Monday, October 08, 2007

The Next Iron Chef: Episode 1

Sauna and Salmon Roe

So we begin with the first episode of “The Next Iron Chef,” and with all the scenes from around the world and the heart-thumping music, I feel like I’m watching the beginning of one of my favorite TV shows, “The Amazing Race.” (Excuse me, five-time Emmy Award-winning “The Amazing Race.”) I all but expect Phil to walk out and say “Sorry, you’ve been eliminated” but instead we’ll get a similar light-hair host in Alton Brown (but more on him later).

So eight cheftestants from across the country will battle it out for a spot on “Iron Chef America.” It’s odd that Brown voices-over that “the battle to attain greatness begins” but what we see are our cheftestants scrambling on a basketball court. Is this a sign of the great cooking in store? Hope not.

I wonder if the Chairman (the very fit actor Mark Dacascos) had to do several takes of him saying “the next Iron Chef” in that deep, ominous voice? And I wonder if he got as tired of it as I am in the first minute of this show?

All these fast-paced clips of scenes from the episode, music and voiceover of finding a “culinary god” is making me exhausted. I feel like I’ve watched the episode already but am left with that empty feeling like I wasn’t given a large enough portion. Gosh, that Iron Chef theme music really does sound like the Amazing Race. Maybe they’re trying to go for an Emmy win, too?

OK, we finally meet the cheftestants. First up is southern cool John Besh looking like a model in a silver-grey, long-sleeve shirt. Owner of three New Orleans restaurants and a former Marine, he’s my front-runner for taking this whole thing.

Next is Aarón Sanchez, owner of two restaurants in New York (hey, Besh has three; what are you, a slacker?) and he looks and sound kind of like Yankees catcher Jorge Posada. (Please Yankees, don’t get eliminated so soon!)

Here’s Traci Des Jardins, my hometown girl and owner of San Francisco’s classic Jardiniere restaurant. Traci looks like she’s going on a hike. She says she probably has the most experience of all the cheftestants, and I believe her.

Michael Symon owns a restaurant in Cleveland. I said in my earlier preview that he looks like a mechanic, but now with the outdoor scenery and heart-thumping music, he looks like a contestant on "Survivor."

Our second female contestant is Jill Davie of Josie’s restaurant in Los Angeles. She says she’s intense and doesn’t mind arguing, but I’m just wondering if she’s going to be wearing that bandana throughout the series. If she is, then I’m going to call her Bandana Girl.

Another hometown connection, Chris Cosentino of Incanto restaurant in San Francisco, is talking, of course, about offal cuts and using all the different parts of an animal. That’s pretty much his reputation around these parts. He says he’s brash and loud, and to prove it he gets the first bleep of the series.

The only African-American chef, Morou, owns a restaurant in Virginia and he says his cuisine is just like how he talks: American with an accent.

Last but not least, we get Gavin Kaysen, looking like he’s going to hit a few rounds of golf. I dubbed him Chef Cutie in my earlier post. I think I’ll probably stick with that because he is pretty darn cute—and young, at age 28. He says he’s representing all the young chefs in America. But, you know, if we add up all the ages of all the young chefs in America, that’s a lot of experience and age. Maybe he needs to rethink this “all America” thing and just represent the young chefs from Palm Beach or something like that.

The eight stand in this courtyard that looks like an Italian villa or some CG studio at LucasArts. The Chairman tells them it’s the hallowed grounds of the Culinary Institute of America (in Hyde Park in New York). He tells them that “the journey will be long and hard, and when it ends, one will stand alone as (dramatic pause) the next Iron Chef of America.”

We get some flashback scenes of Kitchen Stadium from the Iron Chef America series, and all the cheftestants talk about the honor of competing for the spot. One even calls it the pinnacle of a chef’s career. Hmm, I always thought it was winning a James Beard award or getting four Michelin stars, but maybe some chefs do consider it the height of one’s career to sweat it out in a TV studio cooking for an hour and letting a judging panel criticize your food. I’m starting to wonder about some of these cheftestants.

The Chairman makes a quick exit and then appears the work horse of the series, commentator Alton Brown, who informs the cheftestants that they’ll have eight tests over the next few days to demonstrate the divine eight characteristics the Chairman believes all Iron Chefs should embody. Then he does this odd “come hither” motion with his fingers like some card dealer in Vegas, and we move to our first character test: Speed.

