Monday, November 12, 2007

The Next Iron Chef: The Finale

Dueling with Swordfish

So it’s finally the finale, after six weeks and eight cheftestants. Hey, no one told me it was a black-tie affair! I hate black tie, but the Chairman looks good in his tux. After the obligatory montage of “how we got here” and scenes from the knife test at a basketball court to the grand dinner at the U.S. ambassador’s Paris digs, we switch to pure, Iron Chef America mode. Just the pulsating music and smoke machine gets me excited already. Let the battle begin!

We’re in kitchen stadium and so far it looks pretty empty except for Alton Brown, who’s also wearing a tux. Brown fits comfortably back in his commentating/hosting role of Iron Chef America, as opposed to his smug, annoyingly intrusive role as host in the last few episodes of NIC.

Brown introduces the two challengers and finalists, starting with Chef Clutch (Michael Symon). Wearing black, Symon has already got his Iron Chef battle face nailed down. We hear about his culinary rise to stardom with his Cleveland restaurants, and then there’s that laugh of his. It is booming.

All glowing in white, in comes golden boy Chef Big Easy (John Besh), who I had pegged for the finals from the very beginning. (Single Guy Chef pats himself on the back.) Looks like Besh cut his hair a bit shorter. Hope that doesn’t affect his superpowers. (Foreshadowing.)

Watching in the “skybox” are current Iron Chefs Bobby Flay, Cat Cora, and Masaharu Morimoto. Isn’t it weird how the Food Network doesn’t want to talk about Mario Batali? The rumor was that his contract never got extended with the network, yet they still mention his name and show his image on all these Iron Chef America intros. Weird. Hey, Bobby, sit up and stop slouching. You’re an Iron Chef, man!

The two finalists stand on opposite ends of the huge aluminum cover that contains the secret ingredient. (Well, not-so-secret if any of you saw previews at the end of last week’s show. Thanks Food Network editors.) It’s swordfish. With some pretty long swords, I might add. Both Besh and Symon look happy, grinning ear to ear. The Chairman does his “aaaaalleezzz cuisiiiiiine” and the two chefs start hauling away the fishes, with Symon adding a “who’s your daddy?” to show who’s boss.

Besh says his game plan is to be a warrior at heart and do what he does best, which is French-Creole-Southern-Louisiana-Jumbalicious cuisine. Symon says the first 10 minutes will be the most important in the battle, so he doesn’t waste any time and busts out a saw to hack away at the swordfish.

Both cheftestants are busy cutting into the fish, and in true Iron Chef fashion you know every part will be used. In fact, Besh is already roasting some bones to make a stock and I hear tell Symon is doing something with the neck. We’re introduced to floor reporter Kevin Brauch, who I can never seem to get past his odd pronunciation of words. It’s not like he’s saying something wrong, but the tone is just off in my ears. (Anyone who speaks Japanese and regularly watches Iron Chef America knows what I mean when you hear Brauch try to say “konbanwa” or “good evening,” usually right before he introduces the judges panel. Shivers.) Kevin does some mini recaps of what I just mentioned, but I’m mostly listening to Brown.It’s refreshing to get the old Alton Brown back. Here he is talking about the fish collar and stuff. This is where he shines. Wow, 15 minutes has elapsed. This is just flying by.

Commercials. Oh, the Food Network is doing a special holiday Iron Chef with Cat Cora and Paula Deen teaming up to battle Tyler Florence and Robert Irvine (of “Dinner: Impossible”). Sorry, but my money is on the guys. BTW, have you guys seen that commercial with Ben Stein talking about eating Alaskan seafood because it’s sustainable? Why is he wearing a suit and tennis shoes? Just asking.

Chef Big Easy is busy making corn blinis. Yum. Chef Symon just put some lamb tongues into the pressure cooker. Yuck. You have to give the guy points, though, for not shying away from exotic ingredients.

Brauch introduces the judges, thankfully without saying konbanwa. The judges from the series, food writer Michael Ruhlman, restaurateur Donatella Arpaia and Bon Appetit editor Andrew Knowlton are all smiling and happy, and also very dressed up. Knowlton just can’t seem to stop smiling.

While the cheftestants are busy making pasta, packing fish for immersion, and generally slicing up swordfish, Brown asks Ruhlman if he’s seeing Iron Chef action in front of him. Ruhlman says he won’t be able to tell without trying the food, but he likes what he’s seen so far. Donatella says something that I don’t remember, and Knowlton says he’s looking for creativity and someone who goes out of his comfort zone. Given that Chef Big Easy is cooking what he knows aka Southern cuisine, I’d say he’s at a disadvantage, at least when it comes to Knowlton’s vote. (Foreshadowing II.)

