What’s With the Tats? Chefs and NBA Stars

In the only appropriate way to celebrate the season, today marks opening day of the NBA. And throughout the day, viewers will gaze upon a remarkable display of tattoos sported by the Association’s players.

As you all know, I’m a huge fan of Top Chef, and this season we’ve seen quite a display of tats, even on the otherwise meek Beverly.

And it lead me to wonder, what is it about these two professional subcultures that tattoos are expected?

A google search for “chef tattoos” turns up many results, such as “Chef Tattoos” and “Chef Tattoos: Top Chefs Share Their Ink”, but I haven’t found anything that helps dig into the more cultural/anthropological aspects of the tattoos — where did it come from, what does it signify, how is it used to establish in-and-out groups.

With the NBA, there’s clearly something going on with African-American street culture, quite possibly gang and prison culture, but for the life of me I cannot find any good explications of permeation of tattoos in the NBA, and what it means.

So, it looks like I’ll have to wait for Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry to get back to school. It turns out he’s writing his thesis “on the relationship between basketball players and tattoos.” I can’t wait!

Top Chef, Season 9, Episode 8: Tribute Dinner

Reminder: there will be spoilers.

Let’s cut to the chase: thankfully, Heather is gone. And not just because she’s a bossy, mean, bitch who got caught retweeting naughties and so had to protect her Twitter feed. But because, as she demonstrated last week in her own commentary, she’s a simple-minded chef, who says she has a “rustic style”, and who mishandled the beef in her, you know, BEEF Stroganoff. Good riddance.

Unlike the last few episodes, I liked both challenges. They’ve recognized that Quickfire challenges are just kind of puffery, so they let it be run by Twitter (I loved the ‘hand an ingredient to a chef that they’ll have to use” twist, but was disappointed at how unimaginative the chefs were with it). Paul wins with a bizarre combination of ingredients, once again proving he’s some kind of flavor-combining savant, like a Neo of the palate.

I have no idea why Patti Labelle was a guest judge — apart from being a performer, she has no connection at all to Austin. At least she was charming and even witty.

I really dug the elimination challenge. I even teared up hearing a couple of the stories (and I watch while exercising). I love challenges where there are no excuses, no real limits — just cook something great. And the connection to someone they loved finally pushed some people to go beyond safe or merely good, and try some really interesting stuff.

And some who failed. Maybe instead of calling Chris C “Malibu,” they’ll call him “Albumen” now. And Grayson. I’m actually a fan of the Wisconsin schtick, but that slab of meat just looked unappetizing. And, um, don’t say, “True ‘dat.” (Also, if you’re not the fanboy I am, you might not know that Chris C and Grayson are the leaders in the “fan favorite” poll on Bravo’s site. Chris C’s wide margin suggests Top Chef‘s audience skews female and/or gay.)

I very much want to eat Ed’s bibimbap and Sarah’s cabbage roll-stuffed-with-sausage. Maybe at the same meal!

I think Nyesha might prove herself to be the Ozzy of the Last Chance Kitchen. She’s enough of a badass that I’d like to see her wield a katana as she slices through the competition.

Top Chef, Season 9, Episode 7: Game On

I found this a resoundly disappointing episode. I’m dismayed that the chefs aren’t bringing it. They’re not goading one another to do amazing things. There aren’t enough super chefs blowing people away that everyone feels like they have to raise their game. I’m definitely pining for season 6, when the Voltaggio brothers, Kevin, and Jennifer just blew people away.

Oh well.

The quickfire was so dominated by the discussion of tequila that they pretty much for got to talk about the food. And when Tim Love grinned, it blinded my eyes with all the pearly white.

The elimination challenge was a train wreck. Heather, she of the villain edit, just digs herself deeper and deeper. It’s pretty clear that she’s at best a mediocre chef (at least in this crowd), but she clearly thinks she can do no wrong. I’ve worked with people who, when the shit starts hitting the fan, all they do is point fingers elsewhere, and refuse to accept any blame. Her belief that the reason she was picked out for elimination was because the contestants feared her after her previous win was the height of self-delusion.

And I haven’t even gotten to her bizarre treatment of Beverly throughout the episode. She clearly had so little confidence in Beverly from the start that she never got herself into a place where she could actually work with her. And Heather’s whole “I do rustic farm-to-table and all she does is Asian” smacks of incompetence–no great chef blathers on about supposed styles like this. They just cook great food.

And it doesn’t help, as I’ve mentioned before, that Bev is pretty much a tightly wound bundle of nerves. There couldn’t have been a worse pairing for a team, and it makes you wonder if it was truly random. Though, oddly enough (and it’s easy to forget in all the drama), they didn’t lose! In fact, they might have been on the top of the bottom.

Poor Grayson, paired with crazy Chris J. Poor Nyesha, paired with Dakota’s underdone venison. Grayson continues to be a crowd-pleaser (and it’s not just me, judging by the voting), and I’m happy she’s still cooking.

