Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Molokai Mia

Top Chef’s Mama Mia is now calling Molokai home.

Former reality show contestant Mia Gaines-Alt has joined the staff of Hotel Molokai as chef. A contestant on season 2 of the popular Bravo reality show, Top Chef, Gaines-Alt is now sharing her culinary talents at Hotel Molokai’s oceanfront restaurant, Hula Shores.

You might remember Mia as the country-music loving chef, who cooked barbecue and other home-style foods for cowboys at her restaurant Feed the People in Oakdale, Calif. She was that season’s self-proclaimed comfort food expert, who failed to win a single Quickfire or Elimination challenge.

Mia was also (in)famous for her judges' table meltdown after the Holiday Spirit Challenge in episode no. 8. She railed against stone-faced Cliff, gave a woe-is-me monologue before throwing herself on her santoku, saving Elia (her team’s leader) from elimination. A noble but bizarre gesture.

So, in other words, if you visit the Hula Shores and don’t like the food, don’t tell the waitstaff. Just send an e-mail.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Bourdain Identity

I’m new at this, so please forgive me if I’m spending a little too much time splashing around in the shallow end of the blog pool. I promise I’ll move out into the deep side soon, and I won’t foul the water before I decide to get out.

I’m enjoying the creative freedom of the medium. I can write what I want when I want, and I can write about it over and over and over. I can also comment on other newsy stories at length, filling in the blanks with conjecture and gossip, endlessly debating seemingly salient points and coming to a passionate conclusion that is colored with my own shade of reality — kind of like what Fox News does every day.

Normally, I have to call people up, get them to go on the record and then recount what they had to say. It’s not my story. It’s the story.

I was reminded of this difference when I got a call from Michael earlier this afternoon. Michael works for the PR agency, which helped arrange Anthony Bourdain’s recent trip to Hawaii. He had recommended me to the show’s producers when they were looking for a Spam sidekick, so he thanked me for helping out, and I thanked him for the opportunity.

He also said that the production team was very happy with the segment. They thought that the New Uptown Fountain photographed very well, so they might be featuring it prominently in the episode. He also wanted to comment on a few points mentioned in this and other blogs: First off, he and others on the PR team do watch No Reservations, so they understand and appreciate the kind of experiences that Bourdain seeks out. The Paradise Cove Luau was the production team’s idea, not theirs. They had pitched several off-the-beaten-path experiences, including spear fishing for tako, but those were turned down. The production team knew what they wanted to do, and they did it.

Michael didn’t feel it was necessary for me to set the record straight in my blog, but I do. Thanks for filing in the blanks, Michael.

After watching a tape of an old episode, I also realized that I was selling Bourdain and the No Reservations people a little short when I assumed that their itinerary and creative vision had been spoiled by the efforts of tourist industry officials. He doesn’t strike me as someone easily swayed. Just look at some of his shows, especially the recent ones.

Do you think that last season’s Cleveland episode was made with the assistance of or as a reaction to the efforts of the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Greater Cleveland? What about the fight sequence in the Hong Kong episode, or the Bollywood bit he did in India?

Bourdain may be the bad boy of the restaurant world, but he and his production team might also be the Tarantinos of cable television. Only someone or something with complete creative control and a slightly messed up childhood could put together the season-ending Tuscany episode. If that singing butcher suddenly went on a rampage and chopped off one of his customers’ arms, I don’t think I’d be surprised at all.

Those people seem to be having a lot of fun and no one can get in their way, least of all PR flacks or Spam sidekicks. Besides Bourdain seems like a really smart guy. He's been around the block and around the world, so he knows what’s real and what’s fake and he’ll take the fake once in a while, just for laughs. Finally, the guy can write like Satan.

So, in the end, I repeat what I e-mailed to my buddy, Ilan, when I first heard that Anthony Bourdain was visiting Hawaii: “I hope he comes here and finds what he finds and skewers whomever needs to be skewered.”

I just hope that someone isn’t a short, Asian guy, who won’t stop talking about the virtues of Spam.


Friday, December 14, 2007

No Place at the Table ... Again

When my sisters and I were kids, we’d get a big kick out watching the old Elvis-in-Hawaii movies. We’d laugh at the hilarious depictions of the Islands, like in Blue Hawaii when Chad Gates (Presley), just out of the Army, goes surfing at HANAUMA BAY – inside the Keyhole. What a loser!

Then there were the cardboard cut-out characters with names like Danny Kohana and Lani Kai (Paradise, Hawaiian Style), Ito O’Hara and Ping Pong (Blue Hawaii). In Girls, Girls, Girls, the screenwriters didn’t even bother identifying Hawaii as their setting. It was someplace called Paradise Cove, populated by a lot of Chinese people who could sing and dance.

If there were any Hawaiian people at all in these movies, they were dancing, strumming ukuleles or pounding on drums, somewhere in the background. We laughed and laughed at Hollywood’s ignorance, until we realized that the joke was on us.