Floor reporter Brauch reports that a crusted swordfish is being seared. He goes over the ingredients and pronounces paprika as PAP-pri-ka. See what I mean? Shivers.

There has been very little dialog from the cheftestants so far, other than their video clips. But now Besh asks Symon how he’s doing, and Chef Clutch says he feels like a million bucks. Besh says he isn’t at a million yet. Maybe just a thousand right now. But with interest, he may catch up.

Brown takes this time to do a commercial for the new uniform for the Iron Chefs, which I guess will debut when the season begins next week. They had another contest for that, and the winning entry came from a mother-and-daughter team. OK, they talk about uniforms, but they don’t show any preview of what the winning entry looks like. And designer Mark Ecko is going to do the design, so what exactly did the mother and daughter do? Well, they got a free trip to New York at least.

Chef Symon seems to be doing really well, moving smoothly and now he’s already plating his marinated swordfish with salsa verde and a little neck clam. He’s also done with his swordfish cooked sous vide (slow cooked in a plastic bag). Typical sous vide results too: the fish looks uncooked and the color is bland. This is why I’m not a big fan of sous vide, even though it’s the in thing to do.

Commercials. For those of you in California, you’ve probably seen the PG&E commercials with the CFL light bulb talking to the regular old light bulb. I don’t think the commercial is that funny, but I do want to do a public service announcement and encourage everyone to use this energy-conserving bulb. You can find it in all the stores and it lasts for a long time so you don’t have to buy bulbs as often. Save the cheerleader, save the world.

The Chairman is pacing as usual. I wonder if he rehearses that pace? Chef Big Easy is poaching lobster tail to serve with his tempura-style swordfish. Actually both cheftestants are doing some kind of tempura dish. They’re also both doing some kind of pasta dish. This may be a close cook off. So far, I’m not digging Chef Symon’s plating. It looks simple and plain, and all on white dishes so far. Besh is also clean with white plates, but at least he does a bit more creative decorating with sauces.

Brown finally asks the three Iron Chefs about what they’re seeing. Bobby Flay says the two looks like they’re in good shape. Cora says something about staying strong till the end. Morimoto (and you know they had to turn on the subtitles for him) says he wants to see someone make dessert. Brown says he’s glad no one fired up the ice cream machine.

It’s not exactly ice cream, but Besh jumps into action to make a dessert dish—his seventh dish for the night. You know, both cheftestants only needed to make five dishes but Symon made six and Besh is now working on his seventh. It’s quality, guys, not quantity.

Besh’s team busts out some pastry dough that Brown says is like phyllo, but not really. So not really our friend phyllo but a distant cousin, brik. See? We learn so much on Iron Chef. Chef Besh is wrapping some swordfish concoction with marscapone cheese and vanilla and then deep-frying it.

Time’s up. Symon finishes a bit before Besh, who’s probably wondering about now whether it was a good move to make dessert in less than 10 minutes and using swordfish.

Judgment time. But Brown says there’s a twist from the Chairman. Instead of rolling out curmudgeon Jeffrey Steingarten, the judging will be done by the current three Iron Chefs. (Wow, what a slap to the face of the series’ judging panel who spent all those weeks eating and commenting. They get dressed up for the finale only to be told they won’t do the final analysis. I hope they at least get dinner.)

Brown throws it to the Chairman, who starts with the man in black, Chef Symon. Here’s his menu and comments from the Iron Chefs:

First course: Marinated swordfish with soy, sesame and yuzu, cooked sous vide style with lamb’s tongue underneath. He uses the old trick of loosening up the judges with a cocktail. Flay thinks the cocktail paired nicely with the fish but wondered about the tongue. Symon says he likes a bit of gaminess with his fish. Morimoto also thinks it’s a good start.

Second course: Olive oil poached sword fish, sliced thinly with cucumber and olives. Cat Cora thinks it looks like an Iron Chef dish but it didn’t have enough seasoning. Flay says it’s light to eat and has a lot of finesse.

Third course: Swordfish ravioli in truffle butter sauce. Cora thought the mousse inside the ravioli was more gritty than creamy. Morimoto says the fish has a mild flavor so he expects a lot more punch in the dishes from here on after the bland start from Symon.

