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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 9, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Jurassic Kitchen Nightmares, The Good News Is ...

Dana Perino was George W. Bush's press secretary during the last year or so of his presidency -- a time when the vilification and misrepresentation of his policies from the Left was at a fever pitch.

So surely her memoir, And the Good News Is ..., should be full of self-justification and attacks on (or rebuttals to) those who were most hateful and dishonest in their reporting on her President.

Nothing of the kind. The opposite.

Dana Perino isn't that kind of person. She didn't get her position because she was combative or even ambitious. She almost fell into the press secretary job. But, as always, she worked hard to do her job well. Her job was to tell the truth about Bush's actions and policies while offering the reasoning behind them, to the degree that was possible (i.e., not classified).

Her job was not then and is not now to punish those who deliberately distorted that record for partisan or personal reasons. And if she was ever tempted to do that, Bush stopped her. She does set the record straight on some of the most egregious lies and attacks -- but without apparent rancor.

She has led an interesting life, and this book is full of interesting anecdotes -- sometimes amusing, sometimes quite moving -- about the people she worked with in and out of Bush's administration. The story of how she and her husband met is quite charming.

In fact, "charming" may be the best word to describe this book, as long as you don't take it as any kind of condescension. There's substance here; it's just that it's written by someone whose greatest skill is to be accurate without giving needless offense.

Since Perino's most visible post-White House work has been her participation with The Five on Fox News, it's also great fun to hear her assessments of her fellow Fivers, and some of the backstage stories.

At the heart of the book is her picture of George W. Bush. Since Bush was vilified almost as much by diehard conservatives as by diehard liberals -- for exactly the same policies -- it may be that relatively few readers even want to find out anything about the man.

After all, when you already have him procrustified into exactly the place you want him, it can be uncomfortable to find out, Oh, he wasn't stupid; oh, he wasn't a monster; oh, he was like most presidents, a guy who made the best decisions he could with the information he was given.

Most of all, he was thoughtful and compassionate to those around him -- whether we're talking about wounded and dying soldiers or staffers in the White House.

And patient? It's no surprise, in the context of Dana Perino's memoir, that Bush has been so completely silent on political matters since leaving office. He knew that the best thing for the country was not to have an ex-president meddling in current political issues. That job was no longer his.

Dana Perino has that same spirit of generosity. Even when talking about journalists who did despicable things, she is quick to remember and remind us of the good reporting they had done before or since. She also showed a strong ability to make and keep friendships that crossed party and ideological lines.

I listened to the audiobook as narrated by Orlagh Cassidy, whose reading is so natural that I quite forgot that it wasn't Perino's own voice I was hearing. It's not a long book -- 7.5 hours on audio, 250 pages in print.

In this age of insane, hate-filled politics -- when so many people seem to think that it's not enough to disagree, one must also destroy, punish, slander, and obliterate -- it's refreshing to read a book by someone who has been in the thick of the fray, while remaining a decent, kind, courteous, fair-minded human being.

*

Our cable went out unexpectedly last week, and it took until Thursday to get it restored. (A corroded splitter buried somewhere in our yard.)

During the interval, I was reduced to watching DishTV, because that's why we have it -- for backup in case we're planning to watch some kind of event, have invited guests, and the cable goes out.

Here's what's wrong with that plan: DishTV.

All right, if it's the Oscars or LDS General Conference or the Super Bowl, I suppose it will do just fine. Nothing wrong with the image.

But the interface is user-hostile. Just finding out how to record shows on the DVR requires mind-reading, and then finding out where the recordings are kept in that menu structure (so you can watch them) is even harder.

Eventually I figured it out, but it's so counterintuitive that I've already forgotten it.

When cable was restored on Thursday, it was not retroactive. So the shows that weren't recorded because we weren't getting any signal in the house were still missing from the TiVo.

I can go online and purchase most of the regular TV series that I missed -- we won't miss any episodes of Suits or Mr. Robot or Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I still have to check on So You Think You Can Dance. And as for any others, it's summer. They aren't putting out new episodes anyway.

The trouble is, most of my watching is actually disposable TV. KleenexTV, if you want a brand name for it. Every day I expect a new episode of Jeopardy, At Midnight, and How to Be a Grownup. I don't watch them live, ever. I watch each episode of At Midnight, for instance, the next day.

But on the day cable was restored, I didn't have any of my KleenexTV shows. (OK, if you don't want the brand name because "Kleenextm is a registered trademark of Kimberly-Clark Worldwide, Inc.," call it "TissueTV.")

This resulted in some serious channel-flipping. I found myself watching It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I watched two whole episodes -- the Jersey Shore episode, and the one where they're on an airplane drinking a lot of beer -- and in both episodes I didn't find any characters that I liked. If I met them somewhere I would try to find an excuse to get away as quickly as possible.

