Sunday, September 30, 2007

What Makes an Iron Chef?

One week from tonight, The Food Network will premiere its latest reality show. Well, almost reality if you believe there is a thing as Kitchen Stadium and a Chairman who reigns over it with a cadre of this nation's top chefs. I mean, really, who out there thinks the Chairman actually ponders all week thinking what should be the secret ingredient?

Now that I've burst your Santa Chairman bubble, let's get down to the nitty gritty of this new show and why I'm looking forward to it. This isn't a bunch of amateurs competing for their own show, or a gaggle of sous chefs hoping to open their own restaurant. This is going to spotlight cooking by some of the nation's best chefs, many of them owners of top-rated restaurants and James Beard-award winners. So this show has the best chances of spotlighting real cooking, instead of fancy editing of drama between reality show contestants.

Iron Chef (the original from Japan) is one of my favorite imported TV shows for its quick cooking and energetic TV commentating. The American version, Iron Chef America, has held up well although Alton Brown, while knowledgeable, doesn't carry off the same witty banter I enjoyed in the Japanese original. Still, I enjoy watching the judging to hear the Iron Chefs and real world chefs presenting their dishes and describing how they made it.

When Iron Chef America expanded from the typical three chef format to four, I thought it was so unnecessary. But then newbie Iron Chef Cat Cora has grown on me with her clean cooking and local charm. When I heard the show was going to look for another Iron Chef, I again thought it was so unnecessary. Does this mean less TV time for the fantastic Morimoto? (I doubt Bobby Flay will let anyone steal away air time from him ;-) Then I read that Mario Batali's contract with the Food Network was allowed to expire and no effort was made to bring him back to Food TV, so then appeared a real opening on Iron Chef America. (Now, those are going to be some big orange clogs for someone to fill.) I mean, people, this time "it really counts." (Is that the right slogan for the MLB All-Star game? Anyone?)

Starting next Monday, Oct. 8, I'll be posting recaps of the show (check back around 7 p.m. PST to give me time to get back from the gym and get a quick snack before posting). And as a preview, here are the eight cheftestants and Iron Chef hopefuls with my predictions:

John Besh, chef and owner of Restaurant August in New Orleans. With his boyish good looks, Besh is going to give Flay a run for his money in cornering the Iron Chef charm. I think he has the best chance of winning the competition because he has one Iron Chef battle under his wings and has the perfect personality for TV. (And did I mention his good looks?) A James Beard winner in 2006, Besh has been featured as a judge in various Food Network competition shows. His only negative may be that the show already has a Southern representative with Iron Chef Cora so you know the yanks in New York programming won't allow another one to sneak in.

Chris Cosentino, executive chef of Incanto in San Francisco. If anything, I predict chef Cosentino's hair will win. I bet it can cook on its own! Still, I'm sure Cosentino's Italian style will actually fill nicely the void left by Batali. So that means Cosentino also has a likely chance of winning. I put him and Besh among the top competitors and probably going head-to-head in the finale. Cosentino would bring a lot of excitement to Iron Chef America because he's a believer of using every part of the animal in his cooking, which means he has an innovative flair that will definitely impress the judges' panel. His only negative is that he lost in his previous appearance as a competitor on Iron Chef America. I guess the judges weren't that impressed by his offal fixins.

Jill Davie, TV chef host of Fine Living's "Shopping With Chefs." One of two female contestants, Davie was an up and coming restaurant chef, working at restaurants such as Charlie Trotter's in Chicago before helping to open LA's Josie's Restaurant. But TV apparently lured her away from the kitchen. Her bio on the Food Network says she was a Sunkist spokeswoman and appeared on Food Network shows such as "Date Plate" and "Party Starters" (didn't watch either). While she apparently has the TV chops, I think she's a long shot in being a Iron Chef because it's been awhile since she's worked in a busy kitchen.

Traci Des Jardins, chef and owner of Jardiniere in San Francisco. Des Jardins is the second female cheftestant and the second with Bay Area ties! (Go San Francisco!) Her restaurant Jardiniere is among the best in the city (and recently had an anniversary and makeover of its downstairs bar, now known as J Lounge) and she has won numerous awards and magazine recognition. She's also gone head-to-head on Iron Chef America and won! Despite the prestigious portfolio, Des Jardins may not have the TV personality required by the Food Network (although I have to say she really glammed up for her photo shoot). If she can bring out her personality during the competition, then her chances may increase. For now, she's in the middle of the pack.

Gavin Kaysen, chef de cuisine of El Bizcocho in San Diego. I'm going to call Kaysen "chef cutie." This 28-year-old will definitely win the young female American Idol voters if the Iron Chef battle was chosen by viewers' choice. But I don't think that's going to happen. So Chef Cutie will provide some nice eye candy but will probably not win the whole tamale. What he does have going for him, other than his TV good looks, is that he's trained in French cuisine and that's a style of cooking that's lacking on Iron Chef America (there was a well-known French Iron Chef in the Japanese show). So if the producers feel they want to bring in that side of traditional cooking, Chef Cutie may have a chance.

Morou, chef and owner of Farrah Olivia Restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia. OK, how do you become known as the one-name chef? Is Morou the Cher of the food world? Hmmm, interesting. This South African native is the wild card in this competition. I don't know much about him but he will bring a unique approach to cooking that American TV has never displayed properly, African cooking. So if he has a personality to match his apparent cooking chops, then he may be the sleeper of the series.

Aaron Sanchez, chef and owner of Paladar in New York. The only chef from New York, Sanchez is a true celebrity chef making TV appearances and writing his own book on Mexican-style cooking. His appearance on Iron Chef America is actually airing tonight as I'm writing this preview, so maybe I'll get some insight about his style although I'll probably be watching Desperate Housewives. I think Sanchez might have the chops to be an Iron Chef, but his Latin style of cooking seems to duplicate Bobby Flay and Cat Cora. So he's also in the middle of the pack.

Michael Symon, chef and former host of Food Network's "Melting Pot." I have to say, I never watched Melting Pot when Symon was on so I can't say I remember him. Similar to Jill Davie, Symon has a true career in food TV with several appearances in a variety of food shows over the years. I don't think he'll be much of a challenge, however, since his style of cooking seems to lack a definite voice. Plus, not to be mean, but doesn't he look like he should be on TLC's "Monster Garage" instead? I could be wrong.

So that's it! Again, my top picks are John Besh and Chris Cosentino's hair. Check back every week for my recap to see if my picks change.


Anonymous said...

Iron Chef Sakai, loved him.
Thanks for the preview. I have the shows set up on the DVR but who knows when I'll have time to watch them. I'm looking forward to your recaps.

Anonymous said...

Are there any real French chefs in your list?