I thought of Danny Kohana and Lani Kai the other day when I read the Honolulu Star-Bulletin’s article about Anthony Bourdain and his visit to Oahu. Betty Shimabukuro did a great job summarizing the island-wide tour/shoot, especially when you consider Bourdain’s distaste and disdain for other writers. So she probably had to extract information and write very creatively. But I, like others, took the “touristy” itinerary that she wrote about and tried to assemble the No Reservation episode in my mind: dinner at Side Street, luau at Paradise Cover, surfing on the North Shore, Bailey’s Antiques, New Uptown Fountain and B & B on the Big Island.

I can add a few other locations to the list: a barbecue with big wave surfers on the North Shore, cocktails at the Lewers Lounge and visits to Puka Dog and Ono Hawaiian Food. They were supposed to head over to La Mariana after their shoot at New Uptown Fountain, but I have a feeling that they may have cancelled it after I told Bourdain that Rachael Ray did the place on her show.

“Maybe I’ll just go there to find out how much she tipped, or if she tipped,” said Bourdain with an evil grin.

I’m disappointed because the No Reservations storyline is looking a lot like an Elvis movie: Where are the Hawaiians? Do they have any speaking parts? Or are they once again relegated to strumming ukuleles and pounding drums?

On a positive note, I think Bourdain “gets” Hawaii. During our lunch, over a bowl of saimin, he told me how impressed he was with the natural, seemingly effortless blending of cultures that he saw in the Islands. He said that he’s been to many places with many cultures, but Hawaii was different. In Hawaii it all comes together into one.

But that story can’t be told without the Hawaiians, who taught us all.

So I hope that after Ko Olina and Paradise Cove, Bourdain drove down to Nanakuli and went to a real luau. Better yet, maybe he ventured a little further and saw how beautiful the Leeward Coast’s beaches are — and how many people are living on them. Hopefully, somewhere, he met a Danny Kohana or Lani Kai, found out their real names and listened to their real stories.

Those stories may not be positive enough for the HVCB, but they they are far more truthful.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Hot Monkey Love

I'm the headline guy at work. When someone is stuck, they send it over to me, and I usually figure something out. I have fun coming up with clever little titles that refer to a film or television show (usually an old one) or some term that has some kind of pop-cultural echo. But I don't have too much fun. We are a business magazine afterall.

For instance, I could never write a hed like the one above, especially if it is accompanied by a picture of two men, arm-in-arm, like the one below.

The shoot is over, phew!

However, the monkey in question actually comes from a Tony Bourdain quote that I found on Bourdain was online last year with some fans when a Hawaii person asked if the chef had plans to visit the Islands and check out our Spam obsession. As expected, he didn't mince words, just us: "Then I would have to eat a lot of Spam and I would rather have sex with a crackhead clown an ebola-infected spider monkey than eat Spam on a regular basis. Does Spam qualify as food or bulding material?"

I e-mailed the link to my co-worker, Jen, a fellow Bourdainian, and I lamented that I didn't have a chance.

So when the call confirming the lunch came, no one was as surprised as I, and then I remembered that quote. "The guy's going to de-bone me with his rapier wit and ginzu tongue. Then he's going to finish the job by beating me silly with a greasy ladel. This could get ugly."

I thought that I could get all academic on him, so I did some research and found maybe two usable sentences about the history of Spam in Hawaii. The night before I went to Barnes and Noble and bought a Spam cookbook and minutes before we left the house the day of the shoot, I dug out our acrylic Spam musubi maker. Maybe he would believe me more if he knew that kitchen tools were involved.

Then I remembered a bit of advice (one item in a laundry list of suggestions) that my movie studio executive younger sister told me: "Just be yourself, he's going to love you." Note: The love in the quote does not refer to the love in the headline. I'll get to that.

Here I am trying to be myself.

A lot of people are worried about how Hawaii and Spam will fare during the episode, but I think we're going to do OK. The reason for my optimism is that No. 1, I survived the experience without any serious bodily injury and No. 2, he really liked the stuff.

We started the meal off with a papaya, bisquit and Spam, eggs and rice. I explained to him that frying really changes the character of the canned meat, making it even saltier. I told him how you need to fry it till it gets a nice crust, so there's a little crunch to it. Tony eats, shaking his head.

From there we went to fried rice and diced Spam. In this case stir frying made the meat plump and moist. The same effect can be derived from boiling, witness the saimin, served in a bowl that you could wash your hair in. Tony continues to eat, now he's nodding. I was trying to be myself in an Alton Brown sort of way. I was very nervous.

Then he starts to unwrap his Spam musubi. The conversation goes something like this: Tony: "So this is the Spam musubi. I see that it is like the onigiri with a piece of meat in the middle." Dave: "It is a fairly recent phenomenon. It's a convenience food." Tony takes a bite and nods. Dave: "OK, imagine that you're at the beach and you're getting out of the water..." Tony: "And you want something salty." Dave: "Exactly." Tony: "Mmmm." He eats almost all of his musubi.

