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Posts about Minnesota newsmakers

A culinary song-and-dance from Alton Brown

Posted by: Lee Svitak Dean Updated: February 11, 2014 - 10:24 AM
Photo by David Allen, from Alton Brown Live!

Photo by David Allen, from Alton Brown Live!

Have to say it was the first time I've seen burping and farting take center stage at any theater.

And hopefully the last.

The sounds, as presented by sock puppets on a large monitor, opened Alton Brown's "Edible Inedible Tour" at the State Theatre last Friday, an event that played to a multi-age full house who was clearly enthusiastic about his long-running "Good Eats" TV show, now in reruns on the Cooking Channel. (The sound effects, repeated during the intermission and at the close of the show, depicted the action of yeast molecules releasing gas.)

Alton Brown was his madcap self, a grand storyteller with a sly sense of humor, during the 2 hour, 45 minute culinary variety show, which celebrated what he said were "things you're not allowed to do on TV -- you can't rant, rave or pontificate or you'll piss off advertisers." (The excess "sound effects" reflected him thumbing his nose at the Food Network, which he said enforced a burp-to-fart ratio on "Good Eats.")

The puppets that provided the sound effects. Photo by Lee Svitak Dean.

The puppets that provided the sound effects. Photo by Lee Svitak Dean.


No sponsors, no advertisers means all fun, right? Well, as we say in the news biz, everyone needs an editor. And this show could have used a scalpel at times, starting with the interminable burping and farting. You know the little kid in kindergarten who would do that and get a laugh, and then wouldn't stop doing it? Well....

The show ran 45 minutes longer than expected, in part because Alton got chatty (often commenting snarkily, in good fun, on the cold weather and other Minnesota-related tangents) and, at the end, because he chose a volunteer in the audience who liked being center stage (she talked almost as much as he did).

But the unwieldy length was more than someone not watching the clock: His musical trio (with Alton on both electric and acoustic guitar, then saxophone) really didn't add much to the evening with food songs that were, well, half-baked, worth a smile but not much more. And some of his TV antics didn't hold up on a theater stage (breezing through a science lesson, for example, had to cross more eyes than just mine).

Two cooking "demos" were delightfully quirky, though took far too long to complete. In one he makes carbonated ice cream using a fire extinguisher (the only single-use piece of kitchen equipment that has his approval).

Making ice cream with a volunteer from the audience. Photo by Lee Svitak Dean

Making ice cream with a volunteer from the audience. Photo by Lee Svitak Dean

The other was what turned out to be a long-winded demonstration of his Mega-Bake Oven, a variation on the girls-only Easy Bake Oven of his youth. Though the store version uses a single 100-watt bulb, his monstrous variation, presumably built in his garage or so he implied, gathers power from 54,000 watts of stage lights. "You can see this from space," he chortled as the blinding lights were turned on.

From this powerhouse of light, he and a volunteer (the Chatty Kathy aforementioned), cooked a pizza topped with (what else?) lutefisk and pepperoni.

What 54,000 watts looks like. Hot enough to cook a pizza. Photo by Lee Svitak Dean

What 54,000 watts looks like. Hot enough to cook a pizza. Photo by Lee Svitak Dean

The best part of the show was his rant on "10 Things I'm Pretty Sure That I'm Sure About Food," an eclectic list that apparently changes from time to time, Here's the Minnesota version:

1. Chickens don't have fingers (where he tells the tale of shocking his daughter's friends with chicken feet).

2. The most critical cooking skill is to use salt (from here he goes on to talk about the bakery dough he discarded in an outdoor dumpster on a very hot day, resulting in an oozing Son-of-Blob scenario that needed commercial trucks to remedy). 

Alton Brown's high-tech version of Power Point, illustrating the trout ice cream. Photo by Lee Svitak Dean.

Alton Brown's high-tech version of Power Point, illustrating the trout ice cream. Photo by Lee Svitak Dean.