Everyone’s in a basketball gym and Brown talks about the physical attributes and agility of the Chairman (that guy does some amazing flips in a suit) and how Iron Chefs have to be fast when cooking in Kitchen Stadium. So of course the first challenge will test them on their knife skills, doing such tasks as deboning chicken, filleting a whole salmon, French-cutting a rack of lamb, and even cutting open a coconut and getting 2 cups of juice. They all have 15 minutes to do this and already you can see many of them thinking, “where’s my line chef?” For each task they complete, they get a certain amount of points.

The cheftestants are split into two groups of four. First up are Bad Boy Cosentino, Des Jardins, Big Easy Besh and Chef Cutie (Kaysen).

The four race off for the table of food and start cutting away. I notice Chef Bad Boy (Cosentino) talks a lot while Chef Big Easy (Besh) seems pretty quiet as he focuses on his lamb. The scenes are so quick and short, it’s hard to really see who’s doing what, although I do think Cosentino should have switched to contacts for this series because his black-rimmed glasses are sliding off his nose while he’s cutting away. This is going to happen often throughout the cooking competitions.

Chef Big Easy looks like he’s the first to finish and he raises his arms, calling for congratulations but no one seems to hear him as they try to finish as much as they can before time runs out.

Chef Morou in the peanut gallery says Besh and Des Jardins are the two cheftestants to watch in this early stage of the game. Well, (spoiler alert) he was half right.

The second group is let loose onto the food table, and again, it’s really hard to tell who’s doing what, but Besh says it looks like Morou is going really fast. Everyone from the first group is watching in the peanut gallery with their jaws dropped and speechless. Ouch, Brown announces that there’s blood spilled in this competition and it belongs to Chef Morou.

Morou, who doesn’t seem to miss a beat despite having a bleeding finger (I mean, put a band-aid on man), says he saw the blood when he was filleting the salmon but thought it was the salmon. Talk about dedication, this guy doesn’t even feel the pain in his haste to win. I hope he doesn’t drip any blood into the coconut juice.

As expected, Chef Morou is done with 3 minutes and 4 seconds to go. Sanchez is the next to finish, and Symon is still shucking oysters (although he called it a clam).

Commercials. Another Food Network show with a couple of hippies catering food. Where do they find these guys? And why don’t they have hair nets? It’s called “Two Dudes Catering” and it’s another reality series. Hey, there’s another cute commercial with those California cows. They’re teaching a duck (who oddly looks like the Aflac duck) how to meditate by saying “mooo” instead of “ooom.” So funny.

Alton has the results of the speed round. I’m not going to go over the scores for everyone because this isn’t the SAT and no one’s going to Harvard, but looks like Chef Big Easy was fast in the first round, and most of the other chefs got points deducted for sloppy work. All except one who looks like he got a perfect score of 75, and that’s Chef Sanchez. Brown declares him “the fastest knife in the kitchen” and Besh points to him and says he’s coming after him. That was so Sopranos.

For their next challenge, the characteristic is “artistry” and the test is dessert making. Again, all the cheftestants look at each other wondering “where’s my pastry chef?”

Alton Brown says the Chairman has a sweet tooth but he likes it weird. (That sounded odd. Even Cosentino scrunched his face when he heard it.) The cheftestants have 90 minutes to make two desserts. One will be made with any of the ingredients in this big table of fruits and chocolates, but they’re not allowed to use butter, sugar or cheese. The second dessert has to feature one of the savory Survivor-like ingredients from the other table. Since Chef Sanchez won the first challenge, he got to choose first and he picks duck confit.

Chef Bad Boy picks tripe and you can hear others say “Aww, he picked tripe. He’s a warrior.” Hey, I’m pretty sure they use tripe in some kind of Asian cooking. OK, maybe not for dessert though.

All the cheftestants get cooking and this is where the series loses a lot of the drama. The editing doesn’t really show how the dishes are made because there’s just no time for that. But the cheftestants are all such professionals that there really isn’t a lot of drama in the kitchen and much interaction among them.

Anywho, this is what I can gather so far. Chef Symon is making vanilla bean ice cream with bacon because his belief is “everything is better with pig.” (His words, not mines.) The ice cream machine isn’t cooperating and it pretty much falls apart. Brown is no help and just walks away before he gets blamed.

Chef Sanchez is going to make a sweet corn cake that’ll serve as a base for his duck confit. Davie is going to make a gastrique, which I’m not sure what that is but it has to taste like beef shoulders, which is what she picked as her savory item. Morou is making chorizo and coconut milk. So far I’m getting hungry for dinner, not dessert.

Commercials. What’s this musical chairs with cars in the parking lot? Kids, don’t do this at home. You know, this Kia commercial is kind of appropriate for the holidays because this is what it’ll be like at the malls with cars fighting over spots. Hey, there’s Amy of “The Next Food Network Star.” Her show is going to premiere next Sunday at 1 p.m. (at least it’s not 7 a.m.) and I give her props for sticking with her theme, “The Gourmet Next Door.”

Coming back from commercials, wow, the Chairman sure wields a big sword. We get the second bleep in the series when Chef Symon swears over the ice cream maker. So he gives up on his ice cream idea and makes bacon cream sauce?

Boy, they’re really sweating in this kitchen. What’s this? Top Chef Miami? It’s like they’ve all caught the Howie body sweats and they’re all soaking. My guess is this was filmed in the hot humid summer of New York.

Chef Morou plates his plantain boat with beignets and a rambutan. His plate looks pretty. Chef Sanchez is plating a cute little pancake and Alton Brown calls time. Chef Sanchez wants to put one more thing but Brown eyes him down until he puts down his utensils. Brown looks at the camera like “these kids don’t listen.”

Now group two gets to cook. Chef Big Easy says he wants some green tomatoes. “What’s a Southerner to do without a green tomato?” Chef Bad Boy yells out “cry.” Chris, I’m pretty sure that was what we call “rhetorical.”

Cosentino says he’s working on some kind of fried tripe bread pudding. Chef Cutie says he’s making bread pudding too, but with his secret ingredient of squid. Ugh, more sweating. It’s like a sauna. I’m getting kind of worried for these chefs. I hope they hydrated afterwards.

Chef Traci is making something with celery, beet and apple for her secret ingredient, salmon roe. Everything moves so fast, it’s hard to keep up. Besh jokes about why did he pick catfish. It’s so hot that Chef Cutie says he can pour honey right out of the container and it really does look like melted butter. And Chef Traci’s crème fraiche looks watery.

Commercials. WTF? The Kia musical car commercial again? I wonder if someone else will win? Oh no, same guy. I thought they’d do something clever and have another winner since they repeat this commercial soon after the first one. But no, they’re not that creative or they think we have no ability for retention.

Back in the kitchen, the heat is playing havoc on all the cheftestants dairy products and their hairstyles. Chef Bad Boy is whisking his olive oil zabayone. It’s a workout for his arm. He does small talk with Chef Traci. Must be that San Francisco connection. She’s nice enough to small talk back. Aww, that was a sweet moment.

Oh. My. Gawd. Chef Big Easy looks like he has a fever with all the beads of sweat on his face. Thankfully, the cooking and sweating ends and now we move to the judges table.

So the three judges for this series (and I’m so glad they’re not the Food Network executives from “The Next Food Network Star”) include Andrew Knowlton, restaurant editor for Bon Appetit magazine. I’ve seen him judging in the past on Iron Chef America because I recognize that long, cropped hair. In the middle is Donatella Arpaia, a New York restauranteur who I’ve never heard of but is going to play the role of Paula Abdul this evening. The final judge is Michael Ruhlman, freelance food writer and a trained chef. Ruhlman actually came off really serious in this first episode, but he’s actually really funny as far as I can tell from his food blog. (BTW, he offers some limited insider insight of the show every Monday on his blog.)

Each judge briefly states what makes an Iron Chef. Ruhlman says he’s looking for fundamentals. Donatella says the chef needs passion and drive (yawn). And Knowlton says the chef has to accept what’s given to him and make no excuses. (Basically, no whining.)

Chef Symon is the first to present. He made a rice pudding with goat’s milk. His second dessert he calls the “6 a.m. special”—vanilla bean French toast with bacon ice cream and more bacon with pecans. Ruhlman says the dish is very familiar. Symon says he puts pork in everything.

