The New Newsroom: why we need Al Jazeera America

A photo of Joie Chen, smiling, with the America Tonight logo on a screen behind her. She's sitting at a anchor desk with a shiny top, brightly light, waiting to deliver the news.

The Complete Works of News: Joie Chen, host of Al Jazeera America’s nightly news program America Tonight. The new cable news channel launched on Tuesday.

Perhaps angling for the small but thoughtful fan base of the HBO series The Newsroom, the new Al Jazeera America nightly news program America Tonight features a series of 15 second commercials profiling  its  producing staff. Each of whom, incidentally, seem like more interesting characters than any of HBO’s fictional Newsnight staff, who for all their biting satirical commentary on recent events sometimes sound about as fresh and relevant as Howard Beale with an Emo haircut.

But while The Newsroom truth is mostly regurgitated Real Time with Bill Maher editorials in Cronkite drag, AJAM is Real Television Journalism and ain’t nothing like the real thing.

In fact, if it were an HBO series, Al Jazeera America would actually be The Wire, unflinching at the bold societal implications sparked by urgent current events, and in hot pursuit of the root causes that make it so. In fact, speaking of Baltimore, David Zurawik agrees in The Baltimore Sun on AJAM’s inchoate urgency.

Al Jazeera America debuted Tuesday 8/20 (find it on your dial), in the place of Al Gore’s ill-fated Current TV, which AJAM purchased for the generous amount of $500,000,000. It promises stories like a week-long series on Chicago’s segregated street violence, pieces on genetically engineered salmon farms, and profiles of successful urban U.S. public schools, plus documentaries, all day and all night.

Wednesday night the America Tonight series Fight for Chicago featured remarkably nuanced reporting on the issue of street violence on the city’s South and West sides. Not just throwing up its hands at the chaos, the report mentioned the several convergent forces, like the Sinaloa cartel, the demolition of the city’s public housing, incarceration of a generation of local gang leadership, proliferation of guns in America, and generalized lack of economic alternatives to drug selling. America Tonight anchor Joie Chen moderated a discussion where local leaders from the communities hardest hit joined via satellite, were respected and given ample time to talk, something that doesn’t even happen on Melissa Harris Perry’s MSNBC show. NPR’s This American Life got the issue of violence in Chicago national attention with its moving Harper High School series, getting Michelle Obama to visit the school. Let’s hope AJAM’s series elicits a proportionate West Wing response.

Attempts are being made to marginalize it. Time Warner Cable per-emptively dropped Current when the planned sale was announced earlier in the year, while AT&T dropped the channel dramatically at 11:59pm on Monday night, just before AJAM’s launch, breaching the broadcast agreement, prompting Al Jazeera to file a lawsuit.

Al Jazeera (literally “the island”) is owned by the oil-rich government of Qatar which decided to become the patron of journalism for the world. Al Jazeera maintains its complete editorial independence. The Guardian reported last year that Al Jazeera editors insisted UN debate on Syria including footage of a speech from the leader of Qatar, despite staff members claims that it was not the most important part of the debate. Frequently, it is praised for insistence to tell all sides of a story, sometimes bringing danger upon itself in the process. With this refreshing platform for news delivery, it is now us, the people of America, who must tune in and operationalize the relevance of this new, nonstop news source.

Earlier in the summer, at the Aspen Ideas Festival, when Ehab Al Shihabi, Al Jazeera’s executive director of international operations, spoke about the launch of the network, and stated that 40- 50 million Americans wanted more original and in-depth news from television broadcasting.

MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, who recently hinted he might be more of a showbiz man than a journalist, openly scoffed at the idea that the news information needs of the United States people were not being met. “I think if you did a survey of the 300 million Americans, I think something like 50 million would tell you they want to read the complete works of William Shakespeare. They won’t,” blustered O’Donnell. People seeking “real” news, would find it at the PBS NewsHour, he said, interestingly, not defending the originality and in-depth nature of his own network.