3. Trout doesn't belong in ice cream (he tells the story of chef Sakai who did just that on "Iron Chef America").

4. The best cook on Earth is your wife, and the sooner you accept it, the happier you'll be (as he relates a story on making the mistake of "correcting" the seasoning in his wife's dish).3. Trout doesn't belong in ice cream (he relates an episode of "Iron Chef America" in which chef Sakai does just that).

5. The best ingredient to learn to cook is eggs. ("It's liquid meat, premeasured, cheap, and even if you mess them up you can eat them. Conquer eggs and the rest of the culinary world follows.")

6. The most important tool in the kitchen is the dinner table. This follows his comments in an earlier interview that, "The most magical thing about food is its ability to connect human beings to one another. That's the real miracle of food." As for the food? "In 12 hours, it's poo." 

7. Wash mushrooms.( "That's not dirt they're grown in; it's horse poop.") 

8. Buy American. ("We have the best farmers, the best fish, the best laws overseeing food. Odds are you can't do worse than that.")

9. Raisins are always optional. (Who can disagree with that, says this writer?)

10. Never eat a shrimp cocktail in an airport. (Enough said. Though that led to a very long song about what happens when food poisoning hits.)

For more on Alton, see my earlier interview with him in the Star Tribune.

Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste

The State Theatre audience. Photo by Alton Brown.

The State Theatre audience. Photo by Alton Brown.


 

Twin Cities' Sara Johannes exits 'Top Chef'

Posted by: Marcus Michalik Updated: December 4, 2013 - 11:28 PM

At some point during the ten seasons of Top Chef, the annual Restaurant Wars episode became an even bigger deal than the finale. The appeal of the challenge is obvious. Not only does the task force our chefs to step out of their comfortable roles at the midway point of the season to complete the seemingly insurmountable task of building a restaurant from the ground up in a day, but it’s also one that’s rife with the type of explosive drama reality show producers crave. Orders need to be placed! Flatware need to be classy! Padma’s cleavage must be acknowledged the second she walks in the door!

You have to assume local chef Sara Johannes wanted more fireworks in her mostly stagnant season of Top Chef, but I can’t imagine she wanted to make the impression she made on tonight’s episode, which unfortunately saw her exit. This was cringe TV at its worst (best?), an hour of television that made me wince on more than one occasion.

Things just didn’t go well for Sara’s team from the start. Based on names alone (Nina, Shirley, Carlos, Justin), the team appeared poised for victory from the beginning, but quickly became derailed over a lack of commitment on their restaurant’s theme. Naming themselves Found, the team’s idea was to center their menu on “Modern America,” an all-encompassing melting pot that would effectively allow each chef to stay within their chosen style of cooking. The other team took a more direct approach with Fin, a seafood restaurant that was unified by both style and flavor profiles. Travis is praised as the best front of the house person in Restaurant Wars history, while Nicholas wins for combining black drum and oxtail. That's hardly the story in this episode, however, but congrats to them both.

I have no idea why Sara decided to be such a martyr in this challenge, but I was practically screaming at my TV when she volunteered to not only take the front of the house position, but to also make a dessert. Restaurant Wars is never an easy challenge. There’s absolutely no need to make it as hard on yourself as possible.

I’ve written before that Sara’s sleepy yet direct approach can come off as slightly condescending, but dealing with Justin (who also volunteered for his role as Found’s executive chef) in a productive way couldn’t have been a walk in the park. Justin showed a petulant side during last episode’s judging panel, and it’s an attitude he’s now made his calling card. From tantrums over Nina buying the wrong plates to his sharp words to Carlos at Whole Foods (apparently they went shopping before solidifying their menu? Why?), Justin was in bad spirits the entire episode, an attitude that surely contributed to the chaos in the kitchen. At one point Sara rightfully points out that they don’t have a big enough coffee maker to serve 120 people and his retort was to say “Can we be positive?” in the least positive way possible.

But Sara’s just as guilty, if not more, for Found’s failures. It’s expected that there will be some backlog in the kitchen and some unwanted waiting time for the VERY IMPORTANT Chase Sapphire Preferred diners, but Found didn’t even seem to have a shell of an ordering system in place. Meals went out in random segments, wrong plates went to the wrong people, and Sara apparently broke a dining taboo by issuing a “verbal fire” for the judge’s appetizers instead of submitting a formal ticket.