Chef Cutie is up next and serves a pecan-crusted pain perdu. Again, it’s too fancy of a name but I’m pretty sure it’s the bread pudding he was talking about. He made it with Bavarian cream with honey and assorted berries. He serves it with some kind of strawberry shooter and Alton Brown jokingly declares him the winner for serving alcohol. (Woo-hoo!) The judges say they feel Kaysen played it safe. Next is his squid, which was marinated in lime juice, poached in honey water, cilantro and fried ginger. Donatalla makes a face. Ruhlman says it’s creative and impressive. To me, it doesn’t feel or look like dessert.

Commercials. Kia musical cars again! I’m waiting for an accident to happen. Nokia commercial about kids text messaging. ISNIT (=I’m so not into it).

Chef Traci offers up an almond and citrus cake made with olive oil, which actually looks yummy. Donatella says it’s dry, and Chef Traci comments that it’s been sitting while the prop guys and lighting people set up the judges’ shot. (OK, she didn’t add the last part, but I’m sure that’s what she was thinking.) Her second dessert is beets, celery, apple with the salmon roe on top. Ruhlman says he likes the beet salad, but there was way too much salmon roe.

Bandana Girl (OK, Chef Davie) serves up her chilled limoncello soup with summer heirlooms tomatoes. Donatella loves it (this woman is really jumping in first with all the comments). The second dessert is a beef and blackberry crepe with the gastrique, but Donatella (again) says the beef flavor isn’t very pronounced in the gastrique. (Maybe because it’s pronounced gas-trique, not beef-trique. LOL.) Overall, though, the judges say they liked it.

Chef Sanchez is up next with his filled mini crèpes with caramelized bananas. He added something Mexican that I didn’t catch. His second dish is the duck confit with corn cake and mole. Donatella says it’s spicy. The two male bookend judges wonder if the dish really qualifies as dessert.

Chef Bad Boy presents his goat’s milk rice pudding and honey almonds. Donatella says it’s perfectly cook. The tripe comes next in a panzanella. Donatella doesn’t mind it. Ruhlman loves it. Now there’s an adventurous eater.

Chef Big Easy made some white chocolate bread pudding that sounded like he said challah. (I learned this from my Jewish workmate.) Ruhlman says it was very rich, and Besh says it’s the chocolate, cream and crème fraiche. Then it’s on to the catfish, which was served in three ways: a truffle with grape, a parfait and a beignet. Donatella says she’s afraid to eat it, but eventually does.

Chef Morou present his banana fritters on that very pretty plate with the exotic rambutan. Then it’s his chorizo risotto with pickled currant. Hint to Chef Morou: don’t call your dessert risotto. Try “rice pudding” instead.

Judgment time. Chef Big Easy won with his catfish dessert, cementing his position as the frontrunner. He survives to battle again.

Also surviving is Chef Bad Boy and his honeycombed fried tripe. When he arrives in the waiting room, Besh calls him “Monkey Boy,” which I think is kind of endearing. Also passing mustard is Chef Cutie, Chef Morou and Bandana Girl.

The judges tell Chef Sanchez that his dish wasn’t really dessert but the duck was done really well. Sanchez is relieved that he’s surviving another week, but he looks a bit sad when he arrives in the waiting room.

That leaves just Chef Traci and Michael Symon. The judges say Symon played it safe, pretty much making something that everyone has had before. (And yes, they say they’ve all tasted bacon desserts.) Judge Knowlton asks Des Jardins if she was nervous, and she says it was a challenge working with the salmon roe. Knowlton says he wished he saw more of a classic dessert.

Alton says great chefs have bad days. (He probably doesn’t want to offend either of them since he may be dining at their establishments soon.) Chef Symon makes the cut and it’s the incomparable Des Jardins, once an Iron Chef America battle winner, who is the first to get cut. Everyone seems a bit shocked and sad because Des Jardins is probably the most experienced cook. (I heard that from someone; oh yeah, Des Jardins.) Chef Traci puts up a good face and says she had fun meeting everyone and cooking with them. Everyone gives her some love.

Next week: Besh is laughing it up but still sweating a lot. Chef Bad Boy says he’s pissed about something. Chef Sanchez wants to put something on the plate after the buzzard and just about gets his hand slapped by Alton Brown. Now that’s drama.

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


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the recap -- it's like I was actually watching!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the recap, I have it recorded but probably won't watch until this weekend.

BTW, love your take on the commercials too!