Monday, October 29, 2007

The Next Iron Chef: Episode 4

We Don't Mind Copying Top Chef

Previously on the NIC: The Chairman is reviewing the eight tests he’s created to find his next Iron Chef, but I’m confused because I don’t remember seeing anything about “attain greatness” or “lead and inspire.” And what exactly was the test for “attain greatness?” It’s like the Chairman wants to wrap this competition up already and is pretending we saw something we didn’t. Well, we did see last week Chefs Gavin Kaysen and Morou eliminated after a grilling cook-off. Tonight, we see Alton Brown in front of this huge-ass Lufthansa jet. Talk about product placement. The final four chefs are saying things are getting tense, and they no longer look like they’re as friendly in the kitchen. The fun is over guys.

We start off with the typical interviews of why these chefs want to be the next Iron Chef. Chef Michael Symon says he wants to grasp the title of Iron Chef and then “tear it up.” Huh? I didn’t realize he was such a masochist? Put yourself through the ringer and win the competition only to rip it all apart? Not my route, but good luck with that. Chef Big Easy (John Besh) and Chef Buzzer (Aarón Sanchez) says something typical about being more than you are, or something to that effect.

The final four is gearing up for traveling, and boy do they look like they’re going to Florida for spring break with their T-shirts and shorts. Even Alton Brown, who meets the four at a Culinary Institute of America darkened room to send them off, notes the four’s casual civilian attire.

Brown plays the Chairman in The Box, who tells the four chefs that an Iron Chef must be able to create under pressure. (Unlike the stress-free tests they’ve been given thus far?) They’ll be asked to redefine a style of cooking that affects people around the world every day. This vague description would be even more useless if we didn’t already see the big airliner in the first few seconds of this show. So why not just come clean, Chairman? Instead of saying more, the Chairman says something in what I guess is a foreign language but sounded more like one of those made up languages school girls use to communicate with each other and not let the adults in on what they’re saying. (Uoy wokn thaw I mean?) Anyway, the subtitles reveal that the Chairman supposedly said: “I wish you much luck and much fun.” Chef Sanchez gives a look like, “Watcha talkin’ about Willis?”

So it’s goodbye CIA (it must be weird to say you’re a graduate of the CIA) and hello to JFK as the four chefs try to figure out where their “culinary odyssey” (Brown’s words) will take them. They find out it’s Munich (which we already knew from last week’s preview) and the four cheftestants board what looks like a really empty plane. Chef Symon says he’s worried about Chef Big Easy, who says on the plane that he’s going to “whoop” Symon in this competition.

When they arrive in Munich, they’re still at the airport and they go into a hanger, of course. Alton Brown is already there standing in front of a huge Lufthansa jet, which he calls the secret ingredient. Symon’s like “how are we going to cook that?” Brown then goes into the wonders that is Munich (and I’ve never been to but even I’m interested in going after hearing this spot from the Munich tourism board) and says the chefs won’t be seeing any of them. Now that’s just brutal. This is why I hate business travel. All work, no play.

Brown tells the chefs that they’ll have to stay at the airport and conceive the “ultimate first-class meal” to be served in Lufthansa’s new Airbus A380 superjet. (Ironically, this is the same airplane that got lots of play when Singapore Airlines was the first to use one this month in a commercial flight. It’s so huge you can fly a whole city. Well, maybe just everyone in city hall.)
Of course, none of the chefs have cooked for an airliner. (And like I mentioned in the message boards on Top Chef when they were the first to do this similar challenge, how is this a mark of a top chef? Sure, lots of chefs are consulting with airlines to develop menus, but really, I’m sure they’re in it for the moo-lah and free trips to Paris. BTW, doesn’t this feel like those old sitcoms where all of a sudden the storyline on “Gilligan’s Island” will appear on “The Brady Bunch”?)

Commercials. Reruns, people. Save your time and fast-forward on your Tivo.

Back at the Lufthansa in-flight service kitchen, Alton Brown looks at home doing his “Good Eats” presentation. He’s wearing a hairnet and popping his head in and out of the camera shot with little innocuous food facts, such as Lufthansa serves 40,000 coach meals every day. I know, I didn’t care either.

So Alton continues with his “Good Eats” tour of the prep, cooking and freezing process of typical airline food. FYI, I flew on Lufthansa once on a trip to Spain and the food wasn’t that memorable. Although I did like the dinnerware they used. I know, I didn’t care about that fact either after sharing it with you.

Let’s get to some cooking. Brown finally meets up with the four cheftestants and tells them they have 90 minutes to create three courses, which will then be served from the Airbus to the judges.

There’s a guy from Lufthansa who tells the chefs that when cooking for airline passengers, they have to keep in mind that the altitude makes food less tasty, so they need to be aggressive with the seasoning and spices. This explains all the curry chicken and over-sauced salmon you’ve eaten on flights.