In fact, everything I saw in both episodes made it clear that the writers hate all the characters. So now I (a) do not rue the fact that I don't watch It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and (b) have realized that there is a new genre called "hate comedy."

It's not "black comedy," where you laugh at things so appalling you're ashamed of yourself. "Hate comedy" is where you laugh because you don't regard these characters as human beings who are entitled to even a shred of empathy or understanding.

I should have recognized this genre when I first watched Girls, but I wasn't sure if it was supposed to be funny or serious -- though it was obvious that we were supposed to hate everybody, as in, Please put my eyes out so I never have to look at this again.

And I really should have noticed hate comedy when I first watched Amy Schumer, because I knew she was trying to be funny, but this time I couldn't tell whether we were supposed to enjoy watching her hate everybody else in an unfunny way, or we were supposed to hate everybody including her.

That might almost make you like the people she hated. Which, since it's everybody else who ever lived or will live on this planet, would lead us to like everybody, minus one, which is kind of close to loving everybody. Maybe as close as I'll ever get.

Thanks, Ms. Schumer, for waking the latent Christianity in our hearts!

Desperate to find something to enjoy watching, I flipped around till I happened to catch a few moments of Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares on BBC America. (It originates on Fox, but I was watching repeats.)

I caught two episodes. One was dealing with a restaurant called Mangia Mangia ("eat eat") someplace in Colorado, and the other was a Greek restaurant in Flushing, Queens -- which happens to have been my mother's birthplace. (Long before the restaurant opened.)

I started with Ramsay tasting dish after dish at Mangia, as the camera took a closeup of each bite. The food looked loathsome, and to my relief, Ramsay not only knew it was loathsome, he knew what it should have been like and what was wrong with it.

Now, some of the problems don't require a great chef to discover, like a lasagna portion that's still frozen in the middle. But others are more subtle. You know the food is disgusting, but you can't put your finger on why.

But it's not the bad food that makes the show so compulsively watchable. It's Ramsay's interactions with the staff.

Remember, the owners and the staff know exactly who he is, because there are cameras all over the place, and some of them are obviously shoulder cams, so there's a camera operator. They know that the world is watching.

Ramsay flirts with all the waitstaff, in a completely chaste way; these friendly overtures are part of the reason the show is watchable, because when he gets to the kitchen, there is no flirting.

In Mangia Mangia, he quickly learned that even when the menu said things like "fresh salmon," it was frozen. Everything was frozen. Not half, not three-fourths -- everything served hot came out of a freezer, and most of them had visited a microwave on the way.

As Gordon Ramsay so clearly and vulgarly pointed out, people can buy frozen food and heat it up at home, so when we go out to eat, we expect something to have been prepared from original ingredients, on the premises, that very day.

Here's where things got wonderfully entertaining: The owner denied all responsibility. Why do you have enough pasta pre-cooked to serve two hundred portions, when you only have fifty people coming tonight? "We don't prepare this much pasta." But there it is, so you do prepare this much pasta.

It is obvious to every viewer that the head cook actually precooks a week's pasta so everything gets reheated just before serving -- and the pasta might be a week old. But the owner denies any knowledge of this, or any responsibility for it.

Because the owner cries, several of the waitresses commiserate with her; nobody commiserates with the young head cook, because they all think he's lazy (i.e., cooks a week's pasta in advance so he never has to cook pasta right when people order it), and because he and one of the waitresses have a hostile-exes relationship.

Yeah, it's that kind of soap opera. But the most entertainingly frustrating thing is that the owner is the most stubbornly self-justifying person I've ever seen. After Ramsay points out how everything is wrong with her restaurant, she sits there and says, "The food is good." Over and over. "I think my food is good."

She's so much in denial that as she's walking out of the restaurant, and Ramsay says, "You're walking out?" her reply is, "I'm not walking out," ... and the door closes behind her.

She's upset at how rude he was to her, but I have to admit I thought he showed incredible restraint, because this woman did not want to hear anything negative, and anything she couldn't deny was always somebody else's fault.

But her cooking staff was completely untrained. Surely the owner bears some responsibility for not training them. And if she's not a chef (as she frequently reminded us), then she should have tested would-be chefs before hiring them.

I remember (in real life now, not on the show) when there was a really good restaurant at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, Utah. One of my nieces worked there as a backserver, and she told us that we should show up on a night when a particular sous-chef was in charge of the kitchen.

Obediently, we did -- and wow, it was terrific food. Everything was tasty, served at the right temperature, and we were thrilled.

Then one night we showed up without checking, and got a different sous-chef. Nothing was right -- too cold, too hot, badly made, icky flavors. Same dishes, same menu, same recipes.... but it really makes a difference who's in charge of the kitchen.

