Monday, October 22, 2007

The Next Iron Chef: Episode 3

Please Pass the Salt

Previously on the NIC: The cheftestants get to experiment with chemicals, but they leave a bad taste in the mouths of some of the judges who send Chef Jill Davie (or as I fondly called her, Bandana Girl) packing. It’s back-to-back women elimination, so let the conspiracy theories begin! Tonight, two chefs will be eliminated as the secret ingredients will be chosen by their peers. Will sabotage be served? Let’s find out.

I just realized that every week the show starts off with two cheftestants talking about what it means to be the next Iron Chef. I thought they were the same clips, but turns out that each week features two different chefs. For this week, we have homeboy Chris Cosentino (of San Francisco’s Incanto) saying he gave up everything to get what he wanted. Um, so the lesson is even if you give up everything, you still get back something in return. Chef Cutie (Gavin Kaysen) says something about circles and boxes and getting out of them. It’s like he’s still in geometry class from last week.

The remaining six cheftestants appear in the kitchen in this weird, ghostly special effect. Looks like some editor is playing with his Halloween special effects a bit early. They flash on some unusual ingredients on the table in front of them (mostly dark leafy greens, which are good for you btw!). In enters Alton Brown, who refers to the interesting ingredients as wild. But it’s odd how he doesn’t mention the really odd ingredients and instead talks about “edible flowers and tasty snails,” which to me is pretty normal gastronomic faire. Then he turns on the Chairman-in-the-box to listen to this week’s challenge.

The Chairman talks about resourcefulness, and how an Iron Chef has to display that skill even if he has no kitchen. Right, since when did an Iron Chef not have kitchen stadium to cook in? Sure, an ice cream machine may go wrong and, yeah, Chef Bobby Flay was shocked a few times working in a faulty kitchen in the original Japanese Iron Chef series, but they always had heat. Anywho, I’m already getting cranky at the feasibility of this challenge. But we forage ahead.

Brown explains that the cheftestants will be grouped into pairs, and the partner will get to pick the secret ingredients for the other chef. Brown also mentions that the cheftestants have been “too nice” in the last two episodes (and have probably been frustrating the producers who want more drama) so he does a spiel about strategy and not squandering opportunities. Sigh, it’s no wonder the judges always get cheated out of air time when so much time is dedicated to hearing Brown explain the challenges. Finally, Cosentino—as last week’s winners—gets to name the pairs of cheftestants. This is how it went down: Chef Bad Boy matches himself with Chef Michael Symon; Morou gets paired with frontrunner Chef Big Easy (John Besh); and Chef Cutie (Kaysen) is paired with Aar√≥n Sanchez (Chef Buzzer; see last week’s recap.)

The cheftestants each get some individual time to select the secret ingredients for their partners. This is where we can see who’s going to play nice and who’s really going to hose the other competitors. Oh, Chef Symon just gave Chef Bad Boy some purslane, which I personally don’t like because it’s really a weed (but everyone’s cooking with it these days in the Bay Area) so I think it’s going to add a bad taste to Cosentino’s dishes. Well played, Symon.

The most interesting ingredients are exchanged between Sanchez and Kaysen. Chef Buzzer selects some ugly green leafy thing called “goosefoot” while Chef Cutie picks escargot for his partner. Of course, we hear in the voiceover a minute later that Sanchez says he hopes he doesn’t get escargot because he hates the little suckers. (Me too, Chef Buzzer.)

The cheftestants pack up their ingredients in a big cooler and Brown leads them outside into the garden where there’s a row of charcoal grills set up. (It looks like a really sunny day, so if you think you saw lots of sweating in the kitchen in the previous two episodes, be prepared for this outdoor flopfest.)

Brown tells them they’ll have no water (ooh, bad hygiene issues), gas or electricity for this challenge and can only use the limited ingredients on the table, which includes butter and cream but very little else. Chef Cutie gets all excited because he sees all the fresh herbs in the garden, but apparently the Culinary Institute of America has put that off limits not wanting to have their precious garden trampled by Iron Chefs wannabes.

They have 60 minutes to prepare two dishes using only the ingredients in front of them.

Commercials. Oh wow, a different Kia commercial. Thank God. Oh, wait. People riding around with a big red ball on a stick. I don’t get it.

