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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Top Chef's Fabio Viviani Hates Cilantro, Exclusive Interview

Fabio Viviani, incontrovertibly the most charming of Top Chef contestants, ever, hates cilantro.

He doesn't just casually hate it--as if that were possible--he really loathes the stuff: His secret dream is to "be filthy rich, grow 20 acre of cilantro, and drop a bomb on it." He kids. I asked Fabio how hating cilantro has affected his life, he laughs in characteristic Fabio manner and says it hasn't affected his life of course but then admits "People are having fun with me when I say I hate cilantro… [It's] something fun."

Hating cilantro is so fun that he has banned the herb in his restaurant Cafe Firenze (though he is sure the Latino cooks (cilantro is popular in Mexican, Central and South American cuisine) prepare family meal with it in his absence as he finds it in the walk-in when he returns from a short vacation). Hating cilantro is so fun that he refused to help co-competitor and European compatriot Stefan Richter prepare his (losing) dish of salads and meat for the "Super Bowl Chef Showdown" episode. Come to think of it, not helping Stefan cook does sound sort of fun.

Fabio feels like he's the only member of a club. "No way" I assured him. Please read the Wall Street Journal or check out or Facebook or anything--you aren't alone! He feels the herb tastes like soap, and there is a lot of support out there for that opinion.

I'm not the only one who has noticed that cilantro is everywhere. Fabio agrees and is not happy about its growing prevalence. While would-be fancy chefs find cilantro sophisticated, new and exciting--Fabio says it just wouldn't happen in Italy: "It's outlawed in Italy," he jokes.

Once he and his (Italian) mother prepared meatballs and accidentally purchased cilantro (in the U.S.) instead of parsley--they look similar. Neither noticed the mistake until they tried them--they were both repulsed.

Erin: Does your mother not like cilantro either?
Fabio: No, she's Italian.

While I have often argued that cilantro has no place anywhere, it certainly has no place in Italian cuisine: cilantro in pasta sauce? Please. I can imagine those meatballs must have been very terrible indeed.

Some people think we cilantro haters are just a winy group of crazies, or that we must just hate everything. Fabio admits he isn't crazy about artificial cherry flavor, (clearly a man of good taste) but quickly goes for typically less-desired foods like rooster neck or bull's testicles. Not a finicky eater, just a man who knows what he likes, and what he really fucking hates. (Fabio likes to use the word "fuck" by the way--this cilantro hater approves--am I gushing, how embarrassing. I'll admit the company is nice).

So, what's next for Fabio (he was robbed and told to "pack his knives and go" last week)? He's cooking me an 8 course cilantro tasting menu at his restaurant Cafe Firenze, of course.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

10 Reasons To Love Hating Cilantro, Number 7: The Lying

I'm not much of a liar.

There's an obvious potential paradox here that I won't even insult you explaining, but choose to believe me or not, I'm actually a pretty honest person. This is for a variety of reasons most notably: I'm bad at lying, My long-term memory is better than my short term memory and I would have a hard time keeping my facts straight (in other words, I'm bad at lying) and I, to be honest, have this strange sense of what one might call integrity wrapped around this virtue, if you will, of telling the truth. Telling the truth is better than not, most of the time, and I leave it to men smarter and men dumber than me to decide when those times might be.

Except with this whole "I'm allergic to cilantro" businesss, which WSJ quoted me on and has been the source of much discussion since. Commenters have written that they are worried I've exposed the lie as such and restaurateurs and cocktail hour hosts across the world will no longer take the allergy proclamation seriously. Another commenter worries that the "crying wolf" waters down the very serious allergies of people like her daughter--restaurants no longer take allergies seriously, everyone's got an "allergy," these days.

To be fair, I've always had a somewhat unfounded attitude towards allergies, with the exception of peanuts (though I resent people with peanut allergies because it means I can't eat them on planes anymore), thinking they're largely the result of 1) too worrisome parents who don't feed their kids anything potentially allergy-causing and hence end up with kids "allergic" to everything 2) nature telling us we shouldn't be eating these things we're "allergic" too (lactose intolerant, please, eating milk from another species (and after early childhood) is unprecedented in the animal kingdom and just straight weird--yes I eat milk products) 3) a general hypochondria that has swept the nation. But, while these opinions aren't going anywhere soon, in all seriousness, of course if a child, especially, has a physical reaction when eating a food, I don't want to stand in the way, in any way, of them not eating that food.