Which brings me to the Greek restaurant. This one had the added complication that the Greek couple who owned and ran it were on the verge of divorce. Each blamed the other for what was wrong with the restaurant, though since it was the husband who ran the kitchen, it was hard to find a reason to blame the wife for the bad, bad food.

Now, I don't like Greek food. You serve good falafel or bad falafel, good souvlaki or bad souvlaki, I could never tell because I hate them all equally. I'm only in a Greek restaurant because somebody tricked me, so I'm also mad.

You want to solve the Greek economic crisis, change all the Greek restaurants to French, Italian, Polish, even English restaurants, and boom! People with palates will eat out again and the economy will take off because everybody feels better and works harder and smiles more and honks less in traffic jams.

But Gordon Ramsay is one of the heroes of our time. Because he lays his life on the line in every episode: They set a dish before him that looks like pigs would reject it, and he takes a bite.

He doesn't do what I did when my grandmother served us turnips or parsnips or some other evil non-food that got rooted up out of the ground: move it around on the plate so nobody can say "you haven't touched that" and then, when you've eaten all the good stuff, you pretend to get an intestinal disorder and rush for the bathroom. Stay there for a while. Flush several times. Then come out looking weak and go sit down somewhere near the candy dish where she keeps the summer bridge mix from See's.

No, he puts a bite in his mouth. He chews. He swallows. He even offered a bite of Greek sausage to the waitress, and she choked on it. When the waitstaff can't gag it down, there's something wrong with the food.

Then Ramsay goes into the kitchen to see what's wrong (everything) and discovers that about half the dishes aren't even prepared in the kitchen. They're coming up in a dumbwaiter from the basement. "What's down there?" he asks. There's a freezer, a refrigerator, and a woman with a microwave down there.

Ramsay realizes that despite all the things that are wrong in the kitchen, most of the food doesn't originate there, so ... he goes into the basement.

The microwave is just sad. It's the fridge that's scary.

They actually put cooked meat and raw chicken in the same refrigerator, next to each other. There's a single layer of plastic wrap over the rubber bin that contains the raw chicken -- but you know plastic wrap doesn't cling to rubber so it's not really sealed. And the cooked meat, from which they carve their gyro strips, isn't even completely covered. Cross-contamination is likely.

When Ramsay confronts the owner, he once again denies responsibility. But Ramsay says -- with reason -- if you never check the refrigerator, you can't be sure things are being handled in a sanitary way, so it's your fault.

In the back of the fridge, Ramsay finds a half-used bottle of fake caviar that is eight years old. Let's just say that this place is not up to anybody's standards.

Here's what kills me. Right at the beginning, the wife tells us how they got into the restaurant business. The husband was getting a haircut a couple of doors down from a restaurant that was for sale, and after thinking about it during the haircut, he bought the restaurant.

No consultation with the wife. She didn't want to be in the restaurant business. But now she's not only putting in fifteen-hour days (while the husband only shows up on his own unpredictable schedule), when Ramsay confronts the guy about the disastrous situation in his kitchen, the husband actually says, "It's her restaurant."

Yeah, that's worthy of Neil Simon, it's so funny, except these are real people. There's an adult daughter who's worried about them. They used to enjoy working together in the restaurant, all the kids and the parents. But now only the one daughter works there with them, and she comes in only on Saturdays.

And the parents are talking to lawyers.

Heck, I think the wife should have talked to a lawyer the day her husband came home having bought a restaurant without consulting with her.

But then, I'm the guy who bought a motorcycle once without consulting my wife, at a time when we didn't own a washer or dryer and my wife was schlepping our dirty clothes to a coin laundry. So, like, "Hypocrisy Alert." (Excuse: First year of marriage. Rookie mistake. Outcome: Sold the motorcycle, which I hated riding anyway. Bought the washer and dryer. Marriage still intact after 38 years. Looking at a motorcycle today gives me psoriasis.)

And then, as the restaurant is failing, they sell their house (which she loved) just to keep the restaurant afloat. So now the wife has lost her home down the sinkhole of this restaurant and she still loves this guy. She just can't remember why.

So Gordon Ramsay isn't just doing a restaurant tough-love routine here. He's trying to save a marriage. He enlists the daughter to help him (and she does fine, though she hasn't yet learned that telling an upset person to calm down makes them more upset every time).

Then Ramsay and, presumably, a team from the show with a decent budget, do a makeover on the restaurant's decor, and he designs them a new menu. It's actually more authentically Greek than anything they had before, which means everything looks kind of awful to me, but it has fresh ingredients, it wasn't bought frozen from a supplier and then nuked in the basement, and they can be proud of their food.