Chef Big Easy (Besh) says he’s going to “vow them” (he means “wow” but he’s doing a Wolfgang Puck imitation), and Chef Bad Boy (Chris Cosentino) says there’s a lot of protein to choose from in the kitchen but he wants his capers and anchovies to make his food “pop” in the high altitude.
The chefs get cooking, running around the kitchen and grabbing all sorts of meat, but mostly venison. (I’ve never eaten venison but looks like they’ve cooked a lot of it on this series.) People are grabbing lobsters, I see white asparagus, Chef Sanchez is swearing because someone took all the lemongrass. It’s just a big chaotic scene.

Which all explains why I haven’t really been satisfied watching the chefs cook on this series. Because they’re such sophisticated chefs using sophisticated ingredients, I really want the commentary that we get during regular Iron Chef cookoffs. On this series, the viewers at home are left seeing a blur of food being chopped, cut, marinated and fired up. It all looks pretty impressive but doesn’t help me connect with what’s happening. In between, we just get quotes from the chefs talking about how the challenge is very stressful.

Commercials. That ready-to-eat Philadelphia cheesecake filling looks soooo fake. And I usually love cheesecake. But that’s just saturated fat on a spoon.

Back in Munich, the chefs are still busy in the kitchen. And they’re not as friendly and joking with each other like the last few episodes. In fact, Chef Bad Boy is getting a wee bit upset with the camera people who are getting in his way. He does a Britney, pushing them back. But really, he better get used to it if he plans on being in kitchen stadium. (On Michael Ruhlman’s blog, Cosentino explains that the German crew was getting too close and he didn’t want them to get hurt by all the knives and cooking, etc. Check out Ruhlman’s blog for more behind-the-scenes tidbits.)

Chef Symon is making something with salmon, and Brown asks if he’s ever had a good piece of fish on an airline. Me thinks Mr. Brown has had a bad experience with salmon on a flight to Denver or something.

Cosentino is still fending off the paparazzi and that actually scares off Brown, who’s cowering around a corner afraid to talk to Chef Bad Boy. But Cosentino coaxes him out and tells Brown that he won’t bite him, then he tells Brown that he’s making a venison loin with crucifers and a white asparagus dish with some fancy-sounding sauce.

Commercials. I hate that Comfort Inn song. Now I can’t get that dang song out of my head. “I’ve been every where.” There, now you’ve got it.

13 minutes remain and everyone is still scrambling. Chef Symon is looking for foil to wrap up his trays of food and we get about two minutes of him getting frustrated with ripping the plastic wrap and now he’s barking at the camera guys. You know, I get frustrated too when you open a new box and can’t find where it starts so you can rip it nicely. Why can’t they invent a plastic wrap where the first layer has a green bar or some color where you can see where it begins? (Saran Wrap, if you use this suggestion, please cut me in on the royalties.)

Now the four chefs are sprinting to the finish, literally, as they push their container carts to the freezer like the typical average traveler trying to make his connecting flight. Chef Symon wins the race and Cosentino picks up the end, but they all get their food in on time.

The food gets loaded onto the plane and then the cheftestants take turns prepping their meals in the galley of the Airbus while Lufthansa flight attendants look on in a very disinterested way.

The three regular judges (Andrew Knowlton, Donatella Arpaia and Ruhlman) are in the hanger in front of the plane. What? Shouldn’t they be in flight thousands of miles up in the air to really test the taste levels of the dishes? Wimps. They’re joined by Bernd Schmitt, the executive chef of product placement Lufthansa. Again, Brown is going on and on about the challenge and explains what the chefs had to do, and we all know this so why are we wasting precious minutes? I get so frustrated that I actually took out my timer to see how many seconds Brown killed by this repetitive nonsense. 35 seconds. Huh, seemed like minutes! Still, that’s 35 seconds too long.

Chef Bad Boy is up first with his Sicilian play on Vitello Tonnato, which I find out is a chilled veal dish in tuna sauce. But instead Cosentino offers up seared tuna with venison loin and tomato. He also serves a white asparagus with lobster gribiche (I love white asparagus) and roasted venison loin with cauliflower and romanesco.

The guy from Lufthansa felt Cosentino went overboard with the chives in the first dish, and Ruhlman mysteriously asks Cosentino about how he likes his cauliflower cooked. Chef Bad Boy says he likes it “al dente” and you can tell that’s not how Ruhlman likes his done.

Commercials. That Vicks early-defense nasal congestion spray should be required for all those co-workers who come into work sick and sneeze on you. Yeah, I’m the type that would wear a mask to work if it were fashionable.

Chef Big Easy serves up his three dishes (and a bonus dish) to the judges. He says in his interview that he’s worried his flavors might be too subtle for the in-flight meals, but then he makes a dig at his competitors and says everyone cooks alike and is predictable.

Besh strolls in speaking German and you can see Donatella go, “oooh, I like a man with a foreign accent.” Besh offers up chilled watermelon consommé with a poached lobster salad. His second dish is white asparagus just like Chef Bad Boy but he uses something called a tomaton vinaigrette. His main course is baby lamb with spaetzle and chanterelle mushrooms, and for a bonus he offers fresh fruit with a Madeira sabayon.

Brown asks Chef Big Easy what he did that was very Iron Chef-like, and he asks this same question to all the cheftestants in some form or another. Besh says he focused on traditional cooking but with a new and fresher twist.