In a 24-hour news cycle, the idea that everything needed to inform the American public in a globalized world can be found in a one-hour program shown at 6pm, when most people aren’t even home, is just wrong.

The real answer was that people seek it out online, in “lean forward” time-shifted news-gathering, where myriad  public, global, independent, and authentic news sources are available. But Al Jazeera America is right to go for the “lean back” experience of the cable news watching set, they have the money, and they are really going for it. Because 24 hour news cycle is what dictates the U.S. political conversation. And AJAM has the cash to get the glittering sets, in soothing but vibrant colors, the familiar faces like Chen, Soledad O’Brien, and Ali Velshi, all formerly of CNN, and saying  “America” as many times as it can in its marketing.

Uninformed, xenophobic knee-jerkers will object solely on the basis of the networks’ Arabic name and foreign ownership, but really, this is the journalism that America made famous, being re-claimed by a “mad as hell” real-life cast of U.S. journalists. With no need to play to the corporate seats, or tamp it down so as not to offend, Al Jazeera America swept into our cable news like a steady wind of fresh air, just when, like Toni Braxton, we thought we might never breathe again.

Who won the Amazing Race really?

Amazing Race Season 19 finalists from left: Ernie & Cindy, Marcus & Amani, Jeremy & Sandy

Last night’s Amazing Race finale saw Type A (and Type B+) engaged Chicagoans Cindy and Ernie running across the map-shaped finish line first, vowing breathlessly to host Phil Keogan that they would start a non-profit with their $1 million prize money to help the children they had met on their jaunt from Taiwan to Thailand, Indonesia to Malawi, Denmark to Belgium to Panama.

“We want to help inspire them to live a better life and contribute to the global economy,” Cindy said, a loaded statement if there ever was one.

But the question remains: who won the Amazing Race, really?

Here at Contextual Healing, we remember hearing somewhere that it’s the journey, not the destination. So here are the other winning teams of the Amazing Race Season 19 (holy crap there are 19 seasons of the Amazing Race):

**

Best Social Media Save: The guy at the gas station who took to Twitter after finding Kaylani of Kaylani and Lisa’s passport after it sprang out of their SUV and reunited it with her at LAX… on the very first leg of the race. Almost spelling head-slapping doom for the team of former showgirls.

**

Stank-est Attitude that Could Have Cost You The Race: Cindy, of Ernie and Cindy, who dropped and lost their train tickets while whining that all the competitors would be taking the same train out of Denmark, erasing the lead they had stressed their way to.  Luckily for them, the tickets were never collected.

**

Mr. and Mr. Congeniality: Loveable snowboarders Andy and Tommy who did inverted 720s through the race, vocally loving Jesus, winning six episodes and exchanging enthusiastic whooos in multiple languages. Until they reached Panama and the rest of the teams benefitted from the teamwork ingrained in the Panamanian cab driving profession when faced with a flock from the EEUU gritando “Rapido! Rapido! – we’re in a race!”

**

The Biggest Losers: (Second place finishers) dating couple Jeremy and Sandy, when they spoke to their cab driver in Atlanta the same way they spoke to their cab drivers around the world: “You wait for us.”  (Winners) Ernie and Cindy, again, when they bickered with their cab driver in Thailand when he asked them for more money: “No! That’s more than enough!”

**

Herbal Essences™ Goodwill Ambassadors: Twins Liz and Marie who gave a group of Indonesian resort employees a good deal of amusement when they failed to stab and shimmy beach umbrellas into the sand. Only to turn right around and give a group of older Thai men hearty belly laughs when they shoveled baby elephant dung, squealing in delight.

**

Certified 100% Oregon Tilth Organic: Grandparents Bill and Cathi who past the age of 60 would rather build and sail a raft than make waffles given the choice, not to mention climb a cliff face and not even mind oiling up for a bodybuilding competition with good natured aplomb, wise cracking at their difficulties and setting an example for the usually lightly bickering and frequently unsupportive Jeremy and Sandy.