The judges were impatient, especially Padma, who was absolutely dismayed by Sara’s very strange choice of not formally introducing or explaining the dishes. She offers no details for three of the dishes, is prompted by Padma to explain one, and then remembers to explain her own, a choice that struck Padma as conceited. Sara was clearly frazzled despite her icy demeanor (and killer blue dress with matching head scarf), but all of this was truly bizarre to behold.

Found had a few good dishes (Shirley’s poached cobia and Nina’s pork tenderloin drew judges’ praise, as usual) but the rest of the restaurant was dragged through the mud. Carlos’ fish wasn’t cut properly, Sara’s nectarine brown butter cake was missing its crucial mascarpone ingredient (the emulsion broke due to the kitchen’s high heat) and Justin revolting-looking rabbit drew an audible laugh from Tom Colicchio.

I didn’t expect Sara to survive this week due to how weird the vibe was at Found, which is why I actually wanted this to be a double elimination. Sara and Justin both let their sides of the restaurant down, while also delivering subpar dishes. Executive chefs often go down with their sinking ships. That wasn’t the case here, but I at least hope Justin’s stock is severely diminished after his display in this week’s challenge. 95% of the viewing public blamed the loss on Sara’s attitude (more of that bossy bitch narrative I can’t for the life of me grasp), but Justin was the one who had a clear lack of faith in his team from the onset and was a bit too eager to blame them for their loss in front of guest judge David Chang.

Unfortunately, Sara wasn’t able to defeat Louis in Bravo.com’s Last Chance Kitchen tonight, which means her Top Chef career is officially over. Sara might have gone home in pretty mortifying fashion, but at least she did it on an episode where she got to show off a Twin Cities area code t-shirt, proudly emblazoned with both “612” and “651.” Minnesota is still proud.

Why isn't anyone rooting for Top Chef's Sara?

Posted by: Marcus Michalik Updated: November 27, 2013 - 11:37 AM
Photo provided by Bravo

Photo provided by Bravo

We’ve officially reached the halfway point of this season’s Top Chef, and while we’ve well established that hometown chef Sara Johannes hasn’t quite risen to the top level of competition yet, an equally pressing concern remains unanswered: Why don’t viewers like her?

That’s not to overblow the amount of ire Sara faces from the online trenches. She’s nowhere near as hated (she’s not even hated, per se) as Top Chef: Texas' resident bully, Heather, nor is she as divisive as John Tesar, the know-it-all jackass from last season who embodied the coke-bloat of the 80s dining scene with every fiber of his being. But Sara definitely isn’t loved, which might have more to do with a systematic problem of the long-running Bravo series’ current season than it does any of her actual actions.

I appreciate that Top Chef producers don’t feel the need to manufacture as much fake drama as any version of The Real Housewives franchise would, but I’d also bet you’d be hard pressed to find any dedicated Top Chef fan who would rank this season as one of their favorites. There are a number of problems: few chefs outside of Nina have broken away from the pack, challenges have been middling at best, and very little kitchen drama outside of a grill fire has been generated. With creepy Michael and pretty boy Jason eliminated after just a few episodes, this has turned into the Top Chef season without a true villain, which might just have made Sara one by default.

But what has Sara really done to deserve the rude online comments and tweets? Her personality troubles seem to have festered in the fourth episode, in which the chefs were asked to work in teams to create Vietnamese dishes. It was in this episode that show editors started threading together their very flimsy “Bossy Sara” narrative, a label that originated when Sara’s barking orders in a supermarket rush apparently ended with a key ingredient being left out of the cart. 

The fact that Sara had her worst showing in an Asian challenge (Shoyu, where Sara is an executive chef, is a modern Japanese restaurant) also lost her viewer support. Following the episode, Television Without Pity commenter Gagic wrote in the site's forums, “Sara was awful as well. So controlling and know-it-all because she works at an Asian restaurant. Then she screws up cooking rice.  Her stupid hair and fake crying can't cover up her lack of basic cooking skills.” Yikes – and that’s before the next commenter accuses her style of Asian food of being like a “fancy Panda Express.”

