REVIEW: ‘Work of Art’ season 2

“Happy families are all alike,” Tolstoy began Anna Karenina; “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

I think that sort of applies to the current slate of reality competition shows. Pretty much they all follow the same format: An “initial challenge” (reward on Survivor; quickfire on Top Chef, etc.) that typically comes with a built-in advantage; an elimination challenge (the heart of the competition), usually on a ridiculously tight schedule; judges sniping about why this gown made in 45 minutes completely out of trash bags is not runway-ready; then a panel where the winner is selected and the bottom three are singled out; interviews are sprinkled throughout with the contestants pointing out each others’ flaws.

The only thing missing from that description is the actual talent involved. That’s where Tolstoy comes in.

There are competition shows about hair-cutting, cooking, fashion designing, dancing, singing, extreme traveling and wilderness abilities; but none are more peculiar for a contest than making art. (Maybe writing a novel; the problem is, it would take years to film.)

It’s almost a boondoggle if you think about it: People’s taste may be subjective, but at least on Project Runway you’re weighing dress against dress; on Work of Art, starting its second season tonight, you might be comparing photos with sculpture with graffiti with performance art and painting. On Top Chef, contestants may literally be comparing apples and oranges, but here, it’s watermelons and race cars.  If there is a more esoteric enterprise, I can’t imagine it.

Which is not to say Work of Art is a meaningless exercise, although even more than Nina Garcia, the taste levels of the judges are at least as puzzling as the execution of the contestants. When China Chow drones on that one artist’s style recalls Keith Haring, she acts as if there could be no greater insult to a gallerist than reminding someone of someone else. Since when did Michael Kors design a dress that didn’t have some predecessor in history?

The highfalutin nature of the show means that it really fits in the Bravo stated profile better than, say, any of the Real Housewives franchises (remember when Bravo had opera?). It challenges you a little to consider what art is, and how creativity is funneled in different ways. It’s a show meant for a sophisticated urban audience. (Sarah Jessica Parker is one of the producers, as if it could have been called Art and the City.) There’s a slightly self-congratulatory aspect to it, as if you feel more cultured in evaluating artists without the bother of going to an actual museum.

So how “unhappy” is this show? Artists are temperamental folks, and pretty arrogant, but part of the fun is seeing how their egos are shaped by the others’ around them; and even some of them allow their libidos to influence their styles and their affections for other contestant.

Work of Art is no better or worse than most competition series, but I do enjoy the creative process being given equal time to all the bad behavior on TV. If that’s patting myself on the back, so be it.

Premieres tonight on Bravo at 9 p.m.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

PHOTOS: Red carpet gala of Private | Social

I have a story this week about Top Chef Tiffany Derry, but you can also see photos by Kristina Bowman (and myself) here of the opening night, which included a host of other Top Chef contestants, including the delightly gay chef Arnold Myint and some stars from Most Eligible Dallas. A review of the resto will come next month.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Tiffany does Uptown

TIFFANY TWISTED | Derry put scallops on her menu at her new McKinney Avenue eatery Private|Social, but she has taken pains not to do another seafood restaurant (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

‘Top Chef’ fave Tiffany Derry brings her new concept to her favorite neighborhood

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor

It’s just a few hours before her new restaurant, Private|Social, is set to open with a red carpet gala, but if the pressure is getting to Tiffany Derry, you wouldn’t know it to look at her.

For one thing, she has help. Through the glass in the dining room looking into the kitchen, you can see a staff diligently and wordlessly going through the motions of a prep chef: mixing pizza dough, chopping herbs, readying eggs for a passed appetizer. But look closer, and the faces are familiar. Arnold Myint, dapper and pixieish, was a contestant on Top Chef; to his right, fellow finalist Kelly Liken; to his left, Kevin Sbraga, who actually won their season. These may be the best line cooks anyone’s had since Jacques Pepin peeled potatoes for Julia Child.

But that’s the kind of affection Derry generates — and a second reason why she might not look stressed out: She’s used to it.

Derry’s last 18 months have been remarkable. There has been no bigger breakout star from all seasons of Top Chef than her. She made the final five of Season 7, winning the “fan favorite” prize, then immediately returned for the first all-stars season, coming in fourth.

