Master of HIS domain

Ben Starr, the recently out Dallas cheftestant on Fox’s ‘MasterChef,’ camps it up on Gordon Ramsay’s cooking competition series

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

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MASTERCHEF
Airs Tuesdays on Fox (Ch. 4) at 8 p.m.

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When Lewisville-based travel writer Ben Starr auditioned for Fox’s MasterChef, he doubted they’d be interested in his style of home cooking. But not only did he make the cut, he’s been one of the more memorable cheftestants — just this week, he had the judge’s favorite dish.

The series is only halfway through, but for Starr, it’s already made a huge difference in his life: It forced him to come out to his parents just last month. We talked to him about the experience and his favorite meals.

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You’ve been struggling since you wowed the judges at your audition. The audition kinda set me up to expect that I would do well in the competition, but we spun pretty quickly into an emphasis on gourmet cuisine, which is not my thing at all. My street tacos were a little bit spiffy, and I am extremely well traveled, but I tend to eat peasant food even when I travel. I was seeing all these people around me making restaurant quality cuisine and trying to compete on their level. Nice to make a good ol’ catfish in a skillet.

What was the hardest challenge for you? The biggest challenge has definitely been psychological. I’m competitive by nature and I want to feel like I’m competition, but I was surrounded by chefs that were a little more connected to the Food Network that I am. They’d use words like umami [a Japanese word for a savory flavor] and I had to go look it up. There was a common lexicon among the contestants about what these famous chefs I’ve never heard of are doing in their restaurants. I felt like an idiot stumbling around in the dark. That started to leak into my cooking and I began to question, “Is this sophisticated enough? Is this even sophisticated?” The episode this week was a turning point. I felt like for the first time I’m back in my own element.

You certainly have made an impression with your outfits. I don’t wear those hats at home, though I do wear an apron, just for practicality. But [the show] has started this storytelling legacy — people expect me to wear them when they come over. My mom made me the pumpkin hat and apron. Actually, she made me five or six pairs to wear. That’s why you always see a different one on me each episode. I was going through them.

Was wearing them part of a conscious effort to stand during the auditions? I am fairly myself, though I had to set myself apart that wasn’t just about food. I needed to be someone [the judges] remember when they go home at night. That’s why I talked about my rural upbringing, because I thought it would generate a memory.

Had you watched the show before? Did you know what to expect? I don’t watch much TV, but this is not my first time being on TV, which is ironic because I abhor reality television —it brings out the worst in our culture. But I did Rachael Ray’s So You Think You Can Cook in 2007. The audience there was much more caring and nurturing than the machine on MasterChef, but I was a little bit prepared for the frank judgment.

I did not watch the first season of MasterChef, but my friend Karen Rutherford said, “I’ll never speak to you again if you don’t audition [for season 2].” So I watched them all on Hulu. I just sweated my way through them. I knew how intense and stressful it is to cook on TV, and saw how brutal Joe Bastianich and Gordon Ramsay were with the contestants. I thought: Screw this. Then a few weeks passed and the terror faded [and I went through the lengthy audition process]. It was a lot of work — the most difficult full-time job I’ve ever had that doesn’t pay.

What’s your favorite kind of cuisine? While my DNA wants to say Mexican food — I had it in the womb six times a week — I am most intrigued by Thai food. It is so complex, yet so much of it is cooked on the street in a tiny little cart. From the richest to the poorest, everybody eats on the street.

How about a favorite meal? One of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had was in Egypt on New Year’s Eve in 2001. I spent it on Mount Sinai and hiked eight miles back down to the car for the drive back to our resort. [The driver] fell asleep at the wheel and we plummeted into a canyon. Eventually a camel train of Bedouins came by the bottom of this canyon. They took us onto the camels and rode four or five miles to their camp. All the women came out, killed a goat and started cooking while the men tried to pull our car out of the canyon.