Since then, Sara has been shown voicing a few strong opinions about food and offering Louis some unwanted advice about how to butcher a pig. Could these moments be read as bossy and rude? Objectively so - but Sara’s sour notes thus far appear to come more from dissatisfaction in her own performance than they do spiteful jealousy or pot-stirring.  I don’t consider a cheftestant a true Top Chef villain until they start claiming winning dishes actually sucked or insisting that they’re more talented than anyone else in the competition, regardless of what the judges have to say. Sara hasn’t done anything of the sor yet, which is why the “Sara as antagonist” narrative just isn’t sticking to the ribs.

Still, without a top three showing since the first episode, a good chunk of the hostility and/or ambivalence around Sara could just be viewer impatience in anticipating her elimination. If Sara wants to gain some fans, the first and easiest step is to impress us with some high-caliber dishes.

Top Chef: New Orleans airs Wednesdays at 9 pm on Bravo.

Top Chef: Sara Johannes stuck in the middle

Posted by: Marcus Michalik Updated: November 21, 2013 - 2:18 AM

Sara starts this episode of Top Chef complaining about how she thinks she’s become the gooch of the season. Urban Dictionary informs me that this word apparently actually means something far too crass for print (even internet print!) but Sara uses it in this context as a summation of her growing sense of unease in the competition, namely her fear that she’s bringing bad luck to all of the team challenges. As she has in weeks prior, Sara laments her fading success in the contest thus far, noting her singular early brush with the top and reminding us just how much she hates landing firmly in the middle of the pack.

So where does Sara wind up at the end of this week’s elimination challenge? Well, the middle, but let’s not lose the forest through the trees here. Yes, Sara is once again absent from the better half of the judge’s table, but it also occurs in a week that Tom Colicchio calls one of the best in 11 seasons of the show and one where even all three of the dishes in the bottom have elements to them that are universally praised. There’s not a lot of attention placed on Sara or her dish this week, but we can safely presume from the blanketing praise that her dumplings were more than impressive. That’s not a bad place to be in at this stage, at least not when the crucial component of confidence comes into play. Sara still can’t trump the Ninas of this season, but knowing that she’s still capable of scoring a hit is hopefully all it takes to push her into overdrive.

My criteria for weighing the success of this season has been how much the individual challenge components speak to New Orleans culture, and this week delivers a one-two punch. First up is a supremely entertaining (and refreshingly simple) Quickfire that has jazz legend Dr. John asking the cheftestants to make him a hot sauce. Actually, he asks for a hot sauce with a “hip tang” to it and continues to use words and phrases like “flavorocity” and “Trinidadily too hot,” much to the contestant’s chagrin and my sheer and utter amusement.  It does not get more N’awlins than Dr. John.

There’s a lot of flavors in the air here including pineapples from Shirley, apricots and coffee from Nicholas, and anchovies from Justin, but ultimately it’s Brian who wins for his green jalapeno and serrano hot sauce with lime and yuzu juices. I’ve criticized Brian before for being too eager to skate by on complacency, but two weeks of immunity in a row have made him into a bit of a dark horse, even on a topsy-turvey challenge that saw Nina land in the bottom for seemingly no concrete reason other than the seemingly random whims of Dr. John. At one point he uses “clipped my wings” as a method of praise, which practically throws all my bad middle school poetry asunder.  We don’t get to see Sara’s (or Travis’) hot sauce on TV, likely because those precious seconds were needed to lovingly linger on shots of Dunkin Donuts coffee and Keurig machines. Sigh.

The main challenge starts immediately when a 300-pound dead pig is wheeled into the kitchen. It’s a pretty grotesque image that feels strangely fitting of NBC’s Hannibal, but the contestants are downright giddy to start hacking up the ill-fated oinker as part of the New Orleans tradition of boucherie, in which members of a community come together to butcher a pig and utilize every single one of its parts. There’s a bit of drama involving Sara when Louis accuses her in a talking head segment of being bossy without contributing to the butchering, but it also appears that Sara didn’t pass Justin’s “raise your hand if you’ve butchered over 10 pigs like I have” test to actually get her hands on a knife like she clearly wanted to. Justin is increasingly grouchy and later almost burns the entire set to cinder.

