Thursday, February 26, 2009

"i gave my power away"

Who would have thought Top Chef would provide a teachable moment that had nothing to do with skinning an eel or how strong redfish is? (BTW: am I the only one who thought "redfish" was something Dr. Seuss made up?) But Wednesday night's lamentable finale did just that. Carla Hall--dear, Beeker manque, hootie hoo Carla--who had won over fans and judges alike with her exuberance and soulful cooking and delightful goofiness, lost tragically; so tragically she wasn't even in the running at the end.

And why? Bad choices, forgotten details, over thinking her menu, poor time management? Probably, sure; all of the above. But everyone made mistakes: Stefan decided to freeze salmon halibut carpaccio before serving it--in a pool of melted fishwater (delish!)--and delivered a dessert the judges deemed dated and pedestrian. Hosea presented a sashimi trio that everyone agreed was bland and poorly seasoned, lacking the most obvious thing in the world: salt. So how did Carla's few mistakes snowball enough to prove fatal?

She admitted it Thursday on NPR: she second guessed herself. Presented with some ideas by her appointed sous chef (Casey, a runner-up from a previous season), Carla thought, "Okay, let's try it." Yeah, let's "try" cooking the beef 'sous vide'--a technique Carla had never done before (and which involves a plastic bag; sorry, but it seems a little Shake-n-Bake to me...). Let's try making souffles (who doesn't know how temperamental souffles are!?! wasn't this a Three's Company episode?) instead of the tartlet she'd planned. Presented with ideas from (let's face it) a subordinate--'sous' means under, after all--Carla said, "Okay, good idea there, Casey." Carla, ever kind, ever compassionate, ever open minded. She succumbed to the Achilles (high) heel of women everywhere: she decided to be a team player when in fact she needed to be just the opposite. She needed to not just have a vision, but also the confidence and dedication to stick to it. She needed to lead.

Why do we (women) do this? We lean towards empathy, kindness, compassion. We care about the group, often at expense of ourselves. (Every Mom, ever, yes?) We want everyone else to feel included; we want to hear opinions from all quarters. And that's all great. I love that about us. But when the task at hand doesn't call for a team response, when you're competing for Top Chef, not Top Kitchen Crew...sisters, I hate to say this, but: man up.

Look at how Carla's male competitors treated their sous chefs; like number twos. Hosea and Stefan looked at their sous chefs and saw Watsons to their Holmes, Spocks to their Kirks, Dwights to their Michaels. Carla looked at Casey, hugged her in solidarity, and saw Thelma and Louise. And yes: together, hands held, they drove off a damn cliff.

Is this why there's still a glass ceiling? (And there is: look up the stats--they're shocking.) That when push comes to shove we look for consensus when we should be decisive? And here's an even more frightening thought: what if we're not looking for consensus because we're so frigging nice? What if we're looking for consensus because we're--gulp--just freaking scared? In the myriad post mortems Carla has admitted she had a loss of confidence. This, from New York Magazine on line:

"When you are in a situation and you’ve done it on your own and you try to keep everything together, as soon as there is somebody in front of you who has been through it, you almost exhale at that point and say ‘Oh my God, thank God I have help!’ And you’re like, ‘okay, let me lean on you, let me listen, what do you have for me? Let me take some of your energy.’ And I think I did a little bit too much of that and I gave my power away."

Wow. Maybe we're not just tragically nice team players. Could we actually be...pussies? Is that possible? I mean, I know I'm a pussy, but I'm sitting in a dark room commentating. Carla was a competitor. Carla cooked her ass off. Carla had it going on.

Scarily, the recent event this most reminded me of? Hilary Clinton's presidential campaign. Remember her? The runner-up? Even though a tremendous amount of time and energy went into making us all believe that Clinton would be "ready to lead" on "day one"--and maybe she would have been--the inside dope on the campaign was that a real lack of leadership was exactly Clinton's problem.

In a Sept 2008 article in The Atlantic, Joshua Green writes, "...her advisers couldn't execute strategy; they routinely attacked and undermined each other, and Clinton never forced a resolution." After reviewing of a trove of internal campaign documents, Green comes to this conclusion: "...Clinton’s loss derived not from any specific decision she made but rather from the preponderance of the many she did not make. Her hesitancy and habit of avoiding hard choices exacted a price that eventually sank her chances at the presidency." Of the internecine squabbles inside the campaign, apparently, "Clinton herself could never quite decide who was right." Could this be what was at the root of Clinton's routinely criticized "triangulating"? Not hoping to be all things to all people out of a callous political expediency but a sadly familiar, junior high school terror that the mean girls won't invite us to their sleep-overs?

Oh, god. Is Hilary Clinton--strong, bad-ass, pant-suited, snarky, smart as shit Hilary Clinton--a pussy too?!!?

I'm not suggesting we vanquish fear: obviously, that's impossible. But clearly men have figured out a way to feel fear but do it anyway. To never betray that they're afraid. To act like they're on top of it and in charge (even when they--so often--aren't; even when they bollocks up the entire goddamned world). Maybe we need to just take some acting classes and learn to behave "as if". Maybe Carla felt she needed help from Casey; but she clearly should have acted like she didn't and stuck stubbornly to her own style.

By the end of the Top Chef finale it was clear Carla knew that was her mistake. When asked why she should be Top Chef she swallowed a clear desire to say what she's admitted since: "I gave my power away." Even as it was utterly clear that that was absolutely what she'd done, Carla put the best face on it she could and only talked about her strengths, tried to throw a soupcon of braggadocio into the pot. Unfortunately, it was too late; the sauce was already broken.

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