It’s unfortunate that I’m enjoying Last Chance Kitchen perhaps more than the main show. I like that the focus in not on the bullshit, but the food, and I love the emerging Greek chorus of ousted chefs (all dudes… until next time!). Nyesha is clearly so much more talented that the others that it wasn’t a fair fight. I expect her to win quite a few of these.

I have to say, I’m thrilled they’re getting out of the open-air pit that is Dallas, and heading to one of America’s best cities, Austin. I hope those environs coax quality performances that Dallas just couldn’t inspire.

“Why Don’t People Do More Things That Clearly Work?”, Basketball Edition

A couple days ago, on Grantland, Chuck Klosterman wrote a piece on the Triangle Offense, employed by coach Phil Jackson on his 11 championship teams. The main thesis is that the offense isn’t really that hard to learn or execute, is remarkably effective (11 titles!), and yet no one else is doing it.

It made me think about my other big conundrum about the NBA — Why don’t any NBA big men employ the sky-hook? Mastered by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, it is perhaps the most effective offensive weapon in the history of the sport. It’s not a secret, or even a mystery — there is countless film of Kareem shooting the shot. It would take practice, but how would it not be worth practicing a shot that gets you, oh, 10 points a game? Kareem is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer — why wouldn’t you model your game after him? Was he really that anomalous?

Kurt Andersen – poster child for myopic Baby Boomers

So, I finally got around to reading the “controversial” article that Kurt Andersen wrote about how staid our pop culture has become. I was actually sympathetic to the thesis before I read the piece — I, too, have marveled at how some pop music from the 80s (e.g., Talking Heads) and 90s (e.g., Nirvana) would not be out of place today, or how we’re basically the same t-shirt-and-jeans wearing culture that I grew up with in the 70s. But it doesn’t take much thinking to realize the claim that we’re not seeing new cultural inventions is patently untrue, and smacks of pathetic Baby Boomer myopia (Andersen was born in 1954, smack dab in the heart of the Baby Boom).

It’s distressing that Andersen, who has been a leading cultural critic, is so… superficial. It seems the basis of his commentary is how people dress, shave, and what they listen to. There’s so much more to life than that.

Here are cultural items in 2011 (and a few years earlier) that are new and different, interesting, or simply even unimaginable compared to the state of cultural items in 1991.

Video games
This is probably Andersen’s most glaring oversight, and demonstration of his Boomer irrelevance. He doesn’t mention video games at all. Yet, um, this is a US$65 billion cultural product. And video games are most definitely quite different than they were in 1992.

Dining and drink
Maybe Kurt Andersen doesn’t eat out? Because menus at restaurants today are much different than they were 20 years ago. Freshness, seasonality, farm, etc., are often mentioned. Dining has gotten stranger, more adventurous, and more interesting. Farmers markets are everywhere, and folks everywhere know what a satsuma is. Food trucks have brought quality food into strange locales, and often using a fusion of foodways that had previously been unthinkable (Korean tacos, anyone?).

And then there’s the whole cocktail revolution that is occurring alongside the artisanal food movement. The playfulness and experimentation going on in bars and restaurants was definitely not the order of the day in 1991.

In international architecture, 1997 was an important year — the opening of Guggenheim Bilbao, and the beginning of the ripply-curvy-made-possible-by-CAD-and-simulations architecture. 14 years later, and Bilbao definitely looks contemporary. But, still, that’s not 20 years. And there does seem to be an emerging aesthetic around steel, glass, and wood, perhaps best embodied by the Apple Store (first opened in 2001) that is gaining in prevalence.

Two very big things in 2011 that weren’t even on the radar in 1991. The first, which Andersen himself even acknowledges, but then dismisses, are the season-long complex narratives, such as The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, etc. Yes, there was Hill Street Blues back in the day, but the prevalence, and presentation, are quite different.

The other, and more obvious, is the rise of reality TV. Whether singing shows like American Idol, competition shows like The Amazing Race, Survivor, Top Chef, or Project Runway, or look-at-the-freaks like Real Housewives and Jersey Shore, reality teevee is so different than anything we saw in 1991 it’s ridiculous. Yes, The Real World was first shown in 1992, but it looks so tame as to simply outdated.

Web genres and content
Considering there wasn’t a public World Wide Web, and considering the eruption of so many new modes of expression online, it’s shocking that Andersen pretty much neglects an entire new medium. Whether “home pages”, blogs, or other personal sites, or internet memes like LOLCats or viral videos, there’s an immense category of cultural product that simply had no analog 20 years ago. And a cultural product that is not trivial, but takes up much of the attention that was devoted to more traditional media 20 years ago.

Thanks to the heaps of data we’re subject to, there has emerged an information visualization aesthetic, exemplified by Feltron, The New York Times, or tools like Google Analytics. This isn’t to say we didn’t have information graphics before, but they were fewer and much farther between, and rarely at the level of sophistication that we are getting accustomed to seeing.