**

Most Valuable Players: married couple Marcus and Amani, who finished third. After often falling to last place, they gave hints to teammates and got a spontaneous crowd rooting for them as they solved a slide puzzle in Malawi.  All amidst effortlessly solid football metaphors from former pro-baller Marcus. “She’s smarter than any quarterback that I’ve ever played with and tougher than any linebacker than I’ve faced,” he said of his wife and the mother of their four children.

***

Follow us on Twitter: @contextmessage

Conan Rocks Jeggings!

Watch this instant classic at tbs.com

WHY was Conan’s wearing of the resurgent jean-looking stretch-pants known as jeggings the funniest thing ever?

When I was eight, I HAD some jeggings. You see, my youthful self found real jeans uncomfortable for some odd reason, and this seemed like a nice compromise.

But even back then, the jeggings didn’t seem ready for the world. I looked at those things through my Sally Jesse Raphael glasses and said to myself, “these’ll never come back.”

I didn’t anticipate our current moment.

Maybe it’s the fact that, at the end of the day, what you’re actually wearing is an artist’s rendering of jeans.

Maybe it’s that jeans were invented for men to work building the freaking railroad back in the day.

Maybe it’s that you look like you’re watching coverage of the first Persian Gulf War on a TV inside a wooden piece of furniture instead of the second Gulf War on a small notebook-sized slabs of metal and minerals. What do we wear when we’re watching this one? Unfortunately, we don’t know.

Maybe it’s the fact that they are like a parody of an iconic pant, American blue jeans took the rest of the world by storm like that syrupy carbonated Kola nut (Africa?) and Cocoa (South America?) drink (the secret ingredient of which isn’t even public knowledge, reports John Pilger):

Maybe its because Conan wore them with a Little Lord Faunteleroy strut like he knew it all.

When Tim Gunn informed Conan that, yes, some men were “out there” who wore jeggings, this prompted total disbelief from Conan.

He was curious about stretch pants like a sociologist. He was going to expose them. And possibly himself.

It brings us to the question: what do stretch pants mean?

If you wanted to get all Harvard semiotics major about it you could also interpret stretch pants as pants that stretch across the globe – as so much of commercial clothing is these days, produced for Americans, by others in countries with lower income, but perhaps in cultural ways, maybe a higher standard of living. And the thing is with figurative and literal stretch jeans, its so hard to hide who you truly are.

Conan said, America: take a good look. At yourself. It’s me in jeggings right now.

 

 

Red State, Blue State, Old State New State

Russ Feingold, holding his chin, looking like he is deciding something.

Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) taking time, making up mind

So the midterm elections were held earlier this week.  Most of the “pundits” I heard talking about this whole thing seemed to think that it was a referendum on the way the country has been run by President Obama.

This supposed ’10 conservative backlash has spurred a social media backlash in its turn, as many Facebook-ers (I guess I have more Democrat friends than Republicans, even though most eschew the Politics section of the personal profile, or put something quirky) have posted the link to to the website whatthefuckhasobamadonesofar.com – a helpful litany of the social-good actions taken by President over the past almost-two years.

So that is a bit of a face-saver. Although, reading the list, I remembered this election-year explanation from hip-hop legend K.R.S. One, in which he explains how the President of the United States is like the manager of Burger King:

Yeah… so what would that make the Congress? Burger King employees?

Yet and so, America got to go out and vote for its duly elected officials – and I did so too. I’ve heard all the jive talk from friends about how “if voting could really change anything, it would have been outlawed years ago.” Perhaps, perhaps. But politics is like a game based on fear of what others will do, not love of your actions (kind of like Family Feud).

One thing’s for sure: the U.S. does have that whole Coca-Cola/Pepsi, “Autobot/Decepticon” (in the brilliant words of Mos Def on Real Time with Bill Maher), McDonalds/Burger King binary thing going on with its political parties. Other nations don’t seem to feel threatened by breaking up the two-way political cluster-f*** by throwing in a third, or even fourth, party into the elections, but that has been an unheard-of issue for the longest here in the would-be paragon of democracy.

