I’m Back

And I’m back. Did–no, on second thought, I won’t ask if you missed me. If you did, I’ll be mortified at denying you the pleasure of my company for two weeks. And if you didn’t, you’ll be mortified at having to admit it. So let’s just not go there and save us all the embarrassment.

Taking the time off was definitely the right move. Not having to fit blogging around a work training schedule, holidays, and family time simplified my life enormously. I’m still on a training (read that as “variable”) schedule, but everything else has settled down enough that I think I can get back to blogging on the usual Tuesday/Thursday/Friday plan. I’ll worry about possible changes to the blog posts once I’m done with training and have a more predictable work schedule.

No, I didn’t get much fiction writing done over the break. But I’m ready to get back to that as well. As soon as this post goes up, I’m starting the second draft of Demirep. Unlike many authors, I enjoy revising. Finishing a first draft is a rush, but sometimes the actual writing is a slog. Rewriting is almost always easier, because I know where I’m going and how I’m getting there. Fewer false trails means faster, more enjoyable writing.

Moving on.

There’s progress on the Bay BridgeTransbay Transit Center. The repair plan has been made and approved. Not a whole of detail has been released yet–it sounds like there will be more after the Transbay Joint Powers Authority board meets on Thursday–but the gist is that steel plates will be attached on the upper and lower surfaces of the vulnerable beams.

Standard disclaimer: I’m not a structural engineer. That said, the fact that the plan calls for reinforcements to be added to both the Fremont Street and First Street beams suggests to me that the tests found nothing wrong with the metal–that the problem is more likely to be design or construction. I’m looking forward to hearing more, including the estimated date for reopening the Transit Center, which will depend in large part on how long it takes to find a source for the reinforcement plates.

Moving on again.

Actual employment that requires leaving the house does mean I’ll have less time for television. That may be a problem come baseball season–though, as I’ve said before, I find having a ballgame on in the background helps my writing–but at this time of year, it’s arguably a good thing. Yes, the latest seasons of Worst Cooks in America and Kids Baking Challenge* started this week, the former on Sundays at 9:00 and midnight Eastern, the latter on Mondays at the same time. Which is, by the way, very nice scheduling for those of us on the West Coast: 6pm and 9pm fit very nicely around dinner and bedtime. (As usual, those of you in other time zones get the awkward scheduling.)

* Shouldn’t that be “Kids'” with an apostrophe? It’s a competition for, i.e. belonging to multiple kids.

But I’m having doubts about WCiA. It’s a cooking show, supposedly. But it seems as though each season we see less cooking, and the antics of the competitors are getting more predictable. Both, IMNSHO, are the result of competitors being chosen for their personality traits, rather than their willingness to actually learn to cook.

We’ve got the wacky ones. We’ve got the one with a crippling lack of self-confidence. The annoying fan of one of the instructor chefs. The one whose mother still cooks all his meals. The model (and, goddess help us, we’ve got two models and a bodybuilder this season). The one who thinks sugar is a universal ingredient and the one who thinks the same of capsaicin. And, of course, the one who thinks her cooking is just fine and doesn’t understand why her relatives forced her to go on the show.

The producers think this will lead to wacky hijinks. The point they’re forgetting is that arguments aren’t story. Nobody wants to see watch people snapping and snarling at each other. We want to see the contestants successes and, yes, the failures that don’t threaten to fill the set with flames. It’s their growth as cooks that’s the story.

Last season the show spent so much time on personality clashes that the cooking seemed halfhearted. Even in the finale, the cooking competition seemed muted and the food wasn’t up to the standard set in previous years. If this season goes down the same path, I won’t be watching. Which would free up an hour a week for writing. Hmm.

KBC, on the other hand, is still a delight. The kids all have their quirks, but they’re not extremely exaggerated stereotypes. They’ve clearly all been working hard at their craft for years, they’re thrilled to be on the show, and they understand that stuff happens–forgotten ingredients, knife cuts, and bad days–and has to be dealt with.