“I always said about the show, I don’t care if I won or lost as long as I do my best by my standards. One thing I just loved about [being on Top Chef] was, it challenged me to do more and be better,” she says.

That ended up being a good dry run for what was to come. Just as the all-stars started filming, Derry got shocking news: The owners of the restaurant in North Dallas that she’d launched, Go Fish, closed it with no notice. Dallas’ biggest celebrity of the moment found herself out of a job.

That lasted all of two days.

When investors who were interested in opening a new concept realized Derry was available, she was the first person they called. For Derry, it was serendipity.

“Had it not closed, I wouldn’t be here right now,” she says. “The moment you get a job, you start thinking anyone can take this away from me. I needed to be in a position to make my own moves.”

What made Derry popular with audiences is part of her appeal in person. She’s loud and upfront about everything — there’s no hint of politicking when she answers questions, and she has a strong sense of her own personality. She knows that serves her well as a chef… all she needs to do is bring that personality to the plate. And the shuttering of Go Fish offered her the chance to double down on her skill set in the kitchen.

“I was starting to get stale at certain things,” Derry admits. Her background is in both seafood and Italian cuisine, and a new concept offered her the opportunity to expand her palate.

“I knew I wanted to do some global food,” she says. “I do love fish — I love playing with the textures. When I see a piece of meat, my first reaction is, ‘What do I do with this?’”

Derry was intimately involved in every aspect of launching Private|Social, including the locale.

“I always knew I wanted to be in Uptown,” she declares. When she came into the space along McKinney Avenue, she says, she knew instantly that it was where she wanted to be. She hand-picked every piece of stem- and flatware on the tables, and even selected the “P” and “S” on the door handles — one opening into “private,” the other into “social.” (The menus are printed in-house, so Derry anticipates updating them at least monthly, if not weekly.)

The concept was also near-and-dear to her. The paradoxical name indicates not only the bifurcated dining areas, but the menu as well. Want high-end event dining with a seasonal menu? Ask for “private.” Prefer to meet up with some friends after work for large plates less expensive food and cocktails? Choose “social.” Both menus are available in both dining areas — even at the same table. It also means that diners with differing budgets can eat at the same restaurant and enjoy different price points to fit their wallets without feeling intimidated.

Welcome to the post-financial meltdown world of dining out.

Derry quickly ’fesses that the pre-opening part of the restaurant biz is her favorite. There’s potential at each corner to do something new. Everything is possible.

“I have to calm my tendency to make everything Asian,” she says of her menu process on Private|Social. “There is a lot of seafood; the gnudi is Italian and my vegetarian option is a pasta, but oh, well.” One item she’s happy to have added is a massive “salad” invented by Arnold Myint’s mother. It’s labor-intensive and outside her comfort zone a little, but why not try something new? Derry is used to taking chances.

Right now, though, she has to get back to the kitchen to get ready for her opening. Then there’s a trip to the salon and a night of media and guests and reality TV shows filming every moment of the most important day of her life.

But Derry doesn’t break a sweat. This is what she lives for. If she can survive Tom Colicchio’s judgments, she’s ready to take on anything.

• online exclusive

For red carpet photos of the opening night gala at
Private|Social, visit

—  John Wright

Bitter, sweets

NUP_144817_1361It has been a surprisingly long time since a “classic” Top Chef series has aired: Almost a full year since something other than All-Stars, Masters or Just Desserts. And I have to say: I miss the original, where up-and-coming chefs with lots of talent actually compete to see who’s the best. (Later in the fall, it will return — set in Texas.) But, like a heroin addict settling for Methodone — not as good, but a compromise replacement — the new season of Top Chef: Just Desserts will have to tide me through. It’s not the real thing, but it’s close enough.

Well, more or less. Top Chef and Project Runway have always stood out because their contestants have real skills — you sense the producers sincerely want the best, not just those who make the best reality television. (What’s A-list about the A-Listers?) Increasingly, reality competition shows rely on crazy incompetents and arrogant bastards (or bitches) to keep the conflicts alive.

