Monday, November 05, 2007

The Next Iron Chef: Episode 5

Viva la Lobster Roll

Previously on the NIC: The four cheftestants took flight with the Top Chef-airline-food do-over, but it’s Chef Aarón Sanchez that’s left grounded on the tarmac. Tonight: Chef John Besh is changing his name to Jean Besh and is getting all French with his bad self. The final three are planning a party at some big estate in a style that can only be thrown in Paris, or the parlor of Elton John’s home.

It’s getting close to the finale and you can tell by the pre-show interviews with the final three that they can taste victory (or as we learn later in the episode from Chef Clutch, or Michael Symon, it’s victoire). The three arrive in Paris, a very cold, damp and wet Paris. (Chef Symon and Chris Cosentino, I have a message from your moms: “Did you leave the house without your coats and mitts again?”)

With the iconic Eiffel Tower in the background, the three walk up to Alton Brown, who’s dressed mysteriously in a tan trench coat looking like he’s about to pass the latest clue for solving the Da Vinci Code. With his obligatory French greeting, he mentions that Paris is one of the Chairman’s favorite cities in the world. But still, that hasn’t enticed the Chairman to make a personal appearance because we still get the Chairman-in-the-Box, revealing the latest challenge.

The Chairman says Paris is the place where people come to gain culinary knowledge, and as Iron Chefs they’ll need to be “commanders of the kitchen.” So we can guess that this episode will focus on the oddly named culinary skill of “lead and inspire.” (I say odd because I would have just labeled the skill as “leadership,” and by definition most leaders are inspirational. The Chairman needs an editor.)

Brown passes out red envelopes containing 2,000 euros (or $2,500, dang the dollar sucks in Europe) and gives the cheftestants three hours to grocery shop for a three-course menu for 20 guests later that night. The menu must represent the best of American cuisine. Chef Big Easy (Besh) asks where they’ll be cooking, but Brown won’t tell him and pretends to keep it a secret. For the viewers, we already know because the Food Network editors are awful at building suspense. Still, I won’t be a spoiler on the exact estate they’re cooking at.

Chef Bad Boy (Cosentino), who’s known for his Italian culinary style, says being asked to cook American food in France is “twisted.” Like a pretzel? They all run down the steps to three unmarked vans waiting for them. Cosentino gets there first, followed by Besh and Symon picking up the rear. So any viewers of “The Amazing Race” will know what happens next. Yep, Cosentino gets in the first car but it’s the one with the clueless driver who doesn’t know his way around the city. (And yay to TAR returning on CBS. That gives me another hour of unscripted television to watch for the next few months with the writers’ strike officially beginning today.)

The next few shots are of the three cheftestants (well, Besh and Symon, at least, since Cosentino is still circling the Paris streets with his driver) shopping at a variety of French stores with Chef Big Easy looking all calm and sexy speaking French. I have to say, I loved shopping in Paris when I was there. The stores were quaint and sophisticated, the ingredients always top-notch, and the displays were fantastic. Looks like the cheftestants are getting the same experience.

So as they’re shopping, we get an idea of the cheftestants’ menu formulating in their minds. Besh is buying crab meat and caviar, so you know he’s highlighting his New Orleans roots (or as he says later, Nouveau Orleans). I’ve learned so many French terms on tonight’s episode that I’ll probably never use in future conversations.

Chef Bad Boy, finally out of his van and shopping, is looking to make a Philly cheese steak while Symon’s going wild for all the wild strawberries in a store, buying the whole lot. Besh is going on and on about all sorts of things he’s thinking of making. He is really excited about this challenge.

Chef Symon drops more than $700 to buy fresh lobster, which he says he’s going to make into a lobster hot dog. Huh, I don’t think I’ve been in any ballpark in the United States that offers a lobster hot dog, but I’d sure like to try one. (And you can bet either Fenway Park or AT&T Park in San Francisco should be the first to have it in their stands.)

Commercials. Kia and the traveling giant red ball on a stick. I still don’t get
it. (BTW, the rest of the commercials throughout this episode were so boring that this was, unfortunately, my first and last commentary on the commercials for the rest of this recap.)

Chef Cosentino is running around buying a whole lot of food, and now he’s searching for burrata cheese, which he can’t find but find’s something close. The French sales clerk at the cheese shop seems almost shocked that Cosentino says he plans to make a sauce out of the cheese he’s buying. The guy says the cheese is too expensive to make into a simple sauce. But Cosentino says he doesn’t care about the costs. Oooh, how bourgeois.

Chef Big Easy is buying something called Cock’s Comb. Come on, he said it, not me. (I’m still not clear what it is but I think it’s the rubbery red part of the rooster. I’ve seen online definitions referring to it as a flower. I’ve also seen spelling like coxcomb, which is probably more acceptable for a family paper.)

Done with their shopping, the cheftestants arrive at some big estate, still not sure who’s their host. Chef Besh is feeling pretty smart that he wore his blue blazer, compared to Symon and Cosentino dressed in T-shirts and jeans.

Brown’s waiting for them outside the huge palace-home, and informs them that the home used to be owned by a baroness, and then someone from the Rothschild family. But now it’s the home of the U.S. Ambassador to France, Bush fund-raiser and distant in-law Craig Stapleton. Talk about political plums. Stapleton does the obligatory greeting and lets them know they’ll be cooking for a bunch of French cooking snobs, err, guests.

Inside the enormous kitchen (how much does one ambassador eat?), Brown tells the cheftestants that an Iron Chef must be able to lead a crew into battle in kitchen stadium. So the Chairman has assigned each of them a sous chef, who will help them during this challenge.

The three sous chefs are from France, but they all seem really focused and appear to take instructions well. The cheftestants look excited about this challenge. In fact, I think Chef Bad Boy is doing a little dance before he gets cooking, or is that his imitation of Rocky? They have three hours to finish their three courses.

Chef Big Easy works on his chicken and dumpling. He’s really emphasizing his Southern cooking, which is definitely his style but I thought the judges said a couple of weeks ago that they were getting tired of that? Chef Clutch (Symon) in the meantime is having a lot of difficulties with all his equipment and he looks like he’s stressing out. He’s also making meat loaf with ground liver. And you know what? It looks just like how it sounds.

Cosentino is making a lot of noise in the kitchen, running all around, and Besh calls him “a loud American.” Besh, in the meantime, looks confident and is quietly working in between snippets of French he’s throwing around to maintain his sexiness.

One hour is left in the cooking, and I’m surprised that in this episode Brown isn’t annoying all the cheftestants with his smug self. His annoying questions are held down to a minimum, giving us a clear view of the cheftestants working on all their three dishes.

The guests arrive, starting off with a fancy-shmancy (got that from Amy) cocktail party at the garden.

Chef Symon starts working on his truffle potatoes. Cosentino is mad at himself for dressing his lettuce too early (now they’ll be a bit wilted at service), and Besh shows the first signs of frustration over a fryer. The cheftestants move into presentation mode and they all have to run up some flights of stairs to the dining area to lay out their food. What was odd is that later in the show the plates were brought to the guests at a table, so not sure who the presentation was for and if anyone even saw it?

Time’s up. And Brown yells out: “No more foodie touchie.” What? Is this kindergarten?

Dinner is served, and the judges are mixed in with a bunch of guests. I feel sorry for judge Michael Ruhlman who seems to have been seated next to a food critic who has an opinion on every dish and food ingredient used or not used.

For the first course, Chef Big Easy delivered a crab meat BLT with a fried oyster and caviar, Chef Bad Boy made a lobster roll as a homage to his New England upbringing, and Chef Clutch also served up lobster but in the form of a hot dog. Plus, he does this really loud thunderous laugh but I already forgot what was so funny.

Judge Donatella Arpaia, the restaurateur, loves Symon’s hot dog, and so does a French woman two seats down, who says she loved the texture. The French guy thought it was a crime to hide caviar behind bacon (Besh’s dish). Gosh, these French people are critical, but you know what? It’s the most insightful and discerning comments all season. Hmmm, if I were the judges, I’d be looking over my shoulders.

