Last night we went to Austin.
I say "we" because despite my best intentions, I've become involved with "Top Chef: Texas," the show and its contestants.
At first it was hard. There were so many chefs in "Top Chef's" ninth season -- 29, the most ever -- from around the country, each one more passionate than the last about cooking.
And then there's the cooking. I'm a good cook, I make terrific reservations, but the idea of cooking all day and most of the night for weeks in the brutal Texas summer standing in an even hotter kitchen is about as appealing as chopping off my fingers and calling that dinner.
But there's no turning back for me. I'm in it to the bitter last, which at least is more than most of the contestants can say, not that we're competing.
In San Antonio and Dallas (Hi, Khloe and Lamar! Welcome to Dallas! Stay far away from me, please -- especially when your family visits), the contestants, 10 last night, then one sent home, have been cooking their fingers to the bone, not one of them Teflon-coated.
"Please, God, don't let us cook anymore tonight," pleaded an exhausted-looking Lindsay Autry, 29, who is the executive chef at the Omphoy Ocean Resort in Palm Beach, Fla.
I'm rooting for Chris Jones, chef de cuisine at Moto in Chicago, even with his new little look-at-me Samurai ponytail atop his head. He's known as Ugly Chris, even though he easily seduced a wealthy Dallas matron with his suggestive voice, reducing her to twanged giddiness.
Chris isn't ugly, but there is another contestant (remember, we're not calling them "cheftestants," no matter how much Bravo wants us to), another Chris -- Chris Crary, 30, originally from Ohio but with the good sense to leave, becoming the chef de cuisine at Whist at the Viceroy Hotel in Santa Monica -- who seems to have been born on Easy Street, with a tube of gel in his hair.
"He got the nickname Malibu because he's beautiful," Grayson Schmitz, 28, a New Yorker at Olivier Cheng Catering by way of New Holstein, Wis., said about this Chris, nearly swooning herself. "He is very concerned about his hair."
I'm also backing Dakota Weiss, 35, an executive chef for Choice Hospitality in West Los Angeles, who turned out to be the ultimate snake handler, wrangling a rattlesnake (one already dead and skinned, unfortunately for us, though she was relieved) into a winning dish.
She has since found herself baking dessert after dessert, and doing well with that, too, especially when she made the beautiful bright pink and blue cake for the quinceañera coming-of-age party back in San Antonio.
Dakota Weiss's Pineapple-Strawberry Quinceañera Cake ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
San Antonio was the season's first stop, where everyone was astounded by the number of competitors. But everything is bigger in Texas, so the large contestant pool was logical, if unwieldy.
Texas itself can be unwieldy. Its size, for one thing, can turn what should be a an hour of running errands into an all-day commitment, 70 miles on the odometer later.
Texas is, as they say, its own country, which it used to be. The flag is known as the Lone Star flag, and so the state's nickname is the Lone Star State.
This flag was introduced to the Congress of the Republic of Texas on December 28, 1838, and adopted on January 25, 1839, as the final national flag of the Republic of Texas.
When Texas became the 28th state of the Union on December 29, 1845, its national flag became the state flag. While the Lone Star remained the state flag, from 1879 to 1933 there was no official state flag and Texas was flagless until the passage of the 1933 Texas Flag Code.
The official Pantone shades for the Texas flag are 193 (red) and 281 (dark blue). The flag, proudly flown throughout the state, is treated with respect, even though it looks like Chile's flag, and there's nothing that Texans respect less than non-Americans, especially ones with Hispanic-sounding accents. Just ask Rick Perry. Unless they're mowing our lawns. Mitt Romney knows.
My younger son, Miles, and I drove down to San Antonio from Dallas a couple of summers ago to see the sights and Green Day, which, in the end, he decided he could live without, saying they'd turned too pop to rock. And that was before
the Broadway musical. Whatever. I went, and I had fun, and I've got the T-shirt to prove it.
We ate Texas barbecue and Mexican food, walked the Riverwalk, took cool breaks at the Starbucks bar at the Marriott and visited the Alamo. Do you remember the Alamo?
I went to San Antonio with friends another time, and, again, fun, fun, fun. Debbie and I drifted in a Riverwalk boat, ate Texas barbecue and Mexican food and bought a bunch of stupid T-shirts: "Cowboys, Leave Your Guns at the Bar." OK, I'm corralled.
San Antonio is indeed a delightful place, but as the first stop on the "Top Chef" tour, there was more bickering than at a post-holiday sale at Walmart.
On and on -- who's using all the pots, who's spoiling the broth -- and by the tour's final stop, in Austin, the milk of human kindness had fully curdled, mostly against Heather Terhune, the 40-year-old executive chef at Sable Kitchen and Bar in Chicago.
Heather and Beverly Kim, 32, chef de cuisine at Aria in Chicago, fell into backing-and-forthing, each believing the other selfish and annoying, and saying so -- behind their backs and to the cameras. They were both right, a point they could have agreed on.