And it’s obvious they’ve studied the show’s earlier seasons. They know what’s coming, and it was charming to see them literally fleeing in terror when the twist arrived in yesterday’s episode. And yes, though we’ve seen it before, it’s still nice to see them pitch in to help each other finish when time is short.

That’s an hour of potential writing time I’m going to sacrifice willingly every week.

Here’s a Thought

An open letter to Food Network’s Programmers:

Dear Esteemed Fellow Lifeforms,

My congratulations on the continued success of Worst Cooks in America and Cutthroat Kitchen. While both shows are in my “must watch” list, I can see some room for improvement in both. I hope you’ll take these suggestions as constructive criticism.

One of the recurrent themes on Worst Cooks is the competitors’ desire to improve themselves. How many times have we heard them say that what they learn will improve their family lives? Yet the show doesn’t truly support that goal. By the end of the season, the focus has shifted to preparing restaurant-quality meals and impressing the celebrity judges.

With seven seasons in the can–I’m not including the hideous mistake that was the “Celebrity Edition”–there’s a real opportunity to shine some light on the changes the show has brought to the contestants’ lives.

Let’s have a season that brings back former contestants who were eliminated in the early and middle rounds. Let the viewers see which ones have maintained and improved the skills they picked up on their initial appearances–and which ones have forgotten everything they learned.

Similarly, I and, I’m sure, many viewers would love to see a season made up of former runners-up and competitors who were eliminated in the last couple of weeks. We keep hearing the mentors and judges describing the food they produce as restaurant-quality, and we’ve even heard judges give them job offers. That’s a huge amount of improvement, and it would be fascinating to see how many of the contestants who reached that level have accepted those offers or taken other food-related jobs, and how well they’ve kept up their skills.

How about it?

As for Cutthroat Kitchen, after eleven seasons, the premise is starting to get a little stale. Everyone knows what to expect, to the point where the opening recitation of the rules is becoming increasingly perfunctory–why bother explaining the game when the competitors and viewers can recite the spiel along with Alton? It’s time to shake things up a bit.

The defining feature of the show is that, unlike other competitive cooking shows where the chefs are essentially working in isolation, on Cutthroat Kitchen they’re competing head to head. It’s not just about creating the best dish, it’s doing so while fighting off interference from the other chefs.

But the current structure of the show reduces the amount of interference as the episode progresses. We’ve reached the point where we know the chef with the most money remaining in the final round will win the first auction and then not have enough left to avoid losing the second auction. Where’s the thrill in that much predictability?

So less ramp up the possibilities for interference. Don’t eliminate chefs.

Instead, award points to the chefs who produce the best dishes–two points for the best dish, one for the second-best. Let the chef who came up with the least credible effort remain in the game, but penalize him or her by taking away some money, say $1,000.

Even if someone fails miserably in the first two rounds, they could still win it all with a spectacular final round–and if not, they can still make life more difficult for the front-runners by buying sabotages and playing spoiler.

At the end of the game, total up the points. Highest score wins. In the event of a tie, the winner is the chef with the most money left. And we have so much more potential for drama: late surges, creative work-arounds, and grudge-sabotaging.

I realize it’s too late to implement this idea for Season 12, since the first episode will air later this week. But lucky number 13 is coming. What better time to inflict even more misery on the chefs?

Yer Outta Here!

One of the less-considered aspects of the baseball off-season is what one should do with all the extra time. During the season, you’ve got a minimum of eighteen hours a week committed to watching games–and that assumes you’re only following one team. Follow two or more, and you’re looking at a commitment that rivals your day job.

I read more. I write a little more, though not as much as you might guess*. But I can’t read while I’m exercising. During the season, I turn on a game, hop on my stationary bike, and pedal through a couple of innings.

* Most games are in the evening, so by the time they start, I’ve usually written my daily quota. Unless I’m on a roll, I generally knock off before seven, and if I am rolling well, I’ll keep writing, even if it means missing a game. So the presence or absence of baseball doesn’t affect the writing.