We seem to love watching that map light up with red and blue, and the election projections flashing across our screen up to the last moment before the news media, no, the BROADCAST NEWS MEDIA, tells us who won, based on their calculations. But answer me this: why can’t we wait even 24 hours before we have to know who won (or who was the projected winner – never mind whether the provisional or absentee ballots have been counted yet, or if those damn Diebold voting machines ever got the “kinks” out of them since the ’04 debacle). Do we really have to call it all that night?  Other countries can take weeks to count all the votes and determine winners. Do we need that primary colored map to sleep that night? Even American Idol waits a full day before announcing who is going back to the karaoke bar.

In my state of New York, the Democrats (the Blue Team! Hurrah!) carried the evening.  Supporters of governor-elect Andrew Cuomo breathed a sigh of relief when he beat plain-crazy Republican Carl Palladino and I guess this is good for those of us who like social services, gay marriage (though time will tell) and non-crazy people. But I have a hard time voting for people who have the same last name (and blood kinship) with people who held the same elected post in the recent past. This is supposed to be a democracy, people!  We’re not supposed to keep it in the family!

So, Nov. 2nd being the day after rent day (if I actually paid my rent on the first, instead of being a grace-period kind of person), I was reflecting on how my rent was pretty damn high. So I voted for this man:

My candidate, Mr. Jimmy McMillan got a rare chance to express his platform at the NY Gubernatorial Debate in October, as you can see above. Though laughed off and dismissed, this perennial candidate had a passion and truth of message that touched me at the core. Mr. McMillan got almost 40,000 votes. The karate expert, Brooklyn activist and Vietnam veteran was the easiest vote I cast in my whole voting career. But it wouldn’t be enough. Not by a long shot.

Wednesday’s wee hours of the morning saw the heartbreaking ouster of Russ Feingold, Senator from Wisconsin, my home state, the ethical, quiet, eloquent, broke-ass, vaguely Bert from Sesame Street-resembling Maverick (before McCain and Palin wore out that term with their dead-eyed smiling buffoonery). Feingold voted against the Patriot Act (and was the only U.S. Senator to do so), and looking back, you get the feeling he did the heavy lifting with the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act too.  When others bought their way to the white-domed structure of their choosing with mud-slinging campaign ads designed to make you think their opponent wasn’t just a potentially bad legislator, but perhaps a back alley-stalking predator, Feingold campaigned on TV one year by showing the beat up old van he used to campaign the first time back in 1991. He was the poorest Senator several years running, but Wisconsinites stuck to their populist roots and re-elected him time and again. This week he was ousted by Ron Johnson, a businessman who proudly knows nothing about Washington, and once arranged for an organization he was part of to pay thousands of dollars in speaking fees to hear the Bell Curve c0-author Charles Murray hold forth.

Again, my Facebook network exploded with laments and paens to Feingold, and I was saddened to see the senator I had been so proud of, and always perked up to see on C-SPAN, getting the boot in favor of a serious Know-Nothing who would do who knows what in the name of Wisconsin.

My home state was red. I was already in bed. And I am getting sick of Burger King.

“Why do you work it?” Love in this Club by Usher featuring Young Jeezy

Part 1 of a series where we over-analyze pop music videos.

Envelopes are being pushed all over the music video world, not just in Erykah Badu’s recent Window Seat video. Usher declared his society-challenging intentions in the disarmingly complex short film from 2008 (I guess we could call music videos that?) “Love in This Club” by Usher featuring Young Jeezy even has a Matrix (2): Reloaded quality to it in its flashy yellow-gold-on-blackness lighting, like the scene from that uneven follow-up to 1999’s genre-breaking The Matrix where the multiethnic survivors of the Zion settlement sensually rave together in a momentary break from fighting a bleak galaxy dominated by computer-monsters.

