Sympathy For The Devil
Anthony Bourdain reacts to Howie's departure.
There was rejoicing in TV-land last night, as designated bad guy Howie whiffed on three pitches and was sent home for good. For many who have posted on this site, offended by his petulance, his obstinacy, the veritable Niagara of sweat that flowed freely from his brow, it was none too soon. But...but... what do we do now? With no bad guy?
And was Howie all that bad?
Did we judge Howie too harshly because of his less-than-matinee idol looks? If he sweated less profusely, and looked like a young Brad Pitt, would his words and attitude alone have made him such a compelling target? When I look at Howie, short, bald, pants looking two sizes too big on him, built like a small tank and with an expression on his face like a closed fist, I sense the end product of a long line of tormentors.
Knowing nothing about him, I'm guessing that this guy has experienced, in his time, more than his share of insult. The Howie we've come to love -- to hate -- cannot, I think, have made it through the school system -- much less the early part of a cooking career without soaking up a lot of punishment. What has evolved is a tough, hard-shelled little bastard who just refuses to give an inch. I may not want to work with him. I certainly don't want to be marooned on Gilligan's Island with him. But I admire his toughness.
Which is not to say he didn't richly deserve to get the chop. Absolutely unwilling to "lose", Howie, reaching the bottom of his limited bag of tricks, positioned himself as "choosing" to fall on his sword. Knowing that his Quickfire offering was an embarrassment, he trotted out the high-minded principle argument again (as he did in Episode One). He "chose" not to submit a less-than-the best offering -- cause he's just so exacting and his standards so high, you see.
His upturned martini glass was a defiant "Screw You" to the judges, but to me it smacked of Roberto Duran's famous "No mas" end to his bout with Sugar Ray Leonard. The tough, proud, and previously unbeatable Duran, after a few short rounds with the much faster, more polished Leonard, looked into the future and saw nothing but many more rounds of swinging at empty air and a humiliating loss on points. So he quit. Better, he figured, to walk out upright than allow anyone the satisfaction of watching him be a punching bag in the last round.
It's the old "You can't fire me! I QUIT!" exit strategy, and Howie was workin' it from early in the show. "Who gives a **** what the judges say? " he was saying -- even before he lost. In the bit from his exit interview, Howie was already at work on his revisionist version of events -- that he'd "made the right choice."
In truth, there was no choice about it. He gave the Elimination Challenge his best shot -- and it wasn't nearly good enough. In fact, it was light years away from adequate. Asparagus "cigars" wrapped in phyllo? Mushroom "Duxelle" sitting on puff pastry? Are you kidding? You go to any Midwestern Association of Insurance Adjusters conference at some airport convention center, and before suffering the "choice of chicken or salmon" sit-down dinner in the banquet room, there will be the grim gauntlet of hors' doevres (along with the jug Chablis and the sparkling wine). Alongside the curling carrot sticks and unripe brie will no doubt be passed greasy, phyllo wrapped objects and mysterious sludgelike substances festering atop pre-cooked hollows of puff pastry much like Howie's. Monochromatic. Oxidizing into even more extreme ugliness with every passing second. And ubiquitous in the Annals of Mediocrity. About as "stylish" as baby quiche, devilled eggs -- or remaki.
I was never a creative genius as a chef. Far from it. I was a journeyman. God knows, back in the day, I ran to the freezer many times during the Christmas party season, looking to bail myself out with frozen spanokopita, the case of Durkee bits, the frozen baby quiche -- or made a quick retreat to curried chicken salad on Belgian endive leaves -- when extreme measures were called for. But I never deluded myself while doing it that I was Escoffier. I wasn't "Top Chef". I was "Desperate For Something Else to Feed the Hungry Mob Chef".
Howie, I think, is also, a journeyman chef. Which is why I retain no small measure of respect and even affection for him. To be honest with myself, for a lot of my career -- if not most of my career -- I cooked more like him than like some of the brighter lights among the contestants. If cooking professionally were simply an endurance sport, Howie would have the world by the balls. When talking top tier cooking, though, toughness and endurance just ain't enough. Howie, eventually and inevitably, I'm afraid, simply ran out of gas in the creative and finesse departments. Believe me, I know the feeling.
And what of former bad-guy, Hung? The other contestants seem to be softening towards him, more amused than appalled these days by his frenetic wierdness. The spontaneous applause at his "Homage Aux Smurfs Sauvages" Quickfire entry was a great "Aww shucks" moment. He's much more the puppy that eats your sneakers these days than the viper in the woodpile.