I’ve tried reading while I ride, and it sucks. The book and my head bob in slightly different speeds and directions, which makes it hard to focus on the page. Worse, I sweat on the pages (eew!). It’s even worse with e-books. I’ll let your imagination fill in the potential hazards…

So I generally fall back on TV. Every year, I wind up with a different off-season favorite; this year, I’ve got three. All on Food Network, and all similar. You’ve heard that there are no new ideas on TV? FN is very good at using that to their advantage, ringing changes on a single core idea. In this case, the core idea is head-to-head competition in multiple rounds. All three of these shows bring something different to the table. (Sorry.)

  • First up is the granddaddy of the multi-round culinary competition: Chopped, which has been around since 2009. Four chefs create an appetizer, entree, and dessert. After each course, the judges critique the dishes on presentation, taste, and creativity, and eliminate one chef. The specific twist is that in each round the chefs get a “mystery basket” of four ingredients that must be used in their dishes. The ingredients may or may not harmonize, so finding a way to make them work together makes the chef’s creative ability paramount. I strongly recommend you keep an eye out for a rerun of the “Bizzare Baskets” episode from January, both for its splendidly disturbing ingredients and unusually classy competitors.

    The format is timeless. There are endless combinations of taxing ingredients, and an eternal supply of chefs willing to take on the challenge for pride, professional development, and a shot at $10,000. Chopped seems likely to help me through many more off-seasons.

  • Next up, is Worst Cooks in America, now in its sixth season. WCiA’s gimmick is that the contestants aren’t chefs; they are, as the title implies, an assortment of common citizens who should be legally barred from preparing food. During the course of the show’s eight week season, the competitors are tutored by professional chefs, and each week, the two who show the least improvement are eliminated.

    The early episodes each season are the most entertaining for the viewer: the cooks’ mistakes come from ignorance and inexperience; the watcher can feel a comfortable sense of superiority (“I’d never do anything as dumb as that!”). Later, as they gain skill, the errors become less amusing–how much joy can you take in someone who fails to add enough salt or forgets to check the internal temperature of a roast? The draw that keeps viewers coming back is the contestants’ personalities and the development of rooting interests. I suspect WCiA is approaching the end of its run. Schadenfreude as a draw has a limited lifespan, and finding increasingly quirky competitors quickly degenerates into self-parody. I’ll enjoy the show while it’s here, but I won’t count on it for next winter’s lack of baseball.

  • Finally, we’ve got my favorite of the three shows: Cutthroat Kitchen. CT just concluded it’s sixth season since its start in 2013; Season Seven starts this week. The format is similar to Chopped: four chefs, three rounds, one chef eliminated each round. The differences are that, instead of being assigned ingredients, the chefs are required to make specific dishes, and in each round the chefs can bid on opportunities to sabotage the other chefs’ efforts. (The casual viewer might not think that cooking while wearing swim fins would be much of a handicap. The time limit on each round makes it much more intimidating.) Sabotages that force the chefs to use inferior ingredients or tools make it difficult to meet the judge’s primary criterion: does the final product resemble the canonical version of the assigned dish.

    Where Chopped puts a premium on creativity, Cutthroat Kitchen emphasizes mental flexibility and the ability to create contingency plans on the fly. Host Alton Brown* takes evil glee in introducing each new sabotage and mocking contestants who don’t handle the trials gracefully. The chefs bid money drawn from their potential winnings. In six seasons, one winner has taken home the full $25,000. I don’t believe any winner has spent all of their money during the course of the competition, but if not, it’s only a matter of time–money management doesn’t seem to be a skill many competitors retain under the pressure of the event.

    * Those of you who know me personally are aware that I’ve been a big fan of Alton for years. CK has done nothing to free me from my Alton addiction.

    As long as Alton and his crew can keep coming up with new variations on the sabotages, CK should stay fresh–the inclusion of a corporately-sponsored challenge in one episode of the latest season could signal bold new ground, or the first sign of shark jumping. Hopefully, Cutthroat Kitchen will brighten my off-seasons for many more years.

If you’re having trouble making through the last few weeks before the 2015 season, please try one of these shows to distract you from your pain–and let me know if it helps you as much as it does me.