Dining Diary

April 1, 2011.
Food Reality Shows: Threat Or Menace?

The burgeoning growth of new food television shows in the past decade was a good thing, I thought. And then it started to change. Away went the real chefs, replaced by new hosts who were either a) stunningly beautiful, 2) hokey to the point of comedy, iii) ringleaders of contests whose guidelines and results led to nothing useful in improving one’s cooking or eating.

I had been holding back (barely) my disdain for the Iron Chef challenges and everything that came afterwards. I suspected that my wife might have been right when she said this was just the curmudgeon in me, looking for things to grump about.

I changed my mind when I saw Cupcake Wars during my Mardi Gras stay at Ochsner Hospital. I watched for two hours (I couldn’t figure out how to change the channel) as four people and their large staff made cupcakes with an urgency that never should appear in so nice a place as a kitchen. They made cupcakes from the normal to the exotic, the appealing to the disgusting. Frankly, most of them brought “Who would want to eat that?” to my lips. And there wasn’t even anyone else in the room.

What disturbed me was what happened when the losers were informed of their fates. The grief was pathetic. It was as if they’d lost a child or saw their parents’ house burn down. Their world was at an end. It was then that I decided any contests among chefs–especially televised ones–are a pox on humanity.

The final straw came when a young listener called me a couple of days ago and asked, “What young chefs do you see coming up that might be able to win on the food television contest circuit. You know, make us proud of New Orleans?” Poor soul. How could he not know that it’s not about watching and worrying, but doing and enjoying?

I almost used my broken ankle to beg off from a promise. I said I would observe the first running of a new food show pitting two established restaurants against one another. “Here’s what will make it interesting,” said the producer. “There’s a sliding scale of what they win or lose. If the scores are close, then there’s the usual bragging rights. But if things get lopsided, they can lose chefs and waiters to one another, the loser has to work for the winner. It’s even conceivable that a losing restaurant owner could lose his entire restaurant to the winner!”

I’d better say that this show was not produced by any broadcast organization you’d recognize. And that I am changing a few names and details to avoid embarrassment to those involved. I will not tell you what the name of the show is or where you will see it. I hope you never do. It’s not a pretty story.

The two restaurants involved are known to most New Orleans diners. Both have been in business for decades. Neither are what I would call major restaurants; both have ratings below four stars. But neither is a neighborhood café, either. I will call them Maison de la Casa and Casa della Maison.

The goal of the show, allegedly, is to find the best dinner in America. Why are they starting with these places, then? Obvious answer: these are the places that most viewers identify with. And the really good restaurants recognize shows like this as foolishness.

The restaurant contestants cook five courses of what they believe to be their best dishes, and have their best waiters serve them at their best table. A panel of four judges–all from other cities–comes in and is served this dinner. Then the restaurant is graded on 100 points of performance.

I was there to watch the serving of the meals. Maison De La Casa is a predominantly traditional New Orleans style restaurant. It served fried oysters amandine, turtle soup, crabmeat and shrimp atop ripe Creole tomatoes with white remoulade, a double-cut pork chop with a sizzling pepper butter, grits au gratin, and bread pudding. I didn’t taste any of this, but I have in the past. It all looked as good as I’ve seen it in this place, and that would be very good indeed. The table was served by the familiar waiters and waitresses, most of whom have been at the Maison for a long time.

The judges, who were not supposed to speak to each other or anyone else as they ate, took their notes and, after an hour and forty minutes, left the table for their hotel.

The procedure was repeated at Casa de la Maison the next day. It was clear that the Casa was interpreting the rules a bit differently. The owner and his maitre d’ served the table, not the regular servers. Assisting them was a pair of very pretty, well-groomed young women, and a young man who could have been either a model or an athlete. I’d never seen any of them here before.

The owner explained that the restaurant served so many specials that its customers liked that its selection would be from that repertoire, not the regular menu. The first course was foie gras on savory lost bread. (My eyebrows went up. That’s a recipe I believe I invented about fifteen years ago.) Next came crabmeat and corn bisque. I don’t remember ever having seen lump crabmeat–certainly not of this size–at this restaurant before. Now what they called red beans and rice sushi: rice on the bottom, thick red bean paste over that, and a smoked oyster atop that, with a leaf of chervil on top.

The entree was a slab of lemonfish, which I must say was beautiful. It was bracketed by seared sea scallops, each topped with a spoonful of Louisiana caviar. I almost spoke up. Such dishes had never been served here before. Nor would they be at its usual prices.

Casa wrapped up with creme brulee topped with durian fruit. I could tell that this impressed at least two of the judges, who made a big show out of taking in the famously putrid aroma of that fruit.

The next day, the restaurateur, producers, and media met at the headquarters hotel to give the results: Casa della Maison 89, Maison de la Casa 46. The face of the owner of Maison went white. No, it went greenish blue. He was visibly shaking.

It got worse. The judges began reading their notes. “The cooking at Maison was. . . good. . . ” one of them began. “But when a restaurant decides to stay with. . . traditions. . . it runs the risk of. . . how shall I say. . . offending the sensibilities of those of us who have continued to move on with the world. For me. . . personally. . . the idea of eating a turtle. . . when so many species of that reptile are . . . endangered. . . tested my control of the gag reflex.”

I hated this guy from the first syllable. He went on to complain about the use of frying in this time when so many are obese. About a “particle” of shell he found in the crab salad. And “the blush on the interior of the pork chop was just a shade of pink less than I was hoping for.”