We moved on to loco moco, which he also liked, and then to that funky egg, curry and kim chee dish, which he like, too.

One of the last dishes was a piece of ahi in a butter caper sauce. He thought it was pretty good but then said: "Wait!" and then reached over, skewered a small piece of Spam and then added a forkful of fish and ate them together. "Now, it's perfect," he said.

He then returned to his musubi and finished it and declared it his favorite. My wife overheard him say on camera that it was a revelation. He then reached over and took the remaining half of my Spam musubi and did a "what-have-we-learned-today" monologue.

So I don't think we have anything to worry about in regards to Spam.

But maybe Tony does. He told me that after Hawaii they will be visiting Laos, home to a lot of ...

Tony, meet Bong Bong.

Dining with Tony

So I was doing the Dilbert thing in my downtown cubicle, when my co-worker, Ilan, e-mailed the link to Erika Engle's column in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin last Thursday. Anthony Bourdain is in town, eating his way through Honolulu for his show No Reservations. Great! Then I read the comment from the PR guy about how they were going to steer the infamous, shoot-from-the lip Bourdain to more "positive things." Yikes! Hasn't he ever watched the show? Doesn't he know that you don't steer Bourdain?

I wrote back to Ilan: "I hope Bourdain goes out and finds what he finds, and he skewers whomever deserves to be skewered."

Ilan and I are big fans. We talk about the show all the time outside our cubicles, usually after lunch. My personal favorite is the show Bourdain did on Tahiti. I was struck by the sensitivity and respect he had for the islands. I've done a little travel writing and reading over the years and far too often you come upon a story by someone who visits a faraway, exotic locale and thinks that they somehow discovered it themself. And then they get all offended when they find Western influence and development, as if it has spoiled their little vision of paradise.

Bourdain's show on Tahiti was literally a world away from most of the shows on his Travel Channel. That last passage that he wrote about Gauguin is so mindful of the dreaminess that is the South Pacific, and it knew exactly where the dangerous, unpleasant artist and the gruff, outspoken chef stood in relation to it. Wouldn't it be great if he did the same thing about Hawaii?

Anyway, about 15 minutes after e-mailing Ilan, I got a call from a PR guy: "Anthony Bourdain is in town and he wants to do a segment on Spam, and we thought that you'd be a good guide for him? Are you free?"

"Does Andrew Zimmer shit bug parts?"

When he said Spam, I thought that Bourdain's Hawaii show might be more like the "rotten-fish-in-lye" Iceland show than the idylic Tahiti one. But they wanted Spam, so Spam it was. The next morning the show's producer, Emily, called and asked me for some ideas. They vetoed the HVCB's idea about going to Zippy's and thought about visiting Rainbow's Drive-In. But Rainbow's doesn't sell Spam musubi. I told her about the New Uptown Fountain, a small diner on School Street that originally opened in 1950 and little has change since. They have plenty of Spam dishes and plenty of Hawaii. She liked the idea.

We met Tony Bourdain and his production crew for lunch at the New Uptown Fountain last Saturday. Here are a few pictures that my wife took:

Tony has just arrived. That's Emily, the producer, in the foreground. He's very gracious and professional. At first, I thought he was almost kind of nerdy, but when the cameras started rolling he got right into his bad boy persona.

As soon as he steps in the place, we overhear him say, "Cool, this place is perfect." That's the director who Tony's talking to.

The menu at the New Uptown Fountain is posted above the counter. Here I'm going over what we might be eating.

Action! Here we go...I'm not aware that shooting has started. Tony walks in...

... and he sits down. "Welcome to Kalihi," I say. And we're off.

You can see the entire production crew in this shot — two camera men, the one to the left also doubled as sound; the director is in the middle looking at the other camera man's screen. The producer is standing nearby.

Tony's asking me a question about Spam. It went something like this: Tony: "I don't get it. I went to this big party and met all these fancy chefs and all they wanted to talk about was Spam. What gives?" Dave: "Well, as you probably know, Spam was a wartime food and for much of WWII, Hawaii was in a war zone, so we ate what the sailors and soldiers ate." Tony: "But Dave, come on now, the war is over!"

He was cracking jokes throughout the meal. The director was chuckling during the entire shoot. Tony: "I think one of those umbrella drinks would go really good with this dish." Dave: "I don't think you're going to be able to find an umbrella drink within a five-mile radius of this place." Tony: "I'm going to have to bring a Thermos with me then. I used to have a Hawaii Five-O lunchbox when I was a kid. Remember that?" Dave (trying to think of witty response) : "No."

They've just delivered something I didn't order, a house specialty that was totally crazy but made for good TV. It featured a Spam omlete on two scoops of rice with curry poured all over it and a kim chee garnish. The production guys were excited because the thing was so colorful that it looked radioactive. Dave: "Tony, this is uncharted territory for me, but kim chee makes anything good." Tony: "Kim chee is always good."