This season of Desserts seems to backpedal on that promise , with Craig, pictured lef, the flamboyant newcomer tp pastry, throwing a wrench into the plans of more seasoned chefs, including Dallas’ Lina Biancamano (she who creates the confections at Stephan Pyles, also pictured). The deal with the self-centered Melissa, who you know will stay around too long just to offer viewers a villain.

The season premiere, which adds superchef Hubert Keller as a judge, doesn’t have the spark of last season (yet), and it’s not clear yet who will add the most enjoyable camp factor. But I take my fixes as they come. It’ll last me til Top Chef: Texas; I just know it will; it’s gotta.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

Premieres Aug. 24; airs weekly on
Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Bravo.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 19, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Reality TV roundup: Dallas playas and the gaying of ‘So You Think You Can Dance’

Two gay North Texans on original summer programming reality shows are continuing to thrive.

Lewisville’s Ben Starr and  Dallas’ Leslie Ezelle have been standouts on their respective series — Starr on Fox’s MasterChef and Ezelle on HGTV’s Design Star.  Starr was a top-three finisher in this week’s episode on Tuesday, while Ezelle made a strong impression Week 1 of Design Star and has never been in the bottom of the pack since. (Another Dallasite, local chef Carrie, has been most known as the object of hatred among her team on Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen.)

The rest of the summer’s reality life will continue to gay it up: Local pastry chef  Lina Biancamano, who works in the kitchen at Stephan Pyles, is a contestant on Top Chef: Just Desserts starting next month, and the series Most Eligible: Dallas debuts in three weeks on Bravo. And tonight on Lifetime, the new season of Project Runway premieres.

But what has really interested me this summer on reality TV has been the rotating guest judges on So You Think You Can Dance. A few seasons back, senior judge and exec producer Nigel Lythgoe took it on the chin for making comments perceived as homophobic — an odd claim, considering that SYTYCD has among the gayest (though least out) cast of contestants on reality TV (as well as many gays behind the scenes.)

Maybe that controversy led to Lythgoe intentionally gaying up the lineup this season. Starting with the mass auditions, guest judges this season have been gay choreographers Adam Shankman and Jason Gilkison. Then during the live elimination weeks, the first round of judges included gay faves Megan Mullally, Kristin Chenoweth and Debbie Reynolds, then in the past three weeks the 1-2-3-4 punch of Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Neil Patrick Harris (pictured), Rob Marshall and Lady Gaga. All have made pretty out-there comments for the family-friendly show. “Do you have a boyfriend?” Ferguson asked one of the female dancers. “So do I,” he said. Harris joked that one girl was so good even he was attracted to her, and last night Gaga joked that she “loves a queen” … and she wasn’t talking about Elizabeth II.  Can’t wait to see who’s up next to judge.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

What’s gay about this year’s Emmy noms

The Emmy nominations came out this morning, and there are, as usual, lots of gays in the mix.

The most obvious is the continued domination of Modern Family in the comedy category. Last year’s winner for best comedy series was nominated again for that, as well as the entire adult cast (pictured) in supporting categories, including out actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who plays half of a gay couple with straight actor Eric Stonestreet. Also up for best comedy series at the very gay (or gay-friendly) Glee (from gay creator Ryan Murphy), The Office, The Big Bang Theory, Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock. The Modern Family men will be up against Chris Colfer, so touching as Kurt, on GleeBig Bang‘s out actor Jim Parsons competes with his castmate Johnny Galecki and prior winner Alec Baldwin of 30 Rock.

Last year’s winner for supporting actress in a comedy, out actress Jane Lynch from Glee, is nominated again, alongside Modern Family’s Sofia Vergara and Julie Bowen, Jane Krakowski (30 Rock), Betty White (Hot in Cleveland) and Kristen Wiig (SNL). Archie Panjabi, who won supporting actress in a drama last year for The Good Wife playing a bisexual lawyer, is also up again, going against Christina Hendricks from Mad Men.

There were big nominations for Emmy (and gay) favorites Mad Men and Dexter, and some real love for the Texas-filmed series Friday Night Lights, which finishes its series run tomorrow on NBC. The cult hit The Killing got several nominations, but best drama series was not among them.