"There's definitely a lot of bullying going around," Beverly said, telling us for the thousandth time that she misses her husband and son. Oh, Beverly, please don't cry again. There's no crying in catering!
Yes, there is.
"Stop!" Heather ordered.
"No, you stop!" Beverly countered.
Back to the food, Paul Qui, the cook known as the Texan, grabbed the judges by the taste buds on the Twitter bacon challenge.
Fans Twittered in their instructions for a cook-off using bacon, and Paul, who's 31 and the executive chef at Uchiko in Austin, is inventive in ways that most people wouldn't dream of.
He put bacon, bacon fat, clams, asparagus and blackberries together, then displayed them in an artistic plating, another of the tiny meals so beloved by every employed chef today.
As Tom Colicchio, the head judge, told Paul, "It shouldn't work but it does."
It worked so well that Paul won $10,000.
Paul is one of those Texans for whom the bumper sticker "Not a Native Texan, But I Got Here as Fast as I Could" is written. He is a Texan by way of Manila, where he was born. His family moved to Springfield, Va., when he was 10, and Houston when he was 17.
He holds an associate in culinary degree from Le Cordon Bleu in Austin, his new hometown.
"I pull a lot of energy and strength from knowing that I'm from here," Paul said.
With San Antonio out of the way and Dallas now officially over, finally, Lindsay's wish was granted -- as my mother and aunts used to tell my brother and me, "The kitchen is closed" -- and it was off to Austin.
Kicking back in Austin with drinks at the Driskill Hotel (comp, comp), there was a surprise, Patti LaBelle, belting out a song, a serenade. To cooking? To ingredients? To something more?
Any or all were appetizing, and would have been for me, too. I didn't run into Patti LaBelle when I was in Austin, but then again I was there with Miles, on the college tour at the University, far from any relaxing hotel lounges.
As I gazed up at the Charles Whitmore tower, a foreign-exchange student-to-be asked our guide questions.
"Is it legal to go drag-racing?"
Not with a rifle, I would suspect.
"Where do you do laundry?"
In a washing machine.
Are you writing down my questions?
Why do you ask?
Miles and I saw some sights, had dinner with our friend Elizabeth at the Iron Works Barbecue, ate some Mexican food and watched the famous Bat Bridge bats from our hotel windows. (Take that, swallows at Capistrano.)
Miles did decide it would be
more fun more academically advantageous to attend a college far from Mom and Dad, and as he prefers skiing to sweating, it was adios, Austin.
But we'll be back.
The "Top Chef" judges ignored the Everything's Bigger In Texas motif when it came to plating food, and in Austin, Grayson got a tongue-lashing for her Wisconsin-size meat'n'potatoes tribute challenge -- this new New Yorker's background is defiantly Midwestern.
The only things missing from her presentation were a cow tipped on its side and a bar every few inches from the last bar.
The 14-ounce steak was not only too big, but it was also not too good.
She could have done better, it was suggested. Like modernize the idea. Blackberries? Blackberry-size meat bites?
It looked very bad for Grayson. Very bad, indeed.
If Malibu had asked her to dance, she would have spun off into a delirious Texas two-step, kicking all her cares away.
Because as awful as her meal was, Heather's beef stroganoff with herb spaetzle was much worse.
"The cut of meat -- I don't even know what it is," said Emeril Lagasse, the guest judge. (Bam, Heather!)
Roped in as another guest judge, and qualifying by way of her diabetic cookbooks, Patti LaBelle helped him out.
"It's Big Foot."
The winner of the tribute dinner, dedicating her pork sausage-stuffed cabbage and spinach with browned butter to her grandmother, broke the cardinal rule of the season on Bravo.
"They're not going to be here forever," Sarah Grueneberg, 30, the executive chef at Spiaggia and its sister restaurant, Cafe Spiaggia, in Chicago, said, crying.
Or it could have been the long, hard win, her first. Or the $10,000.
Or the fact that she was so disappointed and stunned -- visibly -- when Paul beat her on the bacon challenge, after she put her all into a burrata-stuffed squash blossom with bacon-and-zucchini hash. (Burrata is a fresh Italian cheese, made from mozzarella and cream, thank you, Wiki.)
Or that she's more Texan than Paul, having been born and raised in Houston, yet everyone's acting as if he's the next Ann Richards.
But a win's a win, and now it's time for the night's big loser, the one dealt the coldest cut of all.
Was that a grin sneaking across Beverly's face when Padma Lakshmi the host issued the chilling words, "pack your knives"? It wasn't a tear.
Heather put on a brave face, and said a lovely thank you and farewell, calling "Top Chef" the "most fulfilling experience" of her life, with charm that might have gone far toward winning her some popularity.
Although Padma (who called Heather "the queen of mean," after Heather introduced her dish in tribute to her mother, calling her "the queen of the one-pot meal") and the other judges said it was Heather's meat that got her cooked, sweetness never hurts.
And it could well have been the teaspoon of sugar that helped the stroganoff go down.