foggle was depressed for days.

But ya gotta care and put it out there anyway.   And every chef, cook, baker and deli gal who does that has my appreciation and admiration.