Arts & Culture

Top Chef, Top Scallop

I like food.  A lot.  Since my son’s initial appearance, my wife Amanda has been watching an intense amount of Food Network (great to watch in short bursts, when you don’t have the time or energy for a full show … Read More

By / August 21, 2009

I like food.  A lot.  Since my son’s initial appearance, my wife Amanda has been watching an intense amount of Food Network (great to watch in short bursts, when you don’t have the time or energy for a full show commitment) so I’ve been exposed to Chopped, Paula Deen, Ace of Cakes, UnWrapped, and The Next Food Network Star. It’s taken quite awhile for me to appreciate watching food as much as I enjoy eating it, but thanks to Top Chef: Masters, I think I am finally there.

The fitting label for these shows is Food Porn.  For me, though, its not just Porn; it’s Food Voyeurism.  As a keeper of kashrut pretty much my whole life, I have never tasted a scallop or a lobster tail.  I can only imagine a cheeseburger, let alone one with bacon, fried in chorizo fat.  And i find it hard even to fathom the consistency or taste of sea urchin.  And yet I am captivated by these shows and the food in large part because of how they peak my imagination (and test my OCD-like commitment) for hitherto unknown flavors.

This week’s Top Chef Masters finale was a celebration of food and the chef’s preparing it.  No nasty curveballs, nothing tricky, simply a chance for the 3 finalists to showcase their skills, passion, and food.  It was exciting and moreso than when watching past shows, I found myself wondering: what does that taste like?  Where can I eat THAT?  Why DON’T I eat sea urchin?  Mexican chef Rick Bayless‘ winning 27-ingredient Mole dish brought me to the height of food jealousy.  It wasn’t even really unkosher. (ingredient-wise. At least I don’t think is was.  He’s keeping the recipe a secret.)

Yes, kosher cooking has come a long way and some of it is very, very good.  There are blogs documenting Kosher food for travelers and modern, socially conscious models of Kashrut.  Yes, there’s even a Kosher restaurant whose executive chef is a Top Chef winner.  I’m not complaining (quite) about the dining options within the Jewish life I choose to lead.  But in these moments as a Food Voyeur, I find myself questioning (somewhat) deeply held convictions when I’d only planned to enjoy some after-work TV-vegetation.  Kashrut (and halachah/jewish law) is not for me, generally, about obeying God’s directives.  I find myself more connected to two things: a relationship to traditions that have defined Jews as Jews for thousands of years and the concept that Jewish life inherently requires some amount of self-control and self-directed living.  And then there is my untested but strong sense that I am probably at least a teeny tiny bit OCD and rules about what pans my food can be cooked in and what foods can touch one another satisfies this need for order.  In other words: I like rules and think following at least some of them is a pretty Jewish thing to do. I know: I’m a nerd.  But then I am reminded that the Jewish thing may not be following rules, its struggling with them.  Learning them, contemplating them, commenting on them, debating their value, relevance, and meaning.  So maybe as long as I struggle with it and don’t enjoy myself too much, I can taste Chef Bayless’ mole.  After all, isn’t that what Jewish guilt is for?

Probably.  But I’m pretty sure I’ll be sticking to seitan skewers and tempeh bacon.