And I’m sure there’s more
What I’ve written here came to me in the course of reading Andersen’s piece, and I’m sure that if I bothered to think about it and research it even for another, oh, hour or so more, I could probably double the number of entries. All of this to show that Andersen is either lazy, small-minded, or both.

One thing that he’s inadvertently picked up on, but doesn’t seem to realize, is that now that we’re not as subject to a mass culture with limited channels, cultural products no longer need to be replaced, because there’s plenty of room in the cultural landscape for new and old cultural expression to sit side by side. And because of digital records and the ease of accessing them, those old things simply don’t go away the way they used to, and so it feels like change isn’t occurring.

It’s disappointing that Kurt Andersen, the host of what is ostensibly a radio show about pop culture, seems this unaware of what is actually going on around him (and maybe this is why the show, which I used to follow religiously, has fallen off my podcast radar).

Top Chef: Season 9, Episode 6: Higher Steaks

(remember: there will be spoilers.)

This episode didn’t excite as much response from me as last week’s.

The Quickfire was a good, basic, technique-driven exercise. I couldn’t stand guest judge Dean Fearing, and his condescending style.

I was happy to see Grayson win. She’s a dark horse, and probably won’t go super far, but she’s also one of the few cheftestants that qualify for the seasonal Reality Show Participant That Seems Relatively Normal, Possibly Interesting, And You Think You Could Enjoy A Beer with them. The others who count this season would be Paul, Edward, Chris Jones, and maybe Chris C, if only for his silly commentary.

Unlike Beverly, who seems like a psychotherapist’s wet dream, a bundle of neuroses that seem to stem from the conflicts of being part of the “model minority,” a woman, and a chef (and thus displeasing her family with her career choice.) Beverly wins the Most Like Cameron From Ferris Bueller’s Day Off award, in that you figure if you stuck a lump of coal up her ass, it would come out a diamond.

Heather, who ends up winning elimination by baking Edward’s cake recipe (!), is getting, as they say on the boards, the “villain edit.” And boy, does she seem to deserve it (particularly in the “next week” teaser of her shutting down Grayson). When I see Heather, I’m reminded of the woman who runs the shoe store in the ZZ Top video Legs, the one who eats the girl’s cake.


This is how my brain works.

The less said about those on the bottom, and Whitney ultimately leaving, the better, though I’m bummed that Whitney beat out Chuy in the Last Chance Kitchen.

Top Chef, Season 9, Episode 5: Don’t Be Tardy for the Dinner Party

An experiment. I am thinking of writing about Top Chef, since it’s the show that probably brings out my biggest fan freakiness. These won’t be long, detailed reviews and recaps. Just a collection of thoughts once I get around to watching the latest episode, and have ~10-15 minutes to write a thing. There will be spoilers.

This episode has our cheftestants moving from San Antonio to Dallas. The quickfire challenge was one of those I don’t like — “Given an impossible set of circumstances, make something we’ll like!” So, whatever.

The progressive dinner at the homes of moneyed Dallas people exposed us to one of those breeds of people/households that I’m happy I have little-to-know exposure to. Pretty(-ish) trophy wives and the insecure yet well-paid men who marry them. And, being Texas, the women get bonus points for being tall and blonde.

Years ago, on a research project for a client, we interviewed a number of women about their role as the person responsible for remembering the important occasions in their family’s lives (keepers of the calendars and address books). One woman was a stay-at-home-mom in Dallas (or Plano or something), and it was the most disturbing research interview I’ve seen (I didn’t go, but watched the video). This woman was so fearful of living up to her own mother’s expectations that she pretty much drove herself crazy trying to be a perfect mom. To the degree that when she forgot some “important” occasion for her smallest child (I forget what), she felt soooo badly about it that she woke that child up from his sleep and dragged him to an ice cream parlor. In the course of this interview, she increasingly treated it as a therapy session, at one point admitting that she felt like “a monkey in cage,” and frustrated that she subsumes her entire identity and personality to support her husband and children.

On this research trip, I got into the only major car accident I’ve ever been in. I don’t have any good associations with Dallas.

I’ve been a fan of the Texas-themed challenges so far (Chili! Quincenara!), but helping people with more money than sense was not one I brought any interest to.

In terms of the chefs, Paul is clearly a stone cold maestro in the kitchen. First the ghost chile, and now he rocked a plate of freakin’ BRUSSELS SPROUTS. I very much want to eat his food when I am next in Austin.

When, at the judges table after Chuy was sent home, guest judge John “Look At My Pearly Whites” Besh, said something like, “in the end, it was the overcooked salmon that finished him.” And all I could think of was death in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life pointing an accusatory finger downward and exclaiming, “It was the salmon mousse!” But then, I’m a super nerd.

Good for Chuy to redeem himself in the Last Chance Kitchen, even if he won on literally a technicality. Bummer to see Keith go, since he was such a pleasing presence.

Also, I have to say that I’m super-digging Padma’s outfits this season. Texas fashion suits her surprisingly well.