Oct 31, 2011

Next Iron Chef. Now with Superpowers!

I am a Food Network junkie.  It is often the default station on our cable box.  It's generally safe for the whole family and something worth running in the background.  I find it extremely entertaining.  I got hooked on it when I was in my mid-20s.  I cut my teeth on Alton Brown's Good Eats and Emeril's various shows.  I remember back when Bobby Flay was an atrocious, abrasive, arrogant disaster - instead of the flagship icon of the Food Network empire.  I have been there for the changing of the guard, as Emeril and Mario Batali exited and were replaced by Robert Irvine and Guy Fieri.  I have gone from thinking Alton Brown was the most brilliant man on television to being thankful he ended his show, due to his smug sense of self worth.

The network originally was full of your standard cooking shows.  But somewhere along the line, they decided that they should get into the cooking competition game.  The concept is brilliant and ridiculous all at once.  You get to see these brilliant chefs and bakers race to create increasingly complex dishes, cakes, pumpkin carvings, whatever.  It is fun and exciting to watch this process - knowing we, as viewers, would be as out of our element among them as in the 100 meters race in the Olympics.  But, the judging is so freaking subjective.  That's part of the entertainment value, I think.  You see these people create this hugely intricate ten foot cake or this unbelievably artistic meal using virtually no ingredients, and then the judges have to decide a winner.  How do you possibly quantify that?!?  But these challenge shows have become a massive part of Food Network's lineup.  Then are extremely successful, entertaining, and addictive.  From Cupcake Wars to Cake Challenge to Chopped to Dinner Impossible to the new Sweet Genius.

The whole system is, in fact, genius.  While Food Network is punching out these relatively inexpensive shows with huge followings, they also are generating new on air talent.  They can throw three people up there as judges and it gives them credibility.  We have no clue who these jokers are.  But if they are good enough to judge, they must be someone special.  And, when someone does a superlative job in a competition, suddenly you will see them in more competition shows, or featured on Best Thing I Ever Ate, or they'll get their own show.  Brilliant talent mining.  The two most obvious of these type of talent identification shows are Next Food Network Star and Next Iron Chef.  Both of these shows are wildly popular.  They have huge stakes - a guaranteed hosting gig and the considerable heft of the Food Network marketing machine behind you.  The winners aren't always guaranteed home runs - though some are massive successes (Guy Fieri, Michael Symon, Aarti, Melissa D'Arabian).  And you don't have to win to gain a career.  (Aaron Sanchez lost Next Iron Chef and still became a huge star on the network.)

The Next Iron Chef is like the Super Bowl of competition shows.  Food Network has taken the title of Iron Chef and made it their highest honor.  You can be a James Beard winner, an owner of multiple restaurants, a host of your own show.  But unless you are an Iron Chef, you still haven't reached the pinacle.  And the way these chefs talk about the title, it is like the entire restaurant community are all lusting after this goal.  (I severely doubt this is true.  But it makes for good television.)  We know the Iron Chef is all a big gimmick.  Ever time "The Chairman" pops up, I have to laugh.  On the original Japanese show, the guy who played The Chairman was unknown to Americans.  So he had this mystique of possibly being a crazy guy who created the whole competition.  But on the American version, The Chairman is obviously an actor.  He competed on Dancing with the Stars.  He is the main bad guy on Hawaii Five-O.  Whenever he shows up, I'm like, "Someone go call Scott Caan.  Yo Fat is right there!  They can arrest him!"

They've had Next Iron Chef three times.  The first time, it made sense.  The original Iron Chefs were slowly being phased out, getting older.  Wolfgang Puck wasn't part of the stable any more.  Mario Batali was on his way out of his perch at Food Network.  They had brought in Cat Cora at some point.  But there basically were just three people doing the job - Bobby Flay, Morimoto, and Cora.  So, adding a fourth made sense.  It was a great show.  And any of about five guys could have won and done well.  It came down to Michael Symon and John Besh.  I was rooting for Besh, but looking back I know that Symon made a better winner.  He's been a superstar for the network.  Big win.  The second year, the show was still good.  But the winner, Jose Garces, was one of those winners that played it safe.  He was good, but not brilliant.  There were others who were better in certain weeks, but they would have a fantastic flame out at some point and get eliminated.  I have been very disappointed in Garces as an Iron Chef.  This is probably why he is rarely used.  Last year, the competition again was brilliant.  But, we saw a little bit of Food Network trickery.  They stuck Ming Tsai into the competition.  I wrote about this at the time.  I think the network was secretly hoping he would win, because it would have made sense for him to be an Iron Chef.  He could have been one in the first place.  He ended up third.  Marc Forgione beat Marco Canora in the final.