Fourth course: Spice-roasted swordfish over roasted pineapple with pineapple salsa and a coconut and ancho chili sauce. Flay thought it was really balanced. Cora says it rocks. Morimoto does this weird thing with punches, doing these little pounding with his hands and saying in a quiet tone: “punch, punch, punch, punch, punch.” Everyone laughs. That Morimoto, what a joker. (Translation: Iron Chef Morimoto feels Chef Symon is slowly building in his flavor profile for his courses, getting stronger and stronger with each dish. Or like he said, “punch, punch, punch, punch, punch.”)

Fifth course: Crispy swordfish on a classic Greek sauce (I couldn’t understand the name; where’s the subtitles?!) topped with micro beets and greens. Cora felt it was bland.

Sixth course: Braised swordfish collar and chorizo stuffed into a clam paired with grilled swordfish. Bobby Flay does an “Oh. My. Gawd.” And Cora says “amazing.” Morimoto says “punch.” Looks like a home run for Symon on his last course.

Chef Besh presents his dishes:

First course: Seared and smoked swordfish. The swordfish smoked with applewood is under this cute little glass dome. It’s served with a corn blini and marscapone cheese topped with kettle fish roe from Louisiana. Besh also lubricates the judges with a glass of Louisiana wine. Flay says the fish was nicely smoked. Cora thought it was clever and delicate.

Second course: Besh calls this his swordfish crunchy roll—lobster meat wrapped with marinated swordfish served over buttermilk dressing. Bobby Flay says the dish is a trapping of an Iron Chef where you have so many ideas you want to execute but then the dish lacks focus. Ouch. Morimoto agrees, saying the swordfish has no flavor so it was overwhelmed when paired with the lobster.

Third course: Swordfish brandade agnolotti (this is Besh’s pasta dish). Cora says using the cheek was a bonus, and she liked the basil foam over the pasta. Morimoto likes it and calls it a success.

Fourth course: Breaded Swordfish. Besh ran white bread through the pasta machine to make thin slices, then baked with swordfish and covered it with hollandaise sauce. Flay says he likes all the ingredients, but he wanted something to cut through the richness—maybe heat or citrus? Cora agrees it needed something to jazz it up.

Fifth course: Chef Besh says this should have the pizzazz the judges have been waiting for (or at least he hopes)—blackened swordfish and shrimp in a broth made from fish head. Cora and Flay don’t think the shrimp was necessary. Morimoto is unusually quiet with his subtitles.

Sixth course: Swordfish piccata. Treating the fish like meat, he served it almost done with sautéed chanterelle mushrooms and a cauliflower puree. Hmm, doesn’t look good for Chef Big Easy. The judges have very little to say that’s effusive.

Seventh course: Swordfish dessert made with swordfish cream wrapped in brik pastry served with a reduced berry sauce. Flay says he couldn’t tell swordfish was in it, but he applauds the effort. Cora says she doesn’t taste the swordfish, and the secret ingredient needed to come out, or Besh shouldn’t have attempted it. Morimoto says “I like your challenging spirit.”

Besh says in his interview that the seventh dish was “do or die” for him. Either he’ll get extra credit for whipping it up, or he’d done himself in. We’ll find out after the break.

Commercials. California has a new commercial with Rob Lowe and a cast of other celebrities. Boy, did Maria Shriver’s hair get big.

This is the part of the show where they step away from the Iron Chef format. We’d usually get the announcement of the winner after the tasting, but instead we get a panel discussion like they have at those independent film festivals where you meet the stars. Brown is front and center and he’s flanked by the three series judges and the three Iron Chefs.

Brown asks the series judges to review how the two finalists did and really, at this point, do we really care? Let’s just find out if that Toronto Sun newspaper article spilled the beans and it’s true one of the two finalists has already filmed his new Iron Chef America episode? (Spoiler in the link, but really, you’ll find out in a few minutes below.)

Everyone agrees that Besh was slow and steady in this competition, while Symon had a shaky start but rose to the top with some surprising challenges. Knowlton just called Besh confident and somewhat “cocky.” Um, Andrew. Kettle. Black?

Brown then asks the Iron Chefs what they want to see in their new colleague, and Flay says he wants someone who can spin on his heals (it’s like Dancing With The Stars) and Cora says she wants a visualist (is that even a word?) who will interact with the audience while cooking. Morimoto says he agrees 100 percent with what Flay and Cora said. Everyone just laughs and laughs. Who knew Morimoto could be such a card?

Also, who knew Morimoto could draw? When Brown asks him who he’s voting for, Morimoto shows his decision-making process with these mini sketches of the dishes each judge presented. Then he starts talking about comparisons and scoring and it’s all a confused mess. The Iron Chefs speak briefly about whether it was a smart strategy to do a dessert at the last-minute. While some gave Chef Besh credit for taking a risk, Flay wonