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Friday, August 28, 2009

Information Overload

Recently due to the Typhoon Morakot, I would watch a few minutes of the local morning news on television before I leave for work. The news programs are prime examples of information overload. Below is a shot of the morning news on the TVBS news channel.

I can count ten different things on the screen at the same time: 1. vertical scroll; 2. anchor woman presenting a story that has nothing to do with the headlines or the scrolls; 3. name of the show; 4. channel logo; 5. headline of a local newspaper; 6. time; 7. stock market index; 8. upper horizontal scroll; 9. bottom horizontal scroll; and 10. headline of another local newspaper. Each of the 10 pieces of information mentioned above have nothing to do with each other.

This bombardment of information has become the norm. Below is a screen shot of the program on another news channel.

Similar to the other channel, this one has ten different things going on at the same time as well: 1. vertical scroll; 2. upper headline; 3. website for viewers to upload images; 4. anchor woman presenting a story; 5. name of the channel; 6. bottom horizontal scroll; 7. lower headline; 8. picture of a story that is different from the two headlines and what the anchor was presenting; 9. weather; 10. time.

It is as if the networks believe if they don't present all this information at once, the viewers will lose patience and switch channels. Or perhaps, television news programs have been influenced by the way information is distributed on the internet. Presenting all the information at once has made the news program on television incoherent and lacking any emphasis and focus. What makes things worse is most of the time there actually aren't too much news to report in Taiwan, therefore, the news program will simply repeat all the information every half hour or so.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Quote | Flimsies

"We can't cater to flimsies."

- Julia Child, on not dumbing down her Mastering the Art of French Cooking to people who are unserious about food.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Artsy Sandwich

7-Eleven's ads for the NT$39 breakfast continue to fascinate me. I don't know who is the art director for these ads, but they keep reminding me of works of art or design. The previous ad conjured up Le Corbusier's church. Below is the current ad for the breakfast sandwich.

The arrangement of the ham and the lettuce formed by layers of sheets with voids in between is very similar to the recent work by Tara Donovan at the Lever House in New York City.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Quote | Money

"If you don’t care about the money, the money gets jealous.

- Ron Arad in a conversation with students.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Aftermath of Morakot

In three days, Typhoon Morakot dumped almost three meters of rain in parts of Taiwan, which is approximately the average rain fall for the whole year. Scores of bridges and roads were destroyed. Several villages were completely wiped out by the mud slide, thousands of people are now homeless, and hundreds of people are dead, many buried alive.

The local news coverage of the aftermath of the typhoon has been quite frantic and piecemeal. For the past few days I had a hard time comprehending the scale of the disaster. It was only when Taiwan's Center for Space and Remote Sensing Research (中央大學太空遙測中心) released the satellite images of some of the affected area that I finally had a better grasp of the disaster areas.

Below is a before and after image of 太麻里鄉 (Taimali Township) in 台東 (Taitung) that I put together to show the impact of the typhoon. The image on the left is taken from Google map, which is before the typhoon. The image on the right is a satellite image taken on August 12, 2009. The width of the small river expanded three to four times and engulfed farmlands and houses.

The reconstruction of many parts of Taiwan is expected to take years and some of the villages destroyed may be gone forever.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Five Minus Two

Architect Charles Gwathmey died on August 3, 2009 at the age of 71. I didn't know Gwathmey (Charlie as he was commonly known) personally and didn't work at his office; some of my former bosses and friends worked at Gwathmey & Siegel. Nevertheless Gwathmey has left strong impressions on me.

The first time I encountered Gwathmey was through his work, namely Whig Hall at Princeton University when I was a freshman there. Whig Hall is one of a pair of identical neoclassical buildings situated just behind Nassau Hall. In 1969 a fire destroyed all but the exterior of Whig Hall. Gwathmey was hired to renovate the building. Instead of simply restoring the building he carved out a side of the building and inserted several white volumes in the Corbusian language.

The combination of modernist and classical language makes Whig Hall a very unique building, not only as a standout on the more classically oriented campus of Princeton, but a prime example of how classical buildings can be transformed and enhanced.

The second time I encountered Gwathmey was also during my freshman year in college. A businessman in Taipei, Mr. Chen, commissioned Gwathmey to design a house for his family and my father was asked to be the associate architect. When my father was in New York to meet with Gwathmey to discuss the design, I went with him. At that time, I had not decided to study architecture, but I was curious to see Gwathmey's design and his office. Gwathmey's office was actually the first mid-size architectural office in New York I ever visited. The firm is located near the western edge of Manhattan in a converted industrial loft. My first impression of Gwathmey was he didn't fit my image of an architect that was formed from photographs in books and magazines. Instead of a suit and a tie, Gwathmey was dressed in a white Ralph Lauren polo shirt with blue jeans. He was very athletic-looking with broad shoulders. The visit with Gwathmey and seeing his office established a new image of an architect in my mind.

The Chen House was a unique project in Gwathmey's portfolio. Because of requirements in the program and zoning, it has four levels of basement and five-levels above grade. It is like a typical large Gwathmey house but turned ninety degrees vertically. The project allowed Gwathmey to investigate new spatial relationships. I still remember vividly how excited Gwathmey was when he was describing the atrium with the spiral stairs. It is unfortunate the house was never built and remains as one of Gwathmey's more interesting projects.