Next course: Besh offers up his chicken and dumplings, Chef Symon shows off his veal meat loaf with duck liver and truffle mashed potatoes, and Cosentino presents his Philly cheese steak, which looks more like a deconstructed cheese steak without the bun. The meat loaf gets mixed reviews and Donatella is looking for the speck of crouton on her cheese steak.

Final course—dessert: Chef Cosentino does this college trick where he shoots up melons with alcohol, calling his dish Melons and Moonshine (using grappa and honey). Symon makes a rootbeer float that looks very red, white and blue with his blueberries, strawberries and cream. Besh talks about his four sons eating watermelon every day and how he made a strawberry shortcake with watermelon sorbet. It’s presented very nicely.

At the end of the meal, Donatella and Brown have this weird interchange when Donatella’s talking about how there’s a sure winner in some people’s eyes and Brown is getting all bossy saying there shouldn’t be a winner in this challenge, just a loser with the other two named the finalists.

The guests are gone and the judges and Brown are assembled in one of the rooms and they start to pick away at the dishes. Ruhlman loved Besh’s crispy oyster and the complexity of the dish. They don’t seem to like the lobster roll from Cosentino, and Andrew Knowlton is getting a bit superior about food knowledge by questioning Donatella’s knowledge of what makes a proper lobster roll. It’s bad enough that he asks, “Do you know what you’re talking about?” But he adds another twist of the knife by adding “do you?” for good measure.

Knowlton’s favorite is Symon’s veal meatloaf with the chanterelle gravy. But they all couldn’t taste the truffles in the mushroom. (The judges probably didn’t know that Symon couldn’t find fresh truffles so he used a truffle paste. And what’s odd about that is Ruhlman says he thought he had one sliver of truffle on top of his dish. So what exactly was he eating?)

In the dessert round, Ruhlman felt the cheftestants’ offerings really summed up their cooking style. And in case you didn’t get it, Ruhlman sums it up for us this way: Chef Besh with a complex and composed shortcake, Chef Symon’s playful and little sloppy rootbeer float, and Chef Cosentino’s bold, hearty and simple melons.

Donatella thought Cosentino’s alcohol-infused melons were simple, but she liked the execution, saying she’s had bad melons. (Which frat party was that Donatella?) But she wonders if the dish was worthy of an Iron Chef. Knowlton, of course, wrote it off as just a fruit salad.
Ruhlman liked the execution and presentation of Besh’s shortcake, but he didn’t like eating it. (He explains later on his blog that he found out Besh used store-bought biscuit, which is probably why he didn’t like it.)

At nightfall in the City of Lights, the three cheftestants return for judgment. Brown says he’s really proud of the three, and says they represented their country well. Since they’re not naming a winner, Brown stretches out the suspense of who’s going home, but really, the writing was on the wall all along that it’d be Cosentino. In fact, it would have been a shocker if Cosentino made it to the final over the surging Symon and the constant front runner Besh. Still, the sad music plays after Brown finally announces that Cosentino will not be the next Iron Chef.

Chef Cosentino says his goal was to make it to the finals. Just a tad short of that goal, he still feels proud that he made it to the final three and went out with a strong showing. He gets hugs from his fellow cheftestants and as he leaves the room, we see his blond faux hawk perfectly backlit from the studio lights.

That leaves Chef Big Easy (Besh) and Chef Clutch (Symon) as the final two, making them the finalists to go head-to-head in a winner-take-all battle in kitchen stadium. Despite Symon’s strong showing in the last few episodes, my bet is still my initial guess, John Besh. Let’s see if I’m right next week.

Next time: It’s the finale of the series and the Chairman finally makes an appearance. The final battle is fittingly in kitchen stadium, and Iron Chef Bobby Flay is there to dispense advice. And this being the Food Network, we already get a spoiler on next week’s secret ingredient. Looks like sword fish.

Coming tomorrow: Check back here Tuesday night when I post my special Q&A interview with the two San Francisco cheftestants—Traci des Jardins and just-booted Chris Cosentino.

The Next Iron Chef airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on the Food Network with repeats at the same time on Thursday. Finale is this Sunday, Nov. 11. Photos courtesy of the Food Network Web site.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great review. I've been craving a lobster roll ever since I saw the show. Need to find a good one around here.