Back outside, the cheftestants immediately start firing up their grills even before checking out what they have to cook with. Oddly enough, we get a lot of time watching these men build fire. I can feel the ratings slipping with every match. They finally open their coolers and Chef Sanchez is in denial about his escargot, Chef Cutie gets frog legs and raspberries (that’s brutal) but Chef Symon is happy about his quail and Chef Bad Boy is fine with his squab. (Hey, I think those two guys are building an alliance!)

Chef Symon seems to be the only one thinking out of the box when he sees a box of cornmeal in the shared table and he’s the only one to grab it to start making polenta, which he clearly points out takes 40 minutes to cook. (Which is why I don’t make polenta, plus I’m not a big fan of grainy mushy food.) There’s a lot of marinating and rubbing of meats, but ironically none of it is along the traditional barbeque route.

Chef Bad Boy (Cosentino) looks into his squab hoping for the innards to cook with. (Just a reminder, this is the man behind the Offal movement in the Bay Area, so he likes to cook with every bit of an animal.) He looks inside the squab and it’s empty. “Bullocks,” he says. Geez, Chef Bad Boy turns British when he’s angry. His partner in crime, Chef Symon, says under his breath, “no guts no glory.” And that is literally so apropos at that moment.

Brown comes around doing his little commentating-asking-annoying-questions thing. Has anyone else notice Brown is a bit more smug in this episode than the past? I think he thinks he’s the Chairman.

Commercials. Those teddy bears with the heads in the stomach are creepy. … Wow, Guy Fieri gets a second season of his Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. He’s the most successful of “The Next Food Network Stars” alumni. BTW, I just saw Amy’s “The Gourmet Next Door” and she’s just as nervous in her own show as she was competing on NFNS. Hopefully she improves in her remaining four episodes, but so far I’m getting annoyed at how she keeps making up words. (“Fancy-shmancy” is the least of it.)

Back to the fire-building, Chef Buzzer isn’t getting much heat with his grill, so Chef Cutie offers up his. (I guess Kaysen wasn’t paying attention to Brown’s lecture on not playing “nice.”) On a side note, Chef Symon in his in-studio interview shows off a big honking tat on his leg that says “I Live to Cook.” What a surprise.

The cheftestants start moving into the plating, and I have to say some of it looks really fancy like they’re being prepped for a restaurant. Chef Cutie even prepares some quail eggs by just grilling them in between the metal rods and letting the open fire poach the eggs. Now that’s resourceful.

Time’s up and Chef Sanchez is still talking about how Kaysen was out to get him with the escargot, but Chef Cutie chimes in that at least he gave him fire to cook with. Chef Buzzer acknowledges that and says Chef Cutie is back in his good graces, which prompts Chef Cutie to give Sanchez a big wet one (OK, maybe not so wet) on the cheeks. Sanchez recoils, of course. Boys.

This segment sure went pretty fast because here we have commercials again.

Commercials. Is that an exploding dog? A black dog walks into an all-white room and explodes into these various black dogs of every shape and size. The Hoover sucks them up. Tonight’s commercials are getting creepier by the minute.

It’s judgment time and it’s only fair that our panel of Andrew Knowlton, Donatella Arpaia and Michael Ruhlman must also sit under the glaring New York sun since the cheftestants had to cook under it. Alton explains to the judges the challenge, and again, why are we eating up time with him talking? We know what happened, the judges can get prepped by the producers, can we just get to the food?

First up is Chef Cutie and his frog legs lollipop with buttered leeks. For his second dish, he made a lovage salad with quail egg. The judges bite into the salad and they all look at each other shaking their heads. They also wonder why Kaysen didn’t make frog legs for both dishes.

Chef Symon begins by telling the judges his philosophy about outdoor cooking, which is “always give your guests a beverage” (he gives them a mulled berry drink while I would have preferred something with vodka) and serve the food family style, which is what he does with his polenta with wild mushrooms and quail with blackberry salad and grilled onions.

BTW, I have to say Arpaia looks really good with the long, straight hair. The sun is just bouncing off her blond hair. She should request all her judging occur outdoors.

Chef Big Easy (Besh) presents his grilled rabbit saddle and fried rabbit leg. His second dish is a rabbit salad with poppy flower vinaigrette. Ruhlman tastes some chickweed in the salad, which Knowlton tangentially remarks that rabbits eat chickweed. Huh?

Chef Bad Boy (Cosentino) made a juniper-smoked squab and a dandelion salad with squab. The editors again offer little interesting dynamics about the judges’ interest in Cosentino’s dishes, other than Ruhlman saying the dandelion greens were a bit too big to bite into.

Very little is also said (or at least aired) by the judges when it comes to Chef Buzzer’s skewered escargot with garlic scape and his warm mushroom salad.

For the last chef, Morou, Brown asks Morou why he plated his grilled venison as pieces throughout the plate. (Oh boy, I hear echoes of “disjointed” from last week.) Morou says he looks at the plate as a white canvas and likes to cover it all up with the food components.

Commercials. Cheese with live active culture. You know, I know live active cultures in food are good for you (which is why I eat yogurt every night), but I really don’t want to have it in the name, thank you very much.

Decision time, and the judges are back in their usual castle room. And somehow they’ve all changed into different clothes and Donatella has curly hair now. What gives? Did they take a day off to think about their decisions?

Last week the judging went by pretty fast with very little interaction among the judges. This week we’re offered an inside look at the judges’ minds as we hear a bit of the debate about the dishes.

Knowlton seems a bit grumpy from having to sit outside for the first part of judging because he comes out with guns blazing. His first target: Chef Cutie and why he didn’t use frog legs for his second dish. Donatella agrees that she found that to be a lack of resourcefulness. Ruhlman says the food wasn’t seasoned, and he seems a bit offended that a chef of Kaysen’s level doesn’t know how to season food properly. (On Ruhlman’s blog, he offers some behind-the-scenes information and reveals that he found out Kaysen’s food was sitting on ice packs that melted and drowned his food, which explains why the salt may have been washed out. Kaysen says pretty much the same thing in his exit video on the Food Network site.)

The judges also grapple over Besh’s rabbit. They felt he probably was too ambitious trying to present rabbit in a variety of ways, and Knowlton says his rabbit loin tasted like “wet tissue.” You know, I’ve eaten rabbit that’s super soft that way so I know what he means. That’s why I generally like grilled or roasted rabbit. Just my tip to you, Besh. ;-)

Speaking of harsh, Ruhlman describes Cosentino’s squab as a “pro forma boring restaurant dish.” Ouch.

But the judges save their most heated debate for Sanchez's and Morou's dishes. Knowlton seems almost angry that Morou hasn’t improved from last week with this disjointed venison plating, while Donatella and Ruhlman didn’t think it was all that bad. For Sanchez, Ruhlman says he liked the taste of the escargot, which prompts Knowlton to say that all Sanchez did was skewer the escargot and grilled it. He says the good taste of the escargot should be credited to the farm in Burgundy who produced it. Hmm, for some reason I don’t think it was only the escargots that were skewered on this day.

They bring the cheftestants in for questioning and this has got to be the longest judgment segment so far this series. Brown lets out that the Chairman has purchased four tickets for the next challenge, so we know the final four are going to travel somewhere for their next challenge.

Brown eats up time again explaining the parameters of the challenges and yada yada yada. Ruhlman is stuck on whether Kaysen salted his frog legs. (He says he did, but Ruhlman says “really?” like he doesn’t believe him.)

The judges fire off one question after another. Can you only make one good dish instead of two? How do you like your rabbit cooked? What’s your approach to plating? Will Mel B. get kicked off “Dancing With The Stars”? (OK, that last one is for me. Please vote for Mel B. and Maxim!)

Morou says in his background interview that he’s hearing a lot of negative comments about his fellow competitors but not a lot of heavy questioning for him, so he feels safe. Ah, foreshadowing comes into play, my not-so-secretive Food Network editors.

I think we’re finally going to hear some decisions, but not until we hear more from Brown, who asks Chef Bad Boy if he really took advantage of his strategic win from last week for this week’s challenge. Cosentino says he think his “Jedi mind tricks” worked a bit this week, but Brown gives him that Yoda expression of “how sad you are young Skywalker for not learning all the tricks of the Force.” Still, Brown tells Chef Cosentino that he’s safe.

Brown then tells Chef Big Easy that the judges are getting tired of his Southern charm, but still Besh survives to charm them again.