It was a humble meal — just a goat stew and some flat bread — but the flavors were really intense and felt they came right out of the desert. I could not even communicate with these people who live in abject poverty, but still they were willing to kill one of their last goats and throw a big feast for us because it’s in their nature to be hospitable. I realized it was important to me to use food to nurture people in my life — I could never be a chef and be in the back. I need to be with the people. My partner is one of the main reasons I cook — we’ve been together eight years and I want to marry him one day.

Did you plan to be “the gay guy” on the show? When I was on [Rachael Ray] it was not addressed and I didn’t talk about it openly. At that point my family didn’t know I was gay — in fact, I didn’t come out to my parents until about five weeks ago. They were totally shell-shocked — they didn’t have a clue.

Maybe mom should have guessed since she made you all those hats. Ha! Maybe.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 8, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

DEATHS: James ‘Kissey’ Olson, James Edward ‘Beaux’ Geer, Ray ‘Alpha Pup’ Witt

James “Kissey” Olson, 62, died at his home in Dallas on March 30 after recently being diagnosed with liver cancer.

Olson was native of Iron River, Mich. After graduating from high school, he served in the U.S. Air Force for six years. He went to work for AT&T, living in Phoeniz, Little Rock and finally Dallas, where he retired.

He had lived in the Dallas area for more than 24 years.

His home here was party central and was always open to his many friends who will miss his and his hospitality.

Olson is survived by his mother, Minnie, and sisters, Ruth and Doris, of Iron River; his brother, Ron, of Milwaukee; his ex-wife, Jo, of Yuma, Az.; his two children, Scott and Amy of Phoenix, and six grandchildren; and his beloved Chihuahua, Moose.

Olson was cremated and his ashes were buried at Iron River. A celebration of his life will be held on the patio at The Hidden Door, 5025 Bowser St., on Saturday, April 30, at 2 p.m.

 

James Edward “Beaux” Geer, 46, died April 13.

Geer worked as a hairdresser with Salon D for 23 years. He was also an artist who founded “Healing Texas through the Arts” to showcase new artists and make their works available to the public.

Geer was truly loved by friends and family, and he had an innocent sweetness of spirit and extraordinary talent that turned everything he touched into a thing of beauty. His paintings provided a view into his soul. He will be profoundly missed by those who knew him and will keep him forever in their hearts.

Geer is survived by his mother and stepfather, Bill and Millie Ritter of Plano; his father, Thomas Geer, Lafayette, La.; his brother Greg “Blackie” Geer, wife Kayce, daughter Typhane and grandson Thor, all of Austin; his best friend and brother-of-the heart, Dale Hall; and a host of other family and friends. Plans are pending for a celebration of life memorial gathering.

 

Ray “Alpha Pup” Witt, 59, died March 30 from an apparent stroke. Witt, loving boy and partner to Daddy Ron Hertz of Dallas and a member of the Dallas leather community, was a former member of Discipline Corps and NLA-Dallas. He held the first International Puppy title presented in 2001, thus becoming the “Alpha Pup.” His gift for storytelling and his warm heart endeared him to many in the community and his presence will be missed.Witt is survived by his partner of 9 ½ years, Ron Hertz of Dallas; his mother, Duluth Witt of Lexington, Ky.; and his canine friend “Mugsy.” A celebration of his life will be held at a later date.

 

—  John Wright

Start the week off with ‘A Night of Stories’ by Nouveau 47

January looks like The Most wonderful time of the year

Storytelling strikes a new kind of nerve thanks to Nouveau 47′s Theatre Apprēsh. As people make their resolutions for the 2011, Nouveau 47 brings together individuals who reveal the promises they made to themselves for this new year. Tonight’s theme is The Most: Epic Resolution. Perfect timing since most of us are probably losing interest in our own already. This is “part of Nouveau 47’s newest ongoing project: THE MOST: A NIGHT OF STORIES — an opportunity for writers, performers, non-performers, professionals, aspiring writers, non-aspiring writers, and people from the community to share their unique story in front of the DFW community.”

