When judging subjective entities such as art, food or wine, most seem blindly beholden to pundits that set tastes and act as kingmakers. Skepticism and critical thinking is at a minimum; so is self reliance and confidence. All this was underscored by a recent restaurant experience.
It turns out that a local chef in a nearby town won a competition in an episode Chopped, a Food Network show. He became locally famous as a result; so did hid restaurant. My wife, an avid follower of the Food Network has been clamoring to visit this restaurant for a while. Since it is a bit far, farther than we’d like to take our designated drivers, we have not had a chance to go there until recently when we happened to be near it for other reasons. We sampled the chef’s offerings with surprising results.
Chopped is a competition among four chefs per-episode, to produce three different dishes within a restricted time, using surprise ingredients, often mismatched. They scramble to do so in what amounts to a camera-friendly mini-drama. Their dishes are then judged by a panel of three “experts” who voice their opinions and grade the contestants. It is a contest that foremost taxes the improvisational skills of the chefs, and secondly, their kitchen technique.
Our local winner’s restaurant turned out not so agreeable to us. His appetizers were excessively heavy, e.g. sauteed portebello mushrooms in thick red-wine reduction sauce, generously laden with pork bellies; asparagus and goat cheese wrapped in thick, clumsily fried eggroll-like, pigs-in-a-blanket. The entrees were basic pasta, chicken and meat dishes with the obligatory solitary salmon, red meats dominating the menu, served in grand slabs and with dense, dark sauces. The desserts were giant pieces of cakes or tiramisu, the lightest being a creme brulee that had a pirouline cookie at its side, the latter – store bought at Safeway’s or Costco – a definite no-no for a fine dining establishment. We paid a Bay Area tab and left, thinking it had been a waste, Chopped be damned.
This experience demonstrates how improvisational cooking skills do not translate to a real life restaurant where menu items can be planned in leisure and with forethought. So much for the Food Network. Besides,why should we trust the so-called judges and their tastes in such shows?
Celebrity chefs are a dime-a-dozen in our foodie crazed Bay Area and Wine Country. Many deserve their acclaim, won through many years of painstaking, creative culinary work. Some however, have acquired instant, undeserved fame through shows such as those staged on TV.
I have a huge problem with the Food Network. I believe food is meant to be experienced, not observed on TV. Nor is it to be judged by other means, be it newspaper or magazine articles, or books. The same applies to music, paintings, photography, movies and wine. One can pick a reviewer or two and calibrate their own tastes to them; but ultimately one needs to be their own final judge. Complete abrogation of one’s self to loud-mouth pundits is nothing but voluntary slavery.
Those who buy wine using numbered ratings do the same. In fact this is a worse form of slavery since they don’t even know whose tastes they are following, the numbers often attributed to certain magazines or newsletters, Robert Parker now out of the scene.
I told my wife that I hoped she learned from our experience and will adjust her attitude to the Food Network. She responded in the negative, vigorously defending Chopped and its brethren. I gave up. It’s hopeless.