Chef Sanchez comes in with scallop and coconut ceviche. There’s a discussion about why he used coconut milk instead of typical citrus juices, and he says something about it not being astringent. (I, on the other hand, would be wondering about the idea of serving raw fish on a plane where the refrigeration is really in those little carts that sometimes sit for a long time.) His next dish is a pan-seared red snapper over sautéed summer squash. Brown, again, says it’s risky serving fish on a plane. Enough with the fish talk, Alton. We know, you had a bad flight with fish, get over it.

Chef Sanchez’s last dish is seared sirloin over a celery root puree. Sanchez says he cooks like an Iron Chef because he’s not intimidated by the proteins and isn’t afraid to make dishes. But I have to say, his face looks pretty defeated and he interviews that he found this challenge extremely difficult.

Last chef is Symon who offers up a tuna crudo topped with a lemon, dill and fennel vinaigrette. (Again with the raw fish.) His other dishes are slow-roasted salmon with creamed leeks and curry-crusted venison over a parsnip puree. Brown asks Symon the Iron Chef question and he responds that his dishes traveled all around the world, meaning he’s more than a one-trick pony.

Then the judges deliberate about the dishes, and while there are no fireworks between the judges like last week, they do slap down a few dishes. Here’s how it went down:

Chef Bad Boy (Cosentino): The Lufthansa guy couldn’t get past the limp fennel garnish on the dish while Ruhlman couldn’t get over the fact that the cauliflower was undercooked. “He should have called it crudité,” he points out. Knowlton seems really frustrated at Cosentino, saying he can’t seem to deliver more than one or two Iron Chef-worthy dishes.

Chef Big Easy: Ruhlman is getting back to basics and says Besh didn’t make a watermelon consommé as much as it was just sweet watermelon soup. He says a consommé should be clear and wonders if Besh, a nationally noted chef, really knows what a consommé is? That brings Donatella and Knowlton to Besh’s defense, saying it was a play on consommé. Ruhlman isn’t swayed.

Chef Buzzer (Sanchez): Donatella liked the coconut flavor and heat in his dish but the Lufthansa guy thought the snapper was like cardboard. Ruhlman thought the presentation with the skin on top was “ugly.” Knowlton says he would have sent the dish back.

Chef Symon: The Lufthansa guy thought the salmon dish tasted the best, and he gives it two big “wow’s”. Everyone agrees that Symon listened about seasoning in high altitude and was smart to cook the fish on the plane instead of reheating. (Although I’m pretty sure the flight attendants aren’t too happy about the idea of spending more minutes cooking in flight.)

The cheftestants return for the verdict, and Brown announces that the next round will be in Paris. There really are no surprises on these Food Network shows.

Brown says Chef Symon excelled by creating under pressure, and he’s named the winner of this challenge. Chef Big Easy is irked to no end. (And I have to say Chef Symon has now taken the lead spot over Besh. This is going to be a tough call on who’s going to win it all.)

Besh is told that his consommé wasn’t really consommé at all, but he survives to cook in Paris. Chef Big Easy says he may have been too industrious, so next time he’s not going to try as hard. Um, wrong direction Besh. Take some pointers from Symon, who I’m now going to call Chef Clutch because he cooks in the clutch and like I said all along from the beginning, he looks like he works on cars.

That leaves Cosentino and Sanchez. Cosentino says who doesn’t want to cook in Paris? Sanchez is stressing out. Brown says they’ve both walked to the very edge. Who is taking the step off?

Commercials. Oh. My. Gawd. Who put that shirtless picture of me in that new Calvin Klein Man commercial? LOL, just kidding. I’m not that tan.

Back from commercials, Brown tells Chef Sanchez that his sirloin was good but his snapper didn’t fly. For Cosentino, Brown asks why he always “sets off bombs in people’s mouths.” (I told him not to cook with fireworks.) Everyone’s squirming, especially Chef Sanchez, and with good reason because Cosentino is given a pass and moves on.

The editors play this really sad music in the scenes of Sanchez saying goodbye. I don’t remember them making it seem so dramatic in previous eliminations. Even I get a bit teary. Sanchez says he feels hurt, and I feel for him. Makes you realize that chefs are like any other insecure person wanting to be accepted by others.

In the plane with all four, Sanchez says his goodbyes and says that this could happen to anybody. And Besh remarks that it’ll happen again with two more people. Ouch, reality check. Sudden ominous sound effects. Da-da-dum.

Next time: The final three cheftestants are in Paris and Besh feels he has the leg up because he’s experienced with French cooking. They’re running all over Paris and it looks like they’re cooking a feast for Louis the XIII. Just two more episodes before we find out who will be (dramatic pause) the Next. Iron. Chef. And I can go back to sleeping early on Sunday nights.

The Next Iron Chef airs at 9 p.m. Sundays on the Food Network and repeats on the same time every Thursday. Photos courtesy of the Food Network Web site.


Anonymous said...

Nice blog, but, dammit,now I have that stooooooopid song going thru my mind at 1:30 am. Three whacks with a limp fennel!

Chubbypanda said...

That reminds me. I need to trim my fennel plant.