Kathy Griffin’s My Life on the D List was nominated for reality series, with gay hits American Idol, Top Chef, Project Runway, So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars are up for reality competition. Gay-ish comedy shows The Colbert Report and The Daily Show are frontrunners for variety/comedy series.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Tube review: ‘Rocco’s Dinner Party’

For the most part, there are two kinds of TV cooking shows: Those that teach you techniques — the ones that are all about entertaining and fun with food — and competition shows, where chefs demonstrate their skills in the hopes of winning something (money, a job, bragging rights). Rocco’s Dinner Party, which debuts tonight on Bravo, splits the difference.

The premise — three promising chefs compete to put on a dinner party for Rocco’s guests (including, in the first episode, gay actor Bryan Batt from Mad Men), and the one who presents the best meal, including the decor and style, gets $20,000, with the first of the three eliminated after the first challenge — combines Chopped, Top Chef and Top Design with Martha Stewart Living.

It’s not a wholly successful mashup. The host, Rocco DiSpirito, has been better known for the last decade as a celebrity than as a cook, with reality shows like The Restaurant, as well as for writing cookbooks. He seems more interested in bullying the contestants and demonstrating his own superior knowledge about cooking than actually teaching (or learning) anything. He’s such an annoying smartypants (frankly, he has been every time I’ve seen him on TV), you kinda want his dinner party to fail. And the now-annoying habit of waiting until the challenge is half-way over before the show throws a wrench into the plans (surprise! your guests have dietary restrictions we didn’t tell you about before you went shopping!) has infected the entire genre with its false drama and predictability.

As the Bravo style of shows go, there are far worse out there, and if Rocco tones down his snippiness (who would want to attend a dinner party with him?) it could grow on me. Until then, I’ll stick to take-out.


—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Spoiler alert! Gay chef exits ‘Top Chef Masters’

Suvir Saran

One of the out chefs on the current season of Top Chef Masters was told to pack his knives last night.

The series, which pits established and celebrity chefs against one another in cooking competitions to raise money for charity, is near the start of its second season on Bravo.

Suvir Saran, an Indian chef who is a practicing vegetarian, was booted from the show for cooking a tasteless vegan burger with a low calorie count for a weight-loss challenge. Saran has stayed true to his no-kill principles since the season began, refusing to even use bugs in a weird challenge last week. He has, however, cooked meat this season which had already been butchered, although his default has been to find vegan alternatives for carnivorous dishes.

Last night, he lectured the diners, including the panel of food critics that included gay judge James Oseland, about how red meat was responsible for obesity and why his substitute was healthier. Perhaps, but it ended up being flavorless and not juicy enough for the diners.

Saran owns a farm in Upstate New York with his partner, Charlie.  He raised about $8,000 for his charity before being let go.

Lesbian Tracy Des Jardins fared better for our tribe, winning her second “quickfire” challenge of the season.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

And then there was one: ‘Top Chef’ recap

Tre Wilcox

OK, gay Dallas foodies — our heroes are falling fast. Last night on Top Chef: All-Stars, Dallas chef Tre Wilcox was told to pack his knives and go after preparing an al dente, mushy risotto in an Italian cuisine challenge. (By the way, Tre, they were right: Risotto needs to cascade like creamy polenta, not plop like over-cooked grits.) That means there are no gays and only one Texan — last season’s fan favorite Tiffany Derry — remaining in the mix. And I have a feeling about her …

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

‘Top Chef’ recap: Bad day for the gays

Jamie, left, and Tiffany, center, went home last night

The last two weeks have been rough on gay North Texas fans of Top Chef: All-Stars. First, last week Fort Worth chef Casey Thompson (founder of Brownstone) fell following a dim sum challenge; then last night, the two remaining out chefs — Tiffani and Jamie — were kicked off during a double-elimination challenge involving, ironically enough, fish. (Sorry ’bout that.)

On the upside, cutie Fabio and Dallas chefs Tre Wilcox (looking especially buff in a tanktop while fishing) and Tiffany Derry are still in the running. We’ll take what we can get,

—  Arnold Wayne Jones