Gwathmey was a member of the New York Five and he established his reputation very early in the 1960's when he was still in his 20's. He is one of the very few architects in the world where his earliest works, namely the house and studio for his parents in Long Island, remain as his masterpiece. In his long career he produced a few questionable designs, such as the apartment tower at Astor Place in New York City. Nevertheless, he created many memorable designs ranging from educational buildings, museums, office interiors, and residential buildings. His design of tableware, the Tuxedo collection, for Swid Powell remains a favorite of mine. In fact I still use the mug from the collection for my coffee every morning.

Friday, August 7, 2009


Today is the first typhoon day for Vera. All the schools and offices in Taipei are closed due to the arrival of typhoon Morakot; the name means emerald in Thai.

Despite the typhoon, many restaurants remain open for business; they all say they are 風雨無阻.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Bib Gourmand Dessert

A friend of ours gave us a few boxes of blueberries - a very nice gift since they are expensive and I love to eat them. After a couple days of eating blueberries without anything, I thought maybe I should try to do something with them. I used to bake blueberry muffins for breakfast, but this time I wanted to make a dessert. The recipe I used is in Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook: blueberries with lime sugar. This was quite easy to make, just some lime zest confit, lime juice, mint, and sugar tossed with blueberries. A few simple ingredients mixed together created a dish that was sweet, sour, and bitter. It was delicious.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Three-Star Desserts

A few weeks ago, I saw an article in the local newspaper that said Philippe Rigollot, the pastry chef of the three-star restaurant Maison Pic was coming to Taipei for a cooking class at the Sherwood Hotel. While I am very interested to learn about cooking, I actually have never attended a cooking class. Maria offered to pay for the class as my birthday gift and I happily accepted. The price for the class was NT$2500 and included lunch at the Italian restaurant at the hotel.

Maison Pic is located in Valence, France, just south of Lyon. The chef at the restaurant is Anne-Sophie Pic whose grandfather was a 3-star chef, and so was her father. When her father passed away in 1992, the restaurant lost a star. In 2007 she regained the third star and is now one of the few female 3-star chefs in the world. Rigollot has been the pastry chef at Maison Pic since 2000. Besides the work at the restaurant, he was part of the team that won the pastry world championship in 2005. In 2007 he was awarded the Meilleur Ouvrier de France; he gets to wear the red, white, and blue stripes on the collar of his chef jacket. In short he is one of the best pastry chefs in the world.

The class was held at a banquette room on the second floor of the Hotel. There were roughly twenty or so participants. As we entered the room each of us was given a package with the recipes. We were also handed a chef jacket and an apron to put on, which was a bit strange because we were not going to do any cooking. We mainly just sat on the rows of chairs in front of a table and watched Rigollot prepare the desserts.

The theme of the class was chestnut because the class was partly sponsored by Imbert, a French brand that specializes in chestnut products. Rigollot demonstrated two recipes: macaron marron and tarte marron framboise.

I was eager to see how Rigollot makes the macarons. I have made them a few times but never with much success. My batter was always a bit too soft and runny and I could never get the right chewiness in the macarcon. Rigollot’s recipe uses TPT or tant pour tant, a mixture of equal parts almond powder and icing sugar. Instead of French Meringue he uses Italian Meringue, which is more stable. His batter was not runny, more a lava-like consistency. I was surprised to find that he didn’t use a baking tray, simply a silpat on oven baking racks. He piped the batter on to the silpat like a machine, fast and evenly.

After piping out the batter, he tapped the rack on the counter to release any air bubbles and let the macarons rest for around 15 minutes, then they went into the oven.

While the macarons were baking, Rigollot made the filling. This was relatively easy, just involved using the Imbert chestnut products and mixing them up for around 5 minutes on the stand mixer. When the macarons were ready, Rigollot piped the filling and made the sandwich cookies. To present the macarons, he placed them vertically on a thin sheet of chocolate, using a bit of chestnut paste as glue. He then put a small piece of chestnut on top of each macaron and also a little piece of gold leaf for brightness.

For the raspberry tart, Rigollot didn’t demonstrate the whole process from start to finish. I suppose the basic part of making a tart shell and the filling is relatively straightforward that it didn’t need to be shown. Rigollot first demonstrated how to make the confit framboise. He then showed how to make the mousse marron framboise. The ingredients were mixed and spread into a spherical mold to be chilled. He brought out some that were pre-made and chilled and then sprayed the balls with red food coloring. He then showed how to construct the tart by spreading the confit on the tart filling, placing the ball in the center, which was surrounded by a ring of fresh raspberry dusted with powdered sugar.

The tart was finished off with a small piece of chestnut and raspberry on the top and accented again by a small piece of gold leaf.

After the class was over, Rigollot chatted with the participants and took pictures with everyone. He signed the recipe for me. We were issued certificates for the completion of the class. Since he didn’t speak English, I had to resort to my broken French to ask some questions. He was very patient and very engaging.

Lunch took place at the Italian restaurant, Toscana, on the ground floor of the Hotel. Lunch consists of the antipasto/salad bar and a soup, followed by the two desserts that Rigollot made. The mouse on the raspberry tart was amazing, great texture and flavor. The macaron was textbook perfect with “foot”, a crust like rings on the flat sides in contact with the filling. The outer shell is thin like an eggshell with a soft meringue-like inside.

While this was an expensive way to spend three and half hours, it was a memorable experience. It was a pleasure to watch Rigollot work. He had great techniques, and I suspected he probably could do some of these things with his eyes closed. There was no extra motion, no dripping or splatter. It was very efficient and extremely clean. The way he constructed the dessert was very much like an artist about visual composition through different geometries, colors, and textures.

Now I just hope I can recreate the two desserts at home.