“I want to make love in the club” croons Usher – then, what could be a disembodied bouncer/security chorus interrupts “Heyy…” as if to put to kibosh on the love-in-club-making unfolding on top of the precious-gem-studded, deep pile plush booth-beat.

This club is weird – Keri Hilson keeps slinking out of nowhere and draping herself sexily on Usher’s perplexed-expression-ed belting hunk, to which he reacts the way that Usher knows how to react – and things and people keep disappearing – while some of hip-hop’s superstars show up sunglass-ed and astounded for just a moment to be handed a length of diamonds (Blood diamonds? We wonder when Kanye West leans on the bar and plays melancholy air guitar) while Young Jeezy raps about setting us free “mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally” over impossibly persistent horns – or is it just synth? – and perhaps this club is the manifestation of fame – confusing, making you follow urges that might not end in the best outcomes – unless you’re URsher or one of the other male stars featured, who MAYBE could make Love in a Club consequence-lessly, but more likely it could end up in the tabloids or on the Gawker mini-article feed:

“Usher fined $750,500 for ‘lewd behavior’ after love-making incident in Las Vegas club.” “Mel Gibson recorded ranting at parking lot attendant about taxes in Aramaic.” “Kim Kardashian’s Disasterous Vanity Fair Photo Shoot.” “VIDEO: LeBron James humiliated in melodic freestyle by Krayzie Bone of Cleveland’s Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony in Miami Jamba Juice.”

But maybe not, perhaps discretion is assured, part of the “deal-with-the-diamonds/divas” these rappers have seemed to have made.

Nevertheless, nothing prepares us for the end. After chasing Ms. Hilson around the club which alternately fills and empties with fellow aspiring love-makers, Usher, almost out of breath from a dope dance number heads shoulder-first into a door and is suddenly in the ruins of a windblown bluish-gray dystopia – there is no club, no Kerri, no Cristal, no icy strings of diamonds, no swirling yellow lights, no superstars (maybe there never really were any) and all you have left is your head full of a beat that thankfully still bumped through your head like a speeding dune buggy in a nearer-future, more feasible Mad Max scenario.

Push/Precious and The Hurt Lockdown

The Hurt Locker wins Best Picture at the 2010 Oscars

Put the hurtin' on Best Picture: The Hurt Locker

I am experiencing delayed-onset Oscar Fever via disjointed YouTube clips due to the Cablevision flap – or whatever it was that interrupted the ABC signal on its way to my rabbit ears and sturdy little DTV digital converter box, where it could have slid down the series of wires and flickered onto my screen in I guess pixels now!  showing me a bunch of people in gowns and black suits, wearing diamonds, weilding gold statues.

Hollywood’s biggest night.  The Oscars.

I have pretty much caught up – the beginning musical number with Neil Patrick Harris was really (can I say this?) gay (I think that that’s what Antonio Banderas was mouthing when the camera showed him). There was what is now being called a Kanye West/Taylor Swift power struggle over the acceptance speech for Best Documentary Short.  Well, hopefully this will get more people to watch the film, Music by Prudence, which I am looking forward to watching – hopefully this behind the scenes drama will get it to Blockbuster!

By the way: how crazy is it that you can now “Kanye West” somebody – which means a racially tense grabbing of the spotlight on a live awards telecast.  It should mean also to make a radical statement on a disaster-relief telethon (too bad nobody really Kanye Wested any of the Haiti events, frankly, because the IMF and the World Bank and thus the United States DO NOT Care About Haitian People.)

Mo’Nique also won big in the category of Best Supporting Actress for Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. When I saw her stirring acceptance speech I immediately thought about MY FRIENDS that I sat around with when we were fourteen and talked about how we were going to become famous.  Yay Mo’Nique!

