Dec 20, 2011

Next Iron Chef: Finale

I'm in a giving mood this Christmas season.  And I feel like giving you some blog posts.  If you're interested in that kind of stuff, be looking for several posts on seasonal things, year end reviews, and Christmas thoughts.  But first, I wanted to give my final thoughts on what was a tremendous season of Next Iron Chef.

At the very beginning, I picked Geoffrey Zakarian to win the contest.  So, I had a major rooting interest in the finale.  In addition, as I expressed in my last recap, I felt that Elizabeth Falkner was getting unfair advantages due to her being "just a pastry chef" and being "a woman."  I know that reality shows - especially ones created to generate a new position within a network - are going to be somewhat rigged in favor of the demographic the network is desiring.  The fact is that on Iron Chef America, there are no female Iron Chefs any more.  I'm not sure what happened with Cat Cora, but she isn't pictured on the roster.  Food Network would, naturally, want a female back in the lineup.  And, watching the season, the females seemed to be getting advanced on less than their male counterparts.  But, the problem came when it got down to the final five.  Women had to be eliminated and it was impossible to keep them in without it being blatant.

I didn't think that Elizabeth Falkner should have been in the finale.  Michael Chiarello was clearly the right choice to compete against Zakarian.  Throughout the entire competition, those two were the top chefs.  Now, Falkner was incredible.  At times she was brilliant.  But it always felt like she was being graded on a curve.  Even in the finale, Bobby Flay made the "just a pastry chef" comment.  At this point, that shouldn't matter.

If you watched the show, this next summary was said about fifty times.  But it came down to technical mastery (Zakarian) against creativity (Falkner).  That isn't to say that Zakarian isn't creative or Falkner isn't technical gifted.  Both chefs are insanely good.  But it really did come down to the fact that Zakarian is a technical master and Falkner is one of the most creative chefs I have ever seen in these contests.  This kind of conflict made it very tough to decide who should win.  Both chefs did an extraordinary job.  They had to create a holiday feast and both of them crafted something truly amazing.  So, what do you pick?

Michael Symon and Bobby Flay are brilliant judges in addition to being great chefs.  In the finale, they both made some extremely insightful comment that really distilled the challenge of who to pick.  Symon said that Zakarian is really a chef at the top of his game, his peak.  Falkner is just scratching the surface of how great she can be.  The flip version of that is Zakarian is older and there is nowhere to go be down and that Falkner is still somewhat inexperienced.  We see the same battle in an NFL team when choosing a quarterback.  Do you pick someone like Peyton Manning (before the injury) or Tom Brady who are technical masters and absolutely brilliant RIGHT NOW - but who will be sliding down the charts before too long?  Or do you pick someone like Andrew Luck or Andy Dalton who has tremendous upside - but who will make some mistakes over the next few years?  If you take the older master, you get to enjoy their brilliance without suffering through the learning process - but their shelf life is shorter.  If you take the new superstar, you put up with a few years of rocky performance - but you get to enjoy their ENTIRE career of brilliance, once they get there.

Flay's good comment came when assessing the range of skills the two chefs offered.  He said that Zakarian is at the absolute top of what he does.  But with Falkner, she probably does MORE things and gives a wider range of skills - due to her pastry background.  But she doesn't do those things as well as Zakarian.  This seemed to be the prevailing opinion with the judges.  As they went around, they were asked to give their favorite single dish of the showdown.  They all said Falkner's cranberry sorbet dish.  Then they were asked who made the better meal.  All of them said Zakarian.  This really was a picture of the competition as a whole.  Falkner's highs were higher.  But the consistency was all Zakarian.  He never really DESERVED to be in the bottom two.  Once he got thrown in there due to a rule technicality.  Once it was dirty pool by Anne Burrell.  The judges never really had anything bad to say about his dishes the entire time.  In fact, the first really negative comments he got were from one judge about one meat dish in the finale.  But Falkner made several dishes that were just ridiculously good.

I think that if you broke down the finale, it was really even.  At first they were supposed to make three dishes.  Then the Chairman threw two more dishes and a cocktail at them.  So they had to make five total dishes and a drink.  The reviews were pretty even - lost of positives, very few negatives.  In a real twist, Falkner won the "main course" over Zakarian.  His restaurant specialize in meat dishes.  But her Beef Wellington seemed to be better than his "gifts" of beef and vegetables.  I think something very telling was the dessert round.  Falkner was naturally brilliant.  She made a chocolate cake with peppermint snow and peppermint ice cream.  This should have been where she blew Zakarian away.  If he had done a passable dessert, he would have lost.  But he came up with a buttermilk and peppermint ice cream thingee that wowed the judges (except one).  I think that gave him enough leverage that he didn't fall too far behind in her expert area.

In the end, I was seriously worried that Falkner was going to win.  As I was watching with Heather, I told her as much.  "I really think Falkner is going to win.  Oh well, I just won't watch her episodes like I didn't watch Cat Cora."  It isn't because they were women.  It was because I hardly ever wanted to eat anything they made.  They weren't relatable.  Conversely, when Zakarian was presenting his food, Heather said to me, "I want to eat everything he makes."  We have actually talked about the fact that we will have to make sure we visit his restaurants when we finally get to go to NYC together.  That is the way I feel about Bobby Flay.  That is how I fell about Michael Symon.  And Guy Fieri.  I want to eat their food.  (And having eaten at Flay's Mesa Grill, I can attest that his food is absolutely amazing.)  I felt that way every week about Zakarian.  I rarely felt that way about Falkner.

When the results came in, Zakarian's picture was hanging on the wall as The Next Iron Chef.  I felt bad for Falkner.  She had put up a tremendous effort.  I was very impressed with her skills and resourcefulness.  But I had a hard time warming up to her, which is not a good quality for a network chef.  [On a side note, during the finale the Food Network announced a poll for viewers to vote on which Next Iron Chef contestants should get a shot at redemption.  Is this next year's theme?  I hope so.  I can only imagine Falkner, Anne Burrell, and last year's loser Marco Canora will be a part.  Sound great already.]  All in all, I thought the season was amazing.  The cooking was out of this world.  And it was fun to see these personalities that are all over the Food Network actually demonstrating WHY they are all over the network.  I look forward to Zakarian's first battle this Sunday.  Thanks to all for putting up with my thoughts on the series.

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