Each chef is responsible for a different part of the hog and will have to prepare an individual dish for 250 outdoor diners. As already mentioned, Sara’s har gow (a type of Chinese dumpling served in dim sum) with pork, shrimp and crab barely gets any screen time, but it looks delicious and Tom calls it “really good.” As tasty as it is, Shirley also makes dumplings out of freaking pig kidney and upstages Sara. Shirley ends up in the top 3, a place I always want to see her. Nina’s also up there with her roasted pig’s head ragu, which Tom says should be the national dish of “Ninastan.” Carlos ultimately gets his second win for his pozole verde with fried chorizo tacos. Tom wants the recipe. If Sara doesn’t make it to the end, the combination of Shirley, Carlos and Nina is probably the ideal top three scenario.

Stephanie, Justin and Louis are the night’s worst three dishes (although Travis justly gets called out for not making his own ramen noodles), despite the judges finding something to like in each of them. Justin is absolutely incredulous that his pork breast is called dry (worth noting that Padma seemed much more mad about this than anyone else) and releases a string of expletives about it in the Stew Room. The judges love the flavor of Stephanie’s brodo (broth) but felt her pork belly was overworked and that the dish was missing a few ingredients. And while Tom says that a good dish is going home no matter the outcome, he didn’t seem to like any component of Louis’ pork leg except for the pork, critiquing both the texture of the melted corn and questioning the addition of popcorn to the dish. Louis goes home feeling he didn’t get to leave a mark of his own on the competition, which is probably what happens when you make people cook with cream cheese for entire challenges. If you’re following Last Chance Kitchen, Louis is the first person to beat Janine, so there’s a chance we could be seeing him again. I keep forgetting he has a Michelin star.

Next week – Restaurant Wars! Sara is front of the house, a position that should send a shiver down the spines of any veteran Top Chef viewers.

Charlie Awards winners announced

Posted by: Rick Nelson Updated: November 18, 2013 - 1:06 PM

Winners in 13 categories were announced Sunday afternoon at the third-annual Charlie Awards. The awards, which celebrate the Twin Cities food and drink community (and are named for the late, great Charlie's Cafe Exceptionale, pictured above), were held at the Pantages Theatre in downtown Minneapolis.

Lucia Watson (pictured, above), the force behind 28-year-old Lucia's Restaurant and the adjacent Lucia's Wine Bar and Lucia's To Go, was handed the Lifetime Achievement award.

Butcher & the Boar (pictured above, with chef/co-owner Jack Riebel, left) was named Outstanding Restaurant.

Sameh Wadi of Saffron Restaurant & Lounge and World Street Kitchen was named Outstanding Chef.

The Emerging Food Professional award went to Tyler Shipton, co/chef-co/owner of Borough.

Diane Yang of La Belle Vie was named Outstanding Pastry Chef. La Belle Vie also won top honors in the Outstanding Restaurant Service category.

St. Paul's sole Charlie went to the Strip Club, with Dan Oskey winning the Outstanding Bartender honor.

Julie Snow Architects won Outstanding Restaurant Design for the firm's work on Burch Steak and Pizza Bar (pictured, above).

Birchwood Cafe owner Tracy Singleton (pictured, above, with daughter Lily Singleton-Hill) walked away with two honors: the Community Hero and Outstanding Neighbor awards.

Three food and drink items were placed in the klieg lights: Newcomer Hot Indian Foods won the year's Outstanding Food Truck Item with its Indi Frites. Lift Bridge Brewing Co.'s Hop Dish IPA won the Outstanding Local Craft Brew award and Corner Table won Outstanding Menu Item with chef Thomas Boemer's version of crispy pork belly.

Awards for individuals and businesses are determined by a vote of all participating Charlie Awards restaurants. Food and beverage awards are determined by an online public vote and a panel of experts.

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