It also looks like the marriage is back on track, at least a little. Though on the first night with the new menu (which Ramsay has surely trained the staff how to cook), the husband still has a meltdown because, let's face it, he's old, and managing the flow of orders from the kitchen to the pickup window is a grueling job that requires the ability to remember a lot of things at once.

I'm about that guy's age, and I have a hard time remembering one thing at once.

But his meltdown is brief, and then he's back. Ramsay helps him get it together, and ... success.

Several things I learned:

If you hate cooking, you shouldn't be a chef. (In fact, if you hate your job, any job, you're not going to be very good at it.)

If you invite an internationally known chef to bring his expertise -- and his cameras -- to your restaurant, listen to what he says and don't spend all your time telling him that you did your job, it's everybody else who sucks. Or, worse, that you think everything's fine. If everything was fine, why did you invite the chef?

If you think it might be cool to own a restaurant, go work somewhere as a waiter or busboy or kitchen helper for a week. Just do it. If that doesn't completely cure you of any desire to own a restaurant, then maybe you could buy a restaurant.

But first you'd better study cooking and watch good chefs and sous-chefs in action for a long time, and learn all the laws and rules about food storage and preparation, because if it's your restaurant, then anything that goes wrong is your fault. You get the training, not so you can be the chef, but so that you can tell whether things are being done properly.

Really, though, the rule is: Stay out of the restaurant business.

And if you own or manage or work in a restaurant that orders a significant number of entrees frozen, from a supplier, and you just heat it and serve it, you're not in the restaurant business. You're in the leftovers business.

Here's the kind of food snob I am. I told my wife fairly early in our marriage: I'm perfectly willing to eat very simple fare. Or eat out as often as you like. But what I won't eat is leftovers. If it comes out of the fridge in Tupperware or covered in plastic wrap, I'm going to open a can of tuna and make myself a sandwich. So unless you plan to eat it yourself for lunch, alone, don't bother saving any food we don't finish at the original meal.

We also don't bring home "doggy bags" from restaurants.

This harmonized with her feelings quite nicely, and the result is that we never find any unidentified mold-covered objects under plastic wrap in the back of the fridge -- because it never went in the fridge under plastic wrap in the first place.

In our 38 years, we've found a couple of pasta salads that I can happily eat on the second day. And that's the whole list of exceptions.

I have a hard time eating potato chips out of a reclosed bag, even with a chip clip on it.

Cookies, though. Cookies are never "leftovers." If I liked them in the first place, I will continue liking them for the entire time they exist in our house.

Which is never more than 48 hours, unless I'm in a coma or out of town.

So that's the rule, restaurant people: If you're buying your entrees and side dishes and desserts from a supplier and thawing them out when people order them, you aren't in the restaurant business, you're just serving leftovers, so please ... shut it down.

Meanwhile, I don't know if I can take any more of Kitchen Nightmares because, even though I've come to love Gordon Ramsay (despite his harsh criticisms, he's always right and if people listen, he's kind and helpful), it's all too distressing for me.

Watching food get mangled and then served to actual living people causes me more anxiety than forgetting my lines in a play or the lyrics to a song in front of an audience.

I can watch lots of TV series set in hospitals or crime labs or courtrooms or mean streets, because I know these are all actors and nobody's actually dead.

But with Kitchen Nightmares, all that food is really truly actually honestly being served to paying customers. And it makes me wonder what's going on in the kitchens of restaurants I love.

Once upon a time, our favorite restaurant in Greensboro was Equinox in Friendly Center. (Yeah, we've lived here long enough to remember when it existed.) But then one day I ordered the tuna steak, which had long been my favorite dish, and it arrived looking completely different. Mainly because it had grill stripes painted on.

I asked the waiter: Was this actually cooked on a grill? Because these stripes look painted on. And the waiter quietly said, That's because they come out of the package that way. And when I looked at him in consternation, he said, even more quietly, New management.

We gave it one more try, and then, as Gordon Ramsay said to the Mangia Mangia owner: Customers vote with their feet. If they don't like what you serve, they don't complain, they just don't come back.

We mourned because of what Equinox had been, but you can't keep eating at a bad restaurant because it used to be good. How would you sell yourself on that? "I remember that I used to not be sick, so I don't mind throwing up now." "My car used to have gas in the tank, so I'm going to go sit in it now and think about how much I used to like driving it to run my errands."

I have never forgotten a sign that used to be on the wall of every Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop. A little sign, right over the drinking fountain, with this quotation from John Ruskin:

"There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man's lawful prey."

Thank you, Gordon Ramsay, for helping us understand that cooking is an art with standards, and people shouldn't be paid for failing to meet the minimum standards of health and freshness.


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