But, I don't see that happening. I worked in a bunch of restaurants and I can tell you chefs take allergies seriously, especially real ones like peanut allergies, and while they find it HOPELESSLY ANNOYING, they don't want to get sued or lose business, so they comply. They've gotten so used to allergies, that they are actually more prepared and skilled at dealing with them. Separate areas for peanuts, separate pans for garlic or meat or vegetables. Do they sneak a little butter into risotto they call vegan? I've seen it done. And why? Because they find vegans annoying and their cause not sympathetic whereas they find people with allergies equally annoying, but a potential lawsuit--they would also have proof of the infraction in theory where the vegan wouldn't. (I'm speaking in general from my experience here, but I think I'm right). So there you go, the person with the allergy gets what they want and the person with a distaste doesn't, at least not relaibly.

So then the question becomes, do I, a paying customer deserve to get what I want? Yes. I think so. I treat "the help" politely and when I've explained I don't like, even hate cilantro, it finds a way onto the plate. Those of you who have watched a certain amount of Sex and the City know that the Carrie Bradshaw character does not like parsley and uses the same lying technique to avoid getting parsley in her food. This of course annoys Berger to no end and is probably the beginning of the end of their relationship, but I digress. I get what I want when I lie. It carries that I could do this in other arenas of my life, (get what I want by lying) but one must sacrifice one's integrity with calculation and consideration for mankind.

I would argue that the rampant allergic-ness of America has in fact made it easier to have an allergy in America (described above) and that while this makes things more difficult and annoying for chefs, it makes things better for diners, in other words for the demand to the restaurant's supply, and those with allergies have nothing to fear from liars like me, and cilantro haters calling themselves allergic similarly have nothing to fear because the chef is obliged to take the allergy seriously. But cilantro haters out there, if your hate is as real, as tangible, as undeniable as mine, it is as serious an unpleasantry as most not-serious allergies (which is to say most allergies) and if lying means I can enjoy a meal, one man's hives is another man's ruined palate and dining experience, let's leave it at that.

And lying's kind of fun too.

Friday, February 13, 2009

10 Reasons to Love Hating Cilantro, Number 8: The Fame

While I've often entertained the idea of a small, esoteric, and elite fanbase, (for cilantro hate propaganda and other literary works) I haven't known how it would feel to taste a glimpse of recognition for the first time on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Of course, that is until now.

If you're reading this you either hate cilantro and found me on google search, are one of my 25 or so loyal reading friends, or more likely read the piece in the Wall Street Journal today, which so generously did not contain a link to my blog. Thanks guys. Well, can't complain too much. So nice it is to be recognized and pencil-fied!

I'll keep this post short, but if you haven't read the WSJ article do--it's an interesting look at the amazing and surprisingly diverse community that has developed on the web around hating cilantro. As always, I'm honored and compelled to be a part of this community, indeed to be the self-proclaimed expert on cilantro hate and more importantly, cilantro hate introspection and sociology, if you will. If this is your first time here, I would suggest using this blog as an apt diversion from anything you'd like to be diverted form, mainly work I imagine.

As for the 15 minutes, it's as awesome as cilantro is not...

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

10 Reasons to Love Hating Cilantro, Number 9: The Absolute Shock it Sparks in Cilantro Fans

To mention you hate cilantro in mixed company, which is to say any company really, is to immediately incur the fierce judgment and opposition of many.

When you say you hate cilantro--you might as well say you hate the Virgin Mary herself--it is that offensive to those that love, or even those that kind of like.

I recently had this experience on an conference call:

Me: "Oh, you have a window box garden. That's tremendous. Tell me, what in it grows sir?"
Sir: "Cilantro"
Me: "Gross. Nothing else?"
Sir: "No, just cilantro, it's a limited garden as yet."
Me: "Indeed"
Conference Call Chorus: "I love cilantro." "Me too. Who hates cilantro?" "It's so refreshing." "Yeah. It's one of my favorite herbs." "Exactly. It's really good." "Who doesn't like cilantro."
Me: "I HATE CILANTRO is who... I have a whole blog about."
CCC: laughs
Me: "No, for real...."

I would never begrudge the masses their relishing in something (they find to be) delicious of course. What's funny, amazing, something to love as it were, is how impassioned the cilantro lovers are. I hear what you're saying--I too, my lot, are similarly impassioned. Perhaps. But not without irony dammit. Have you seen the I Hate Cilantro site? It is irony incarnate. Those that like are so, well, genuine! But no need to judge, I've said my peace about cilantro lovers in the past...we all have our crosses to bear.

What's fun is in an otherwise ordinary meeting, or say it's a nice brunch looking for a little culinary discourse, or say it's a conversation with a stranger in the checkout aisle you wish you could connect with (if only to argue)--hating cilantro is immediate grounds for a kind of good-hearted outrage-turned-understanding: We feel the same way, just but it's the opposite, or something. Anyway, it's fun to see people get so riled up about something they probably hadn't given a ton of (any) thought to until it was suggested someone might hate it. Many times I feel I'm the first cilantro hater people have met. Cross to bear? No, it's my privilege and honor.