In her wardrobe, speech and backstage chat, Mo’Nique referenced Hattie McDaniel – the first African American woman to win the award for her performance in Gone With the Wind.  “She is on my mind tonight,” Mo’Nique told the press backstage after her win, “And she should be on your minds as well.”

And how.  Gone With the Wind is an indelible part of Hollywood legend and iconography.  Though nowhere near as flagrant as the hate-mongering Birth of a Nation (itself still celebrated as a feat of early cinema), Gone With the Wind – like all movies – and definitely Awards shows serve like time-capsules of how the situation is on the ground: play the role of Mammy onscreen, win an Academy Award for it.  So now we have only the fourth African American woman to win the award, and she plays a mom that has turned on her own children, three generations after Hattie McDaniel and so many other women played an exaggerated Mammy to white children who are pampered like Vivian Leigh – the servant to a child.

So then we had The Blind Side with Sandra Bullock, who plays the matriarch of a Taco Bell franchise-owning millionaire clan who take in a young African American man who later goes on to play in the NFL (based on a true story!).  After breaking on the scene sixteen years ago in Speed, Bullock’s bus finally pulled up (screeched to a halt?!) when she won Best Actress for The Blind Side Sunday night. (Clooney barely clapped when they showed the clip from the film as a Best Picture nomination, but who can blame him? It featured what Mos Def might call “corny color jokes” – yikes).  She dedicated her Oscar to the mothers who take in babies with no place else to go, presumably including African American and Latin American, Asian babies who have impoverished mothers or mothers who won’t take care of them.  Hattie McDaniel, you’re on my mind.

A big winner was the Iraq war film The Hurt Locker, with screenwriter [embedded Playboy journalist] Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow winning statues, as well the film itself taking home the Best Picture trophy, which it will proudly display on its video rental boxes.  When the triumphant cast and crew took the stage, co-stars Jeremy Renner, Brian Geraghty and Anthony Mackie hugged one another like brothers in combat as they celebrated like bros in a manner that recalled the scene in the movie in which they celebrate surviving an unexpected standoff with faceless Iraqi insurgents after they stumble upon Ralph Fiennes and a bunch of British special forces who are mysteriously dressed like Iraqis (Agent provacateurs? In the movie’s most interesting moment, we wonder).

Celebrated for giving audiences all of the taste of the Iraq war with none of the getting dirty or shot up or messed up or “politics,” The Hurt Locker is the story of a bomb-diffusing Army unit’s three members, as they count down the days until they can go home.  And then [SPOILER ALERT] one of them gets home, takes one look at his little baby son and wife that played on Lost and turns right back around to the war.  Enlisting.  Again.

Like so many people in the Army were forced to do through in the real world through the policy of “stop loss.”  In December 2009, Army Specialist Marc Hall was jailed in Liberty County, Georgia for refusing to re-deploy to Iraq after being stop lossed – oh, and spitting an angry hip-hop song about it didn’t help him stay out of jail either.  Read more about Marc Hall here.

Maybe we should have followed Serget JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) home instead – it didn’t seem to sit well with him what had gone on the past couple years.  But unfortunately, his character isn’t as fleshed out as it could have been in the writing, even as Mackie embodies the tense  manner of his occupation within the occupation as a man of color, making the movie that much more interesting.

But Staff Sergent William James is the hero of the movie, maybe named after the Varieties of Religious Experience guy, as being in the Iraq war is his form of religion, apparently, or as the opening quote hints bleakly, context-lessly, his drug.  Wait a minute: he does help the Iraqi people through diffusing the bombs that are being set off in their midst.  That are meant for him.  An important thing to do.  His character, interestingly enough, is never directly shown killing anyone.  Not so for his co-unit people Sergent Sanborn and Specialist Owen Eldridge who do kill, left and right.  James actually tenderly coaches Sanborn through sniping the “insurgent” Iraqis who hole up  in an isolated stone fort in the middle of the desert.

Whoa so the best we can do in this war is tread water harm-wise like James, get an adrenaline rush and make a few buddies?  Does that make sense to do?