Either one was talented enough to be the winner.  But, again, Food Network had an Iron Chef that just wasn't really as good as he should have been.  I think Canora, in retrospect, would have been the better Iron Chef because throughout the show he was the better showman.  Forgione's personality is much calmer.  That doesn't work in Kitchen Stadium.  Part of the reason that the Iron Chefs work is because they are so over the top.  This wasn't true in the original Japanese show, but it is true in the American version.  They aren't obnoxious.  But they know how to play to the camera.  Flay, Cora, Batali, Morimoto, Symon (and Puck, when he did it), were great on camera.  They had their own shows.  They knew what worked and didn't.  So they made the challenges seem harder.  They sold their food better.  They worked the judges better.  Part of what makes it so difficult for a chef to come in and win the Iron Chef battle is that they don't know HOW to work the room.  They may be arrogant or cocky, but they can't handle the clock or they seem overly nervous with the judges.  Garces and Forgione still don't have the camera presence.

So, this year, Food Network made a brilliant decision.  Instead of searching America for the top chefs again, they just went the Celebrity Chef route.  They took a bunch of these judges, hosts, and challenge winners they've been developing for years and put them in as contestants.  Absolutely brilliant.  Now, not only do they know these guys can cook, but they also are people who are used to the clock AND they know how to sell it to the camera.  It was a master stroke.  In addition, instead of just having a challenge each week and cutting someone, they have a challenge to determine the bottom TWO.  Then those two have to have a cut throat battle to see who gets tossed.  I LOVE it.  The only trap for Food Network is who to kick off first.  You don't want to reveal any of your big wigs as paper tigers, or diminish the credibility of your judges.  So what do you do?

Now, anyone who watches a lot of food challenge television knows Food Network is not the only gig in town.  It is the biggest gig.  But there is also Bravo and TLC.  Bravo has Top Chef.  This show actually is bigger than anything that is run by Food Network.  It is seen as a pretty big deal show by entertainment writers and critics.  I can only imagine that there is a big rivalry between the Top Chef and Food Network universes.  TLC usually comes along and poaches people from Food Network after they have become familiar.  Buddy on Cake Boss got famous on Food Network Challenges.  TLC had some cake competition last year that was completely made up of people who used to frequent Food Network cake challenges.  I have no idea if this played a part in Food Network's stocking of competitors for this run, but I have a sneaky feeling that it did.  I even told Heather last night how I thought the eliminations would go - before the episode.  Here is a brief rundown of the ten competitors and my expectations for the show.