Chef Symon is declared the winner of this challenge, and again, we learn that it pays off to offer any kind of beverage to the judges. (I’m also increasing my odds on Symon, who has stepped up to the challenges and I now consider neck-and-neck with Besh.)

Brown says he needs to talk to the judges again. So he sends the remaining three cheftestants away. Will this judging segment ever end?

Back from commercials, Chefs Morou, Sanchez and Kaysen are in with the other cheftestants in the kitchen awaiting their fates.

At the judges’ table, Knowlton still has a stick up his butt as he rips into the fact that Chef Cutie and Chef Buzzer both didn’t use their protein for a second dish. Donatella adds that it’s a sign of laziness and lack of resourcefulness (the theme of this challenge if any of you have forgotten by now, I know I have).

Ruhlman is still stuck on the salt, or lack thereof, in Kaysen’s frog legs. It’s a good thing Ruhlman and Knowlton are on opposite sides of the table because they both challenge each other’s taste as Knowlton goes on and on about Chef Morou’s venison and Ruhlman saying he just doesn’t get why Andrew loves it so much.

The remaining cheftestants come back in for the decision. Chef Cutie is lauded as a master technician who’s imaginative but has not yet developed the maturing in flavor combinations. (You can see where this is going.) Kaysen is eliminated. There goes the eye candy.

Brown then tells Chef Morou that his food was well cooked but the plating was a mess. For Chef Sanchez, he says he “shined and shown glimmer of brilliance” but he lacked imagination and passion. Wow, someone’s ego sure is getting a lot of punches. Where’s all the “good chefs have bad days” speech, Alton? Sanchez is a top-notch chef and I doubt that anyone would question his passion for food.

This messy judgment period comes to an end when Morou is given the boot. Morou leaves with a lot of dignity, saying that in this group of talented, award-winning chefs, you don’t really leave a loser.

Next week: The final four ends up at an airport hanger in Munich and stares at a big Lufthansa jet. Looks like someone’s going to be making airline food. (Hey, did the Food Network hire the segment producer from Top Chef?) Knowlton still looks like he has something stuck up his butt. I just hope it’s not the Eiffel Tower that I see in the background.

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


Anonymous said...

Did you catch how Chef Morou made his venison? Something about vinegar and oil with chiles? Or just vinegar? There isn't any info on FoodTV.

Single Guy Ben said...

I didn't get everything that he said, but I think you're on the right track with the vinegar, oil and chiles. The judges did seem to think it had a lot of heat.I know he was doing a marinade.

Anonymous said...

i love your summaries..and the dry sense of humor =)..but back when you were talking about the escargots and the discussion b/w the judges..u had Morou's name instead of Sanchez's, who was the one with the escargot dish. jxt a comment =)

Single Guy Ben said...

Thanks Liz for pointing that out. I fixed that section now. ... I'm usually up until 12:30 a.m. early Monday typing up my recaps so I can get pretty loopy near the end. :)

Chubbypanda said...

*sigh* Food Network actually used to be good. It actually used to be about cooking and food. I want Sara Moulton and Mario Batali back.

Anonymous said...

Did they take Sara and Mario's shows off of the rotation?? Those were actually pretty good. Better than Ina Garten making yet one more roast chicken while ruminating about how she'd rather be in Paris.

Anonymous said...

The good thing about Sara and Mario is that their shows were slow-paced and they gave the vibe that the kitchen is a place to relax and enjoy. This is in great contrast to my least favorite Food TV host, Rachel Ray, who stresses me out. Also, what's with her obsession with olive oil? All chefs (is she a chef?) use olive oil and they don't make a big deal about it. She gives the impression that she uses it for everything, including brownies and oatmeal.

Single Guy Ben said...

I agree with you anonymous that I like the cooking show where they're slow and deliberate, and talk about cooking and food while they demonstrate. I don't even bother watching Rachel Ray. But Eric, I do like Ina Garten even if she roasts chicken a lot. (I actually love roast chicken.) Does she even have new shows? I haven't tuned in recently so I don't know if the shows that air are new. It's funny how the Food Network reruns shows over and over again during the days.

Anonymous said...

Hey! Love your summaries! I don't have cable, so it's like I'm actually watching it (annoying, weird commercials and all! ^.^) I have to agree on the Rachael Ray thing, she annoys the hell outta me! Anywho, I'll be back to check out some more of your work!