The other judges seemed to think his comments were reasonable, and listened politely. Their reports were not as despicable, but still along the same themes. One complained that she didn’t feel she were truly in New Orleans, because the silverware matched. “I love that Third-World feeling you get here,” she said. “That funkytown feeling. I just didn’t get a whiff of it.” Another judge said that he was put off by the fact that the source of the pork was not identified. “Whether it tastes good is practically beside the point when you don’t know the animal’s origin.”

On the other hand, the judges were brief in their approval of Casa’s dinner. They loved the foie gras and the crab bisque–no surprise there. They were especially wild about the red bean sushi. “This is what New Orleans is all about!” said the woman who didn’t like matched silverware. I was about to raise my hand to note that Casa also had matched silverware, but wasn’t sure if I could keep myself from shouting “The fix is in!” So I didn’t. I know one of the male judges liked the busgirls, and I think I saw the other one studying the busboy.

The host of the show–a shapely woman with a buzz cut and an oversupply of piercings–turned to the grey face of Maison de la Casa’s owner. “Now, it’s time to make a decision. You may exit the contest now, with no tangible losses. You will be allowed to slink away with your tail between your legs.

“Or you can go on to the final round, and try to even out the score. But there will be a price to pay in the final round. Whichever restaurant wins will get a reward from the loser. If the score is less than ten points apart, you will pay the winner ten thousand dollars. Ten to twenty, one hundred thousand dollars. Twenty to thirty, you will lose your chef to the winner for three years, but you must continue to pay his salary, and the hundred thousand dollars to the winner. Thirty to forty, you yourself will have to put in an eight-hour day five days a week at the winner’s restaurant, at no salary. Forty to fifty, your restaurant will come under the management of the winning restaurant, with no recompense to you, for three years. If you lose by more than fifty points, you will sign over your restaurant to the winner. Is that clear?

I thought it would end there. But the jaws of Maison’s owner clamped. “I accept the challenge!” he said. Then, as if the whole thing had been rehearsed in advance (I later found out that it had been), the two owners strode forward and signed a contract.

I wanted to stay away from the finals, but I couldn’t. To be drawn to something you hate is a sure sign that something is very wrong. I was so involved that my blood pressure rose thirty points higher than usual–something the doctor noticed when I went in to have the screws put into my ankle.

The second round began at Casa della Maison. Again, the manager and the maitre d’ performed the service. The pretty girls and boy were back. Maybe it was my imagination, but their uniforms seemed to be a little tighter than in Round One.

Again came dishes this restaurant had never served in all its decades. The jumbo lump crabmeat was in sort of salad in a miniature French bread. The owner said, “And here is a Louisiana tribute to that great New England dish, the lobster roll!” The fiend. I looked right at the judge who I noticed yesterday spoke with a Maine twang. Yes, she was smiling.

Now gumbo, with a single floating okra pod that no judge so much as touched. Three tiny grilled soft shell crabs swam around it. The shrimp in the perfect greening-brown broth were titanic. Entree: Leaning tower of filet mignon, with a plug of beef cut out the center, filled with red sauce. “Our answer to a New Orleans Italian tradition, braciolone!” I made a fake sneeze, if you know what I mean. Dessert: baked Canada. Guess the nationality of one of the judges was from.

The silverware was all still matched.

Maison de la Casa was in trouble before the meal even began. The woman who complained about the matched silverware (it wasn’t, today) picked up a fork by its end and made a face. “This is tarnished,” she told the waiter. Who didn’t know where to get a fresh fork, because he didn’t work at Maison de la Casa. The owner brought him and a number of other waiters over from a restaurant famous for its service. I recognized them all. Bad idea. Why, I wondered, had he not asked me for advice? I’ve know the guy for years.

Maison also began with gumbo. It smelled so good that I had to try a cup. It was the perfect seafood gumbo. But it would not win. It used okra in the normal way. Which meant that okra texture was here. I knew in advance that the snotty judge would make mention of that.

The judges liked simplicity and closeness to nature? Well, how could they not like perfectly shucked raw oysters, ice cold? Then some pan-seared rabbit with Louisiana yam and tasso sauce. Brilliant, I thought. Dessert: local strawberries, peak of ripeness, with a reduced sauce of local orange juice and vanilla in a custard made with yard eggs from Maison’s owner’s neighbor.

Day six. The hotel. I didn’t want to see the final results. A friend who was working a camera told me what happened. The judges gave forth with the same crap as the first time. (The most outrageous: a complaint from Madame Mismatch that the raw oysters had not been accompanied by the health department warning against eating raw proteins.) That and other things on the tape showed that the judges knew about as much about New Orleans food as I do about automatic transmission overhaul.

The score was closer, but not nearly close enough: Casa della Maison 85, Maison de la Casa 55. At least the poor guy got to keep his restaurant. But his chef is gone for three years, and his chef is the guy everybody knows and comes to the restaurant for. And he’s out a hundred grand. He almost–but not quite–made it out of the room without throwing up.

There will certainly be a lawsuit. I will testify for free on Maison’s side, if I am asked. I wonder if the restaurant will survive. I also wonder whether some violence will come of this. This is a restaurateur who is very well connected.

I keep asking myself: what part of this is entertaining? What part of it advances the progress of the local culture and cuisine? Mark ye well the date of this outrage.

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