  • Anne Burrell - She is a Food Network home grown star.  She started off as sous chef to Mario Batali on Iron Chef America, which is going to give her a HUGE advantage in this show.  She hosts Worst Cooks in America and Secrets of a Restaurant Chef.  She is cocky and has an amazing television presence.  And she can cook like no one's business.  She has the pedigree and the experience.  Plus, every time she competes with Robert Irvine - the other big dog in this show - she beats him.  I think she should be one of the final three.  Projected Finish - 3rd
  • Michael Chiarello - Food Network star and mega-big shot chef in California.  He is the only Emmy winner in the roster for his show Easy Entertaining with Michael Chiarello.  I find him extremely annoying and can't stand his show.  But, I am in the minority, I fear.  He is extremely resourceful and talented.  The other chefs really admire him.  He has the self-confidence and talent.  But I think he is too calm - and they don't need another guy like that.  I think he is one of the middle ones to go.  Projected Finish - 5th
  • Elizabeth Falkner - She is primarily a pastry chef, but can do anything.  She is one of the Top Chef/Food Network hybrids.  She has competed in Iron Chef America and has appeared on several Food Network shows.  BUT she also was a judge on Top Chef and a competitor on Top Chef Masters.  This means that she is recognizable, but is still expendable to Food Network.  If she surprises and goes far, no harm. But if she gets cut early, no harm either.  Plus, she's too Zen to make good TV.  Projected Finish - 7th
  • Alex Guarnaschelli - Apparently she is a brilliant chef, since she is the executive chef at Butter - a big shot restaurant in NYC.  But her resume is filled with judging roles on Food Network.  She now has her own show, Alex's Day Out.  But she is primarily a judge.  (This allows her to sit behind a desk.  I've noticed how Food Network only shoots her from mid-torso up as much a possible.  I think she's self-conscious about her figure.  I watch too much tv.)  After watching the first episode, where she was paired with Falkner and looked like the weaker link, I am not sure how far she can go in this.  But she is a TERRIFIC tv personality and food describing type person.  Basically, she's a great judge.  I don't think she can make it as an Iron Chef.  But she can't get eliminated too early without hurting her judging status.  Projected Finish - 6th
  • Chuck Hughes - Who?  Yeah, exactly.  He's big up in Canada, tho, ya hoser.  He has a show on The Cooking Channel - which is Food Network's poorer and less important sister channel.  (Like Pippa Middleton, only with less body.  Haha.)  He seems talented.  But I have a term for competitors like this: Cannon Fodder.  You have to have people on the show that can get eliminated first.  Projected Finish - 9th
  • Robert Irvine - The big dog.  He is everywhere on Food Network and is bulletproof.  He padded his resume and didn't fired.  He took a break and got promoted.  Plus, his entire resume on television is competition shows - and ones having to pull ideas out of his rear, at that.  Dinner Impossible alone means he HAS to be a favorite on this show.  Plus, you can easily see him as an Iron Chef.  And he hates to lose.  He is a Top Three finisher for sure.  I think he'll be one of the final two - and should win, except for my Dark Horse.  Projected Finish - 2nd (but I won't be surprised if he wins).
  • Beau MacMillan - I have no idea where this guy came from.  He was the first co-host of Worst Cooks in America.  But he was abrasive and annoying and had a terrible camera presence - seeming to be winded all the time.  He has a Boston accent, but has worked in Scottsdale, Arizone his whole professional life.  He's the prototypical example of a lummox.  In the Celebrity Chopped competition, he was the first one out.  He seems to be overmatched in the competition.  And, in the first episode, he was kind of dragged along by his partner.  I can't imagine him going far in this competition.  Projected Finish - 8th
  • Spike Mendelsohn - He has no experience on Food Network at all, with the exception of competing on Iron Chef America last year.  He is a Top Chef guy.  He won it one year and is one of its celebrated alums.  He's extremely cocky.  And he looks like James Franco with a beard, which makes him even more annoying.  Two words: Cannon Fodder.  I said this before the show started.  I said this when they got down to the bottom two.  And I was proved right when he was the first eliminated contestant, even though there were NO COMPLAINTS ABOUT HIS DISH, even though the other guy had several problems with his.  Projected (Actual) Finish: 10th
  • Marcus Samuelsson - Apparently this guy is a genius in the food world.  The first time I saw him, he popped up as a judge on an episode of Next Food Network Star.  He was at a table with a bunch of other food experts and was labeled as "Marcus Samuelsson, Scandinavian Food Expert."  I had no idea how this dark skinned guy was a Scandinavian food expert, or if there even was such a thing.  He savaged the contestants' meals on that show - and was dead on with his criticism.  Now he's a judge on Chopped.  I didn't realized he won Top Chef Masters, since I don't watch that show.  He was in the bottom two last night, but I think that is an anomaly - at least for a few weeks.  Remember, someone has to lose and all Food Network needs to do with him is keep his judging credibility intact.  Projected Finish: 4th
  • Geoffrey Zakarian - He is like the godfather of Chopped judges.  He also has been on 24 Hour Restaurant Battle.  I never had heard of this guy until I saw him as a judge.  He's the oldest competitor and is extremely well spoken, intelligent, and a brilliant judge.  Then he competed in Celebrity Chopped and all the other chefs were terrified of him.  Apparently his genius is well known in restaurant circles.  He came in second in his Chopped battle, but easily could have won.  Then last night, that same fear was in everyone's eyes with him.  He won the first round - PAIRED WITH BEAU MACMILLAN, which is like winning a sprint while having a corpse tied to your ankle.  I could be totally wrong, but I have this feeling.  He's like Ming Tsai last year, where his insane talent will keep him going.  His off weeks will probably be better than most of the others' good weeks.  He'll easily survive the Cannon Fodder weeks, be consistently better in the middle tough eliminations, and then end up in the Top Three.  He could easily disrupt the expected Irvine/Burrell showdown.  He is my Dark Horse candidate.  I think it is going to come down to Zakarian and Irvine in the final round.  If Irvine can bring his Dinner Impossible sous chefs George and David, it will be tough.  But I think Zakarian can take it - or he'll come in second to Irvine.  Projected Finish: 1st

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