Nov 8, 2011

Next Iron Chef: Game Changer

I certainly never intended to do a weekly recap of Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs, but that was before two things happened in this last week's episode.  First, the show positioned itself to become the greatest competition show in the history of Food Network.  Second, my entire set of picks from week one got completely turned on its head.  I realized that there actually is not an ulterior motive driving this show.  Literally, anyone can go out at any time.  And it got proved this past week when my top two landed in the bottom three and the person many expected to win went home.

Just to recap my picks, I had projected the following order:

  1. Geoffrey Zakarian
  2. Robert Irvine
  3. Anne Burrell
  4. Marcus Samuelsson
  5. Michael Chiarello
  6. Alex Guarnaschelli
  7. Elizabeth Falkner
  8. Beau MacMillan
  9. Chuck Hughes
  10. Spike Mendelsohn
Needless to say, I am a little bit nervous now.  The bottom three were Zakarian, Irvine, and Chiarello.  Burrell got throttled for playing it too safe.  Samuelsson got reamed out again for making too many dishes.  And Guarnaschelli, who looked completely outmatched last week, sailed to the first place finish without a single negative comment by any of the judges.  In fact, the top three were Falkner, Guarnaschelli, and Hughes.  MacMillan still is kind of floating around, limping on his injured ankle - which is kind of a metaphor for his involvement in this whole show.

The battle was to take stadium food and reinvent it as Kitchen Stadium Food.  (Ha, clever.)  I thought the judging as a whole was a bit odd.  Zakarian admitted that he doesn't have a freaking clue what constitutes ballpark food.  So he just made this two ridonkulous dishes that were labeled by the judges, "The best food we've eaten in this entire competition."  That earned him a seventh place finish.  Meanwhile, Hughes tossed out this hoagie that was so messy and disorganized that they could barely eat it.  Naturally, he came in second.  The only intelligent rankings were Guarnaschelli first and Chiarello last.  

The last place finish allowed viewers to finally see the reason why I can't stand Chiarello.  He made some bizarre dish and topped it off with a raw egg yolk in a shell.  The judges hated it and told him so.  Then Alton Brown, being the snotty arrogant turd he is, went on to lecture Chiarello by holding up his egg and allowing the whites to drip off.  "If you are going to use raw egg, you certainly need to make sure it doesn't look like this (whites drip off for effect).  An inability to separate an egg is hardly characteristic of an Iron Chef."  The camera cut to Chiarello.  "You didn't like the egg, fine.  Tell me and move on.  No need to beat it into the ground."  Now, don't get me wrong, I wish someone would punch Alton Brown in the mouth for his self- absorbed schtick.  But that is what he does.  That is why the Food Network put him in this position.  Brown truly believes he is smarter and better than everyone else in the food universe.  You need someone that delusional to stay tough as the host with these big shot chefs.  If I was Chiarello, I would have bristled too.  Then I would have calmly walked to the end of the table and slammed Brown's head and his ridiculous fedora into the plate of food.  It is just that every single time they interviewed Chiarello, he was basically taking the stance that there is no way he should be in last place.  There's a fine line between confidence and cockiness.  All celebrity chefs are confident.  Some are cocky.  I can't stand those guys.  Don't ask me to define it.  Using the cop out the Supreme Court created, "I just know it when I see it."

Anyway, the final showdown between the bottom two was Irvine and Chiarello.  They had to use peanuts and had thirty minutes to create a dish to highlight this.  Apparently this is is extremely difficult since all of the chefs had their eyes bug out like in a Looney Tune cartoon.  Irvine came up with a fish dish - halibut crusted with peanuts on a peanut hummus with a peanut sauce and sauteed vegetables.  It looked awesome - like something he has pulled out of thin air numerous times on Dinner Impossible.  This is exactly why I expected him to win.  He has made a career out of this kind of stuff.  

Chiarello decided to make a fettucini with peanut pesto, along with a side tomato salad.  Take a second and read that again.  He made a fettucini with peanut pesto.  No, he didn't crack open a box of Ronzoni.  He freaking MADE PASTA.  In thirty minutes.  That means he made it from scratch.  The other chefs were just stunned.  Just about every single one of them said they couldn't believe he was making pasta.  In thirty minutes.  This was the moment when I knew Irvine was going home.  You can't compete with that.  Chiarello didn't even blink about the concept of pulling it off either.  He broke down the time and just did it.  He deep fried the peanuts (What?!?) and then used them instead of pine nuts in the pesto.  Then he tossed that with his HOMEMADE PASTA.  (I still am thrown off by this.)  Wham.  

The judges didn't know what to do.  Both dishes were superb.  Irvine ended up getting voted off 2-1 because his peanut hummus was a little too gummy.  And probably because they realized that Chiarello had MADE HIS STINKING PASTA.  The rest of the chefs were visibly shaken when Irvine left.  I think that all of them thought he was going to be in it for the long run. Plus, Chiarello made a great point at the end of the show.  He said that he wasn't upset to be in the bottom two.  That had given him one more experience in a Kitchen Stadium setting than the others.  He is more of a force than I thought.  Actually, it is obvious I don't know anything about the show.  My entire evaluation structure got turned on its head.  There are several things I realized this week.
  1. Zakarian is this year's Ming Tsai.  Last year, Tsai could cook circles around everyone.  But the reason he lost was because he too often didn't follow the exact wording of the challenges.  Zakarian is in that boat.  He has more cooking ability than anyone else there.  That's obvious by the way the judges respond to his food.  But if he doesn't stick to the rules, he will get booted out.
  2. Marcus Samuelsson needs to settle the heck down.  So far, the chefs have had to create four dishes - Samuelsson has had to do five, since he was in the bottom last week.  Samuelsson has made eleven.  He always does extras, just to impress the judges.  The problem is, they aren't impressed.  They even went so far as to say that the next time he makes extras, they are going to make him tell him which ones to judge and they won't taste the others.  
  3. Alton Brown gets more annoying every year.
  4. There is a big difference between cooking for "regular people" and cooking for judges.  This is the biggest variable I missed last week.  The challenge this week was crafted for Robert Irvine.  It was basically the same thing he has done before on Dinner Impossible.  You go raid the vendors at a ballpark and come up with dishes with what you find.  I've seen that show.  Irvine excelled and everyone raved.  But, in that case, the Everyone raving was a group of regular people.  It is easier to impress regular people with cooking than experts.  Think about it - when Irvine cooks for three hundred construction workers, do you really think some foreman is going to tell the camera the flavor profiles weren't consistent?  One of Irvine's dishes was a Hot Burg.  He took hot dogs and ground them up and mixed them with the hamburgers he was making.  Brilliant.  Alton Brown said it was great.  It would have killed with average people.  But the judges were unimpressed.  That was Irvine's downfall.  He is the best chef on Food Network's roster when it comes to knowing what average people wants.  That is how he is so successful with Dinner Impossible.  That is how he does such a great job in helping people fix their restaurants on Restaurant Impossible.  That is why he is such a great coach on Worst Cooks in America.  It really is why I like him so much.  And that is precisely why couldn't be the Iron Chef.  They don't want someone who will impress the masses.  They want someone who will wow the food judging elite.  
  5. This show is going to be a LOT more exciting than I thought it would be - and that is saying a lot.  There aren't many shows that I watch live any more.  I'll let it record on my DVR and wait fifteen minutes just so I can fast forward through commercials.  The only shows that we, on a regular basis, are too excited to wait the fifteen minutes.  The first is Castle on ABC.  The second is Burn Notice on USA.  And the third is Next Iron Chef.  Pretty elite company in our house.

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