Dec 7, 2011

Next Iron Chef: Final Four

I made sure that I didn't allow myself to write weekly recaps for Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs - even though I wanted to.  The series has solidified itself as one of my favorites during this fall season.  It has more drama than most shows on network television.  And some of it is funnier than any sitcom.  And, the way the judges blather on about the food, it is like some sort of romance....  That's just weird.  Anyway.  Let's really quick run a comparison of my picks to how things have panned out:


  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
  1. ???
  2. ???
  3. ???
  4. ???
  5. Anne Burrell
  6. Marcus Samuelsson
  7. Beau MacMillan
  8. Chuck Hughes
  9. Robert Irvine
  10. Spike Mendelsohn
Yeah, I haven't done so well.  Only one of my final four is still left.  The thing about this show is that the level of cooking is so insane that on Sunday a guy almost got eliminated because he put powdered sugar on a souffle and one judge didn't like it.  Alton Brown (in a rare moment of non self aggrandizing clarity) asked him, "Are you seriously prepared to eliminate someone because you didn't like the fact they used a dusting of powdered sugar?!?"  The judge replied that in this competition something like that could actually send someone home.  And the crazy thing is that he's right.  So far, no one has had that classic train wreck day where they completely bombed something and got booted.  Every elimination was extremely difficult.  Anne Burrell summed it up best on her way out this week.  "Usually it is whoever sucks less stays.  But in this it has been who is less excellent."  I have a couple of observations before I do a quick evaluation of the remaining chefs.
  • Food Network is NOT rigging this competition.  My rankings were based partly on the cynical opinion that the Network was directing the judges (at least somewhat).  They were worried that an early exit could hurt the legitimacy of one of their "face" judges.  Or they were trying to push someone into a higher level of notoriety. Or that they were going to favor their own chefs over Top Chef contestants.  All of those were wrong.  One of the biggest faces of Food Network went out in the second show.  One of the biggest Top Chef contestants is still left - and probably the favorite at this point.  Aside from the slightly annoying way that the females have gotten more breaks, the show has been surprising fair.
  • The Females Have Gotten More Breaks.  At the halfway point, Anne Burrell noted that all the ladies were left in the competition and none had been in the bottom two.  Sadly, that isn't because they have done the best.  It seems like Food Network would REALLY love to have a second female Iron Chef.  Personally, I think Guarnaschelli should have been out a couple weeks ago.  And Falkner should have followed her out.  But they are still here.  And, at this point, they have as good of a shot as anyone - if not better.
  • I Was Really Wrong About Beau MacMillan.  When I first reviewed this show, I commented on how I didn't like Beau.  I thought he was arrogant and wished he went home early.  Well, I was wrong on that.  When he finally got eliminated, the judges all looked at each other and said how incredibly nice he was and how they hated to send him home.  And it was obvious on the show.  He was the most gracious of the contestants.  And his cooking was great.  It made me think that the reason he was SO bad on Worst Cooks in America was because it was so against his character, instead of because he was just bad on camera or a pompous turd.  
  • These Chefs Can Really Cook. Sometimes you have to wonder just how good a television chef is.  Are they really THAT amazing?  Or is it the huge test kitchen, the sous chefs, the infinite budget that makes them great.  That is one of the great things about this show - and shows like Iron Chef.  After watching Bobby Flay for years on Iron Chef and Throwdown (and eating at Mesa Grill twice in Vegas), there is no doubt this dude can cook.  Some of these celebrity chefs or tv judges - we've never seen them do anything.  So to see them on a show like this?  It shows you just how talented they are.  Geoffrey Zakarian is the best example of this.  For years on Chopped and 24 Hour Restaurant Battle, he was just this older judge.  Who the heck is this guy?  Then he competed on Celebrity Chopped and destroyed people.  The other chefs were terrified of him.  Then he gets on this show and has been heads and tails above the others - when it comes to technique and flavors.  Similar story with Michael Chiarello.  It makes you realize just how these chefs got to where they are. 