And look at this significant difference between Howie and Hung: Both were screwed by "difficult" supermarket aisles. But Hung, who was arguably faced with mission impossible, went ahead and enthusiastically had FUN with the situation, embracing the silliness and futility of his predicament by creating a totally loonie tunes collage of crushed up breakfast cereal, a pediatrician's wall mural of powdered crunchberries, booberries, and Lucky Charms. It was haute cuisine for six-year-olds -- and while it had no chance of winning, neither did it lose. Instead of smashing his toys and sulking in the corner, Hung actually revelled in reverting to his childhood.
And I'm thinking he might have been among the smartest of the bunch with his shrewdly pedestrian salmon mousse with caviar on cucumber round. It ain't dumb, faced with the challenge of feeding 60 "stylish fashionistas" on the SS Minnow, to keep your head down and aim solidly for the middle ground. The dish -- as was accurately pointed out by the wise and wonderful Dana Cowin -- is indeed as 80s as A Flock of Seagulls and a Mannitol drip . Thing is, people LOVE that shit. It's colorful. It looks "light" and "healthy" and if you're a recently tightened "fashionista", you don't have to open your mouth too wide, distend your cheeks unattractively or wipe crumbs or sauce off your lipstick when you're done. It may be "over" to people who cook food and write about food or even eat food professionally. But as Hung, in acknowledging its retro legacy said, "People will still be eating it in 50 years".
Truer words have never been spoken. Those little pink and green discs of goodness are the Caterer's Best Friend; a perfect fallback position when looking to stay in the game without getting injured. I suspect Hung heard the words "stylish" and "fashionistas" and assumed, not unreasonably: "models" and "dumb as a board" -- and chose his dish accordingly. Even the bitchiest of customers could hardly muster much scorn beyond an extravagantly jaded sigh.
Why am I humping Hung's leg with such enthusiasm? Cause something really interesting and important happened this week. Hung PUT ASIDE HIS EGO in the shared interests of the mission -- and his personal strategy. He knew with certainty that salmon mousse on cucumber was yesterday's news. And he HAD to know he'd be facing an unimpressed -- even incredulous panel of judges. Yet, instead of trying to look like Wonder Boy, he let pride take a back seat for an unchallenging, utilitarian crowd-pleaser, gambling confidently that someone else would go into the dumper. Howie quickly vindicated that faith.
Winner Casey reminded us why she's still around and still dangerous after last week's slow motion Demolition Derby of a Quickfire Challenge. She may wield her knife like a medieval pole-axe, but she's clearly got an extraordinary palate and a good eye for presentation.
CJ wheeled out ye olde seafood sausage and can't be faulted for it. Perfectly suited for the venue, tasted good. And it worked before,for others, so why not again?
Brian, on the other hand, did not -- as in previous weeks -- manage to sneak through the crowded outhouse unsplattered. This time, he emerged fully covered in ordure. Had Howie not so proudly extended the middle finger in the Quickfire -- and rushed so enthusiastically to embrace the Pillsbury Doughboy in the Elimination, it would surely have been Brian hitting the high-jump. No contest. I'm beginning to agree with some of the commentators/observers on this site who have pointed out that Brian seems to have managed to avoid cooking altogether for the last few weeks. And this week, as "executive chef" with dibs on the "money dish", he again dodged anything resembling a heat source. Colicchio looks like he's ready to lunge across the Judges' Table and take a jagged bite out of the next uninspired, knucklehead who DARES serve him tuna tartare. I feel his pain. Let us, by all that is holy, be done with it.
In spite of his mealy-mouthed buck-passing and blame-diffusing at the end, Brian didn't fool anybody on the judges' panel. The "I wasn't really in charge and therefore am not to blame because they're all chefs too" defense was pathetic. As a chef, to complain that your crew "just won't listen" doesn't get you any sympathy. It gets you unemployed.
Bottom line: Brian blew every aspect of the challenge. He presided over a boring menu (where bread seemed to feature obtrusively in nearly every course), he spent his budget unwisely, and deployed his crew poorly (choosing variety over quality), shrank from responsibility at every turn (not killing off Howie's craptacular vol-au-vent idea in its crib -- or stopping it before it left the kitchen), and once again, seemed to busy himself doing everything BUT actually cooking. Do you really need an expediter for a cocktail party of finger food for 60? I think not. Lately, Brian seems AWOL without even being gone.
I should point out, by the way, that I'm guest judging again next week. Which means I know what happens. And while I am precluded from discussing future broadcasts by a confidentiality agreement rivalling the NSA's in the severity of its penalties for unauthorized disclosure, I can reveal this: There will be a SlaughterFest of Horror, an Orgy of Bloodletting, Partial Nudity, Flammable Liquids, Unspeakable Misuse of Power Tools and Small Woodland Creatures, and the Plaintive Wailing of the Doomed. It will make Altamont look like Lilith Fair.