And if you got you’re own story to tell, stick around for the reception after and sign up for the next event. We know you got stories to tell.

DEETS: The Magnolia Lounge, 1121 First Ave. (in Fair Park). 7:30 p.m. $5. BYOB. Facebook.com/Nouveau47

—  Rich Lopez

‘Harry Potter’ and the deathly bore

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Now playing in wide release.
One star

I have struggled for the better part of a decade to make sense of the appeal of the Harry Potter books and movies. Now, as the film series nears its conclusion with the first part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 2 comes out in July), I’m more befuddled than ever. As it somersaults uncontrollably toward a necessary resolution, the series must contend with its greatest burden: 4,000 pages of characters and intricately plotted (but nonsensical) events — collectively, it all requires a scorecard to keep track.

Sadly, Part 1 comes with no such primer, and the director, David Yates (this is his third Potter film), has made no effort to remind us of who these people are. He should, as couching motives in shadow seems like the raison d’etre of the series. The first half-hour, in fact, feels more like the star credits that used to open The Love Boat: from forgotten Weasleys to Dobby the House Elf (who, to my knowledge, hasn’t been seen since the second film), the parade of former denizens of the Potterverse is mind-numbing.

But not nearly as numbing as the plot itself. Know what a horcrux is, or how it’s make — or, for that matter, how to find and destroy it? You’d better before entering this film. (I’ve seen the other movies and read the mythology and still feel flummoxed.) Like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the Harry Potter films have given over to infernal navelgazing. They are not interested in winning new converts, but catering to the obsessions of their core. It’s the GOP strategy writ in celluloid.

Of course, there are those who have a rabid enthusiasm for the series and who will flock to it, as well as some just caught up in the pop culture excitement of a Thanksgiving blockbuster. But I can’t worry about those. I’m just trying to make heads or tails of the story and the storytelling, and here, it’s nonexistent. (I’d tell you the plot, but have no idea what it was.)

There are long, boring parts in the middle where nothing much happens that fill in the short, boring parts that begin and end it, though seeing a cross-dressing Daniel Radcliffe as Harry in the opening scene is pretty funny. What’s not funny is Harry’s sincere

selflessness: He’s always saying, “I don’t want anyone to suffer just because of me.” You, you mean the only person who can kill the Dark Lord Voldemorte? You, who all of creation has put its faith in to rescue them from eternal darkness? You really think they want you to be in harm’s way? Harry seems not so much noble as indulgent. Accept your lot, and live with it.

Part 1 is among the shortest of the Potter films, but feels longer, even though the ball doesn’t move very far down the field. Or the snitch across the Quiddich court. Or something. Frankly, I’ve given up caring. Apparently, the filmmakers have, too.

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The Next Three Days

Now playing in wide release.
One and a half stars

I’m old enough to remember when Russell Crowe was actually a movie star. Remember his muscled torso in a short Roman chiton in Gladiator? Or sailing the seas with bravado in Master and Commander? The volatile cop in L.A. Confidential? Heck, even his mentalyl ill professor in A Beautiful Mind has the glam of Old Hollywood “Issue Picture” all over it. So when did he become the guy whose movie all sound like dull preposition phrases? State of Play. Body of Lies. Proof of Life.

The Next Three Days is more dangling clause than preposition phrase, though that doesn’t make it any better. It’s still a dark muddle about an ordinary guy who tries extraordinary things faced with unusual circumstances. When you think about it, that’s the plot of his last film, Robin Hood, too. … another day but moodless and sincere drama.

Here, Crowe is a milquetoast husband whose wife (Elizabeth Banks) has been falsely convicted of murder. He obsesses about getting  her out, but when his last appeal (and last dollar) is lost, he decides to break her out.

Writer-director Paul Haggis veers too often into action-movie parody without the sense of fun that silly actioners can possess. Want to be earnest and deep? Then do that and leave the cheesy coincidences in the first draft. The Next Three Days isn’t a horrible film, it’s just one with so little personality, it’s hard to like.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones