Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Top Chef Effect

As all of you faithful Stiletto Gang readers know, I love tv. Especially reality tv. But one of my favorite shows is Top Chef and right now, we’re in the middle of Season 6 which seems to be barreling toward a finale including both Voltaggio brothers, Jen from Philadelphia, and Kevin with the pig tattoo. It’s scintillating stuff if only for the fact that includes two of my favorite things: a) food and b) tension. What could be better than sixteen chefs battling it out to find out who will be Top Chef while living in a house with total strangers for several months? It’s a perfect storm, if you ask me.

But in addition to being a totally enjoyable viewing experience, I have noticed that Top Chef is seeping into other portions of my life, namely my cooking habits and my dining out experiences. For instance, while cooking dinner, I try to invent a “flavor profile” while preparing my dishes. I still don’t know what that is, but right now it consists of more butter, extra salt, and a little more cheese on the pasta. Nobody here seems to mind. Next, I try to plate creatively. So, rather than dump the spaghetti right onto the plate, I try to artfully arrange it into an interesting pattern to create a visual experience for the diners, one of whom is a vegetarian, one who only eats smoked and cured meats, and one who is on a low-roughage diet. Doing the artful plating makes me forget that I’m making three separate dinners every night and still not pleasing anyone in the process. And digging into the artfully plated food helps drowns out the sighs and moans of the diners who are being served these dinners, many of which they don’t like. So, as you have probably guessed, food and tension are both integral parts of my everyday life which further illustrates why I love of Top Chef.

Top Chef has influenced my dining-out experiences as well. Husband and I went to dinner the other night at a place I’ll call “Ye Olde Inne” or YOI for short. YOI has a great reputation around these parts yet we had never been there and were anxious to try it. The plan was to have dinner with friends who live on the other side of the county, so YOI seemed like a good halfway point for both couples to meet. Ambiance was lovely, server was hysterically funny and more than competent, but drinks? Eh. Food? More eh. Price? Over the top expensive for what we were served.

Here’s the thing: when I go out and order a cocktail, I want a cocktail. My urinary tract health notwithstanding, a glass of cranberry juice masquerading as a cosmopolitan just does not cut it. Jim’s scotch and water looked just like water—no amber hue evident in that ice-filled glass of a supposed stiff cocktail. My salad of arugula, beets and goat cheese was pretty good because how bad can you mess up goat cheese and beets? The menu promised locally-grown tomatoes and since we’re into fall, I was skeptical. (Turns out I should have gone with my gut; the tomatoes were on their last legs.) And to look at? The plate resembled the remnants of a salad once picked over and pushed to the side, with the arugula sitting in a sad-looking mess under a half moon of beet and a dollop of goat cheese that had fallen off the center of the plate and listed toward the edge, desperately trying to hang on while being transported to the table. I thought about my own attempts at plating and decided that even my half-hearted, misunderstood groupings of spaghetti looked better than this mishmash of ingredients, thrown together in a professional kitchen.

My friend and I ordered two glass of chardonnay to have with dinner. We were served pinot grigio. Twice. (The bartender looked kind of surly so I was afraid to bring this error to his attention.) Dinner was acceptable, but not overwhelmingly fantastic. The bill, on the other hand, bordered on overwhelmingly fantastic in terms of its total. Seems that YOI is fine with serving mediocre meals at an exceptionally high price.

So I’m wondering: am I more critical because I have a virtual dining experience every Wednesday night and have learned a lot about what goes on in a restaurant and in chef’s minds? Or have I become more particular in my old age? Hard to say. But I will say that I’ve gotten more protective of our hard-earned cash so that when we decide to go to dinner and it is to a place with a reputation for quality, I’m disappointed when the owner and his staff are mailing it in. After all, I had put on Spanx and high heels; I meant business. Why didn’t they?

Is there a Top Chef effect? Has Top Chef and the like made food/restaurant critics of us all? Or is a bad meal just a bad meal?

Maggie Barbieri


  1. I'm unable to get that show, or any of the cooking shows, except for Rachael Ray. However, I love to cook and try new recipes. I'm luckier than you are, no one is on any specific diets except daughters who only come once in awhile.

    I feel the same way you do about restaurants. If I have to pay top dollar, the food better be spectacular and something that I couldn't whip up at home. I'm happy with good cooking if the price is reasonable.

    Had a spectacular meal in one of those fancy restaurants in San Luis Obispo--some kind of Hawaiian fish I'd never heard of, cooked perfectly. (No, it wasn't Mahi Mahi, it began with an O, just don't remember.)

    The veggies that went along with it were also cooked just right.

    Had the good cooking type of meals at the Apple Farm also in San Luis Obispo.

    What I hate is a place where you never know if the food will be good or not. We have two of those where I live and since there's not many choices (5)we usually end up at the Mexican place where the food is always good and cheap.


  2. I think we've all been affected by everyone from Julia Child forward on TV and also by the way our decade or so of high-living (before the latest recession) exposed us to more dining choices and more "fancy" food notions, etc.

    But, I gotta go with aging being the primary factor in your dissatisfaction, Mags.

    I, myself, will be 50 in a year and I find that I'm getting that habit I always thought was one for only old ladies: I often pack a lunch and opt to make our dinner at home, even if it's a higher priced roast or steak over going out for the meal because "I can MAKE better food than this place, and for less!" And, I CAN.

    Indulging in a resto meal takes more of a concentrated effort these years and when we do go out, especially to a new place, we try lunch first because our elders were right and lunch is cheaper than dinner and if the resto is bad, at least you haven't lost a much!

    Two other dining out habits:

    1) my sweetie and I still get two things we'd each like and switch plates half-way through (not every time, but often)

    2) unless I really have a craving for it, I never order the meal or ingredient it would be easy to have at home: I get the exotic fish or the specially prepared lamb and the complex pasta, etc.