  • Very Talented People are Often Arrogant Jerks.  I hate listening to some of the arrogant comments coming out of these contestants' mouths, though.  Anne Burrell has always been like that.  It is part of her, uh, "charm."  I hate it.  I have no doubt it my mind she is a crazy good chef.  But I hate her arrogance.  On this past episode, she had the chance to put one chef into the elimination round.  She was rude about every dish she tasted - far more critical than the real judges. (Falkner wondered if her taste buds were compromised from having just cooked three dishes with sardines.  Good question, in retrospect.)  Then SHE got voted into the elimination round and was sent home.  She had her arms crossed, had a rude look on her face the whole evaluation time, was very ungracious upon elimination.  It made me glad she was out.  I know that talent and arrogance often go hand in hand.  Doesn't mean I have to like it.
Okay, so there are just four chefs left: Geoffrey Zakarian, Michael Chiarello, Alex Guarnaschelli, and Elizabeth Falkner.  And I think two get eliminated this week, which will set us up for the final.  Below is my scouting report on the last four.  I'm going to include their highlight moment, what could send them home, and their odds on winning.  Of course, remember I didn't do so great predicting.  So don't blame me if you lose all your money betting on them in Vegas.
  1. Michael Chiarello  It is hard to decide what his best moment has been.  So far, he has been in the bottom two only once.  In that episode he made handmade pasta and a pesto using peanuts.  In thirty minutes.  The other chefs were incredulous.  Then on Sunday he made a lobster risotto.  In twenty-five minutes.  Risotto takes forty-five minutes.  He did it in almost half that time.  I don't know how.  Maybe he has a time turner.  He doesn't have a lot of flaws.  His biggest problem is that he does not listen to criticism AT ALL.  But, he doesn't get criticized a lot.  It is hard to see what he will do to get eliminated.  Odds: 2 to 1
  2. Elizabeth Falkner  She is a pastry chef, the underdog, underestimated by the others.  We know this because she says it EVERY EPISODE.  Frankly, I'm tired of her schtick.  And so are the other competitors.  She has made exemplary food.  BUT, it always seems to be more highly rated because "she's just a pastry chef."  It is like the judges are impressed, but more so due to her background.  That's not to say she doesn't do hard stuff and do it well.  Burrell made the comment, "She's made three ice creams and a souffle.  When is she going to make some real food?"  If the judges pick up on this, that could (and should) derail her.  But they seem to be oblivious so far, and blinded by her ability to do things outside of her comfort range - even when they aren't.  [Good example.  Sunday, she made a tuna jerky souffle.  (yeah, gross)  It was superb.  She got raves, again partly because "she's just a pastry chef."  Zakarian did some amazing, intricate, wonderful beef dish and it was like, "Well he runs a steakhouse.  Of course he did it well."  And then when he made a souffle for the elimination, no one made a big deal about his ability to make such a great dessert when "he's just a steak guy."]  Odds: 4 to 1
  3. Alex Guarnaschelli  She's good.  (Her sausage and peppers meal at the ballpark was phenomenal.)  And she's lucky.  And she the judges cut her too much slack.  Every time she has botched her meal (at least three), someone else botched theirs worse.  Or one element of hers was so good that it made up for the one that wasn't.  She's never been in the bottom two - and if she was, I think she would lose.  She gets panicky very quickly if something goes wrong and overwhelmed, but somehow finishes.  If she was to have two things go wrong, she would crack.  And with such a small set of contestants, it won't be as easy to hide her mistakes.  She would have been in the bottom two last week and probably gone home, if it wasn't for the fact that one spot was filled by Burrell's pick.  Like I said - lucky.  You can look at that two ways.  One, luck runs out.  Two, a run to a championship usually involves a little luck.  Odds: 7 to 1
  4. Geoffrey Zakarian  If this was a straight up cooking competition, he would have already won.  The other chefs would have quit.  Michael Symon said this the other day.  "Your technique is so consistently good that it makes me hate you sometimes."  He has never really misstepped on a meal.  Any grievances were tiny - and should have been dwarfed by other major miscues of other chefs.  Yet, somehow, he has been in the bottom two three times.  I think two things can derail him.  First, things come so easily to him that there isn't a "Wow Factor" for him.  Falkner impresses by being outside of her comfort zone.  To Zakarian, everything is in his comfort zone.  So they blow his errors out of proportion and minimize his successes.  Second, he doesn't follow the rules.  When they say, "Make one dish" he makes three.  When they put their goofy rules on a competition, if he doesn't like them, he doesn't do them.  He came the closest to elimination on the ballpark challenge because he refused to make ballpark food.  I can totally see him getting kicked out because he is stubborn.  And too good for his own good.  Odds: 3 to 1

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