Oh, and another thing about Staff Sergent James: His methods are unorthodox.  He’s crazy. Renner’s male bonding scenes with Mackie and Geraghty feel put on, like acting class exercises where he plays the coolest guy in the room.  But this crazy bastard might be just what we need.  Sort of like a metaphor for Bush’s and now Obama’s war?  It’s kind of gross.

Following the blueprint of – as journalist John Pilger puts it Hollywood’s “pity the invader Vietnam war tragedies,” but dialing down the Army-is-absurdity of its predecessors (though did anyone else catch a weird Chaplin Tappan character reference to Catch 22?)  – this is tragedy lite – the kind of movie you make when the war is still going on.  What is the word for that?  Propaganda?

More Asians depicted most centrally as children (see Tropic Thunder): the Iraqi character with the most lines is a young boy who is sadistically murdered by the ghostly insurgents – who are these people intent on tearing their country apart?  At least in David O. Russell’s superior Three Kings we got the “What’s the matter with Michael Jackson?” scene with Mark Walhberg forced to guzzle crude oil.

But nope, in The Hurt Locker, all the tragedy lies with the Americans.  We don’t get to see the people whose country is being occupied.  It’s a desert cypher, as incomprehensible as Japan to Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation.  It’s as though the U.S. has the lockdown on feeling of hurt from this war, and with more than one million Iraqis dead since 2003 – how can that possibly be true?

Please Pack Your Machete and Go

Hector Santiago, chef and owner Pura Vida restaurant, Atlanta

Judgment of Food Show Continues to Provide Sociology Lessons

by Lauren Pabst

“It looks like he cut this with an ax!”

– An astonished Gail Simmons of Food & Wine Magazine on Hector Santiago’s steak on Top Chef Las Vegas last week. He and partner Ash Fulk ran out of time on the cooking of a chateau briand and had to cut 24 pieces of meat in 2 minutes.

Episode Four of Top Chef Las Vegas was very French. It even ended up being perpetually red neckerchiefed San Francisco-based restaurant owner and contestant Mattin’s birthday. The Quickfire asked the chefs to make an accessible, innovative dish of escargots (snails) and Jesse Sandlin, who created a ELT (escargots, fresh greens and fried tomato) ultimately lost and was sent home. (kicked off the island of asphalt, palm trees and neon in the middle of the desert)

You could tell Jesse was nervous about it. Head Judge Tom Colliccio asked her “What was the inspiration for this?”

“I don’t know” she said. (What about a BLT? Why not.)

“I haven’t felt like myself since I got here” said Jesse in the obligatory exit interview. “I just want people to know that I don’t suck this bad.”

The contestants moved on to the big challenge. They each drew knives listing a “classic French” sauce and cut of meat. The meat-drawers had to pair with the sauce makers to whip up an innovative take on Classic French Cooking, to be judged by super big name chefs in the world of French Cooking – superstars like a guy named Joel Robouchon.

[So, if Top Chef comes from a default setting of low-expectations from Mexican food, they LOVE Classic French Cooking. Chef, sautee, entrée, cuisine, restaurant, sauce, café, bistro, latte, mise-en-place, chiffonade, brunoir – there already exists lots of French validation to cooking. What separates a cook from a chef? I haven’t eaten much French food (do French fries count? That’s a serious question) but it does seem good and complicated (they can fold thin dough every which way and butter it up… oh, the crossaint, crossandwich). But so is –  say, Thai food delicious and complicated to the untrained. And Greek food, Chinese food (definitely!), Indian food, Mexican food, Nigerian food, and more. Is it because the wife of a State Department worker, Julia Child, got around to Mastering the Art of French Cooking as a hobby that marvelously revolutionized American taste buds and eating habits, as the recent movie Julie and Julia suggests, when she “went native” in postwar Paris? Haven’t seen it, but heard that the Julie of the book, the blogger who cooked every recipe in Julia Child’s giant French cookbook in a year was working at the same time as a counselor for people affected by the attacks of 9/11 in New York. French cooking as escaping/coping with (fill in the blank)? The ultimate compliment, maybe.]

