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“Magic” was one of my favorite shows. Like Mark Peel, I had always heard about the Magic Castle and been curious – I had ever long ago written about the Magic Castle in a piece about the Best Bathrooms in Los Angeles – but I had never been inside.
And with two veteran New York City chef-owners I knew competing – Doug Rodriguez and Anita Lo – against two other celebrated masters – Mark Peel and John Besh, I thought the competition would be especially impassioned. What I like bout this show is watching established professionals in action, even in their flubs.
I had reviewed both Doug at Patria (and in Miami when he wo his first raves at Yucca, before he came to New York) and Anita in her white zen-like retreat Annisa on Barrow Street. Decades ago I had written about Mark Peel coming to New York to cook at Maxwell’s Plum but had never eaten his food at Campanile. And I am sad to say I have never been to New Orleans (I am saving it for my next honeymoon) but I knew of John Best as a real New Orleans hero, feeding the homeless when the waters were still high after Katrina.
Given the challenge of creating a dish inspired by the essentials of magic –- mystery, surprise, illusion and spectacle – they instantly responded to the fantasy. I enjoyed peeking into their minds to watch the evolution of their ideas.
As judges we don’t eavesdrop on the kitchen as the cameras do … so it’s only afterward when I finally get to see the finished show on the screen that I get to watch the spark of inspiration and voyage from idea to finished dish, and get insight into their motivation and style, their egos and their mode of attack. How very different they all were in personality.
Mark’s savory fish in a bag with that sparkling green sauce looked quite modest – especially compared to Anita’s elaborate surrealism. But Mark’s icy cold sake was definitely a seductive note for the judges. And I found John’s variation in salmon to be quite a theatrical surprise. Doug is the author of a book called “Seviche,” so it was no surprise that his seviche sparkled but his fizzled attempt to send out marrow bone soup bowls flaming cost him some points.
Anita’s complex beach scene reminded me of a painting by Salvador Dali – “a work of surrealistic art,” as I said. And it was delicious too as we judges agreed.
I also enjoyed meeting the magicians who were our hosts – magic is a whole new world I know nothing about. The Castle is a hoot. And a special treat was getting to know Gail Simmons who joined us at the judging. As a freshman judge, it was great to watch a professional like Gail in action but beyond that, I loved her accessibility and I realized she was someone I hope to see more of in New York.
From Gael Greene, www.insatiablecritic.com