Jennifer C. was paired with Mike V., brother to Bryan V. (who won the episode with a “deconstructed bernaise”). Jennifer C. and Mike V. displayed a palpable cooking chemistry in the kitchen.

“How was it cooking together?” asked a judge, after praising their dish. Jennifer professed seriously a highly compatible kinetic energy while preparing rabbit and sauce together. Mike affirmed.

Besides Jennifer and Mike’s bunnies, other teams cooked lobster, frogs legs, trout and young chicken – all fairly dainty cuts of meat with similar cooking times (it seems to this non-chef, merely sometime cook).

For the same amount of time, a big hunk of meat (chateau briand) was assigned by knife-pulling – an Arthurian-like practice (Camelot = $250,000 cash and products furnished by the makers of Kitchen-Aid) to Hector and Ash.

“So a gay guy and a Puerto Rican have to cook dinner for Joel Robouchon, right?” joked Ash as they got started.

Hector shimmied his knife along the fat on long cuts of chateau briand. “I used to work in a banquet hall. This is all people want, filet mignon.

The oven didn’t get as hot as Hector was expecting it to for the way he wanted to cook the beef. [One French chef judge would later frustratedly list how little time it took to roast a proper chateu briand]. They ran out of time cooking the meat.

“Eight seconds? That’s going to happen quickly” said Ash, saucing the plates in a rush.

Hurried cutting of the undercooked, bloody meat led it to absorb Ash’s sauce and to upset the delicate but boisterous Gail Simmons of Food and Wine Magazine.

“It looks like he cut it with an ax!” she exclaimed of the steak, riled up, mascaraed eyes wide.

Receiving an unevenly cooked end piece, Gail did her best neo-Mae West, almost neck-popping, in asserting that in giving her the end, they had “picked the wrong lady.”

“I am Haitian and Haitians and the French, we don’t like them and they don’t like us” said Classically trained French chef Ron Duprat. His dish went by in the middle – neither the best nor the worst, thus avoiding more than the just the most cursory critique. [It seems possible that the French don’t feel any particular way towards Haitians now… but the nation’s time spent with their feet on the island leaves a rough footprint, to say the least.]

Hector was told to pack his knives (and axes, if any, we can assume) and go on account of the undercooked meat. A chef and restaurant owner in Atlanta, he had said in an earlier interview that he started as a dishwasher and worked his way up.

“I wish I could have represented my people longer” Hector said before exiting the studio as he had been asked to do, politely.

In his “morning after” interview, available on BravoTV.com, Hector states his frustration with the experience.  That the judges were so judgmental of his traditional Latin American cooking style – when he fried a steak chicharron style – was particularly surprising to Santiago.

“In Latinoamerica, we fry everything… That they couldn’t understand that was really shocking to me.  They think that their way is the only way” Santiago said.  In the interview, he went on to state that getting kicked off on the fourth challenge would not allow him to accomplish his goal of raising the profile of his restaurant but would “actually diminish” his career.

Food for thought. Although I do not know what percentage of restaurant staff in the U.S. is Latino, it is certainly a high one. Latinos cook all kinds of food – from classical French cuisine to Japanese fare and pizza. It is interesting that Top Chef does not recognize as a valid style techniques common to Latino kitchens – the ones at home, or in Latin American restaurants. What is better-received on the show is cooking things sous vide (a style I had never heard of before tuning in to TC) – in a plastic vacuum-sealed sack, seemingly, in boiling water.  Many “cheftestants” get praised for this preparation.

Just another little interesting snapshot of real people, trapped in the pressure cooker of reality TV – and the steamy insight that drifts out.

Next Episode: The chefs visit a Wild West-like “settlement” set in the desert and circle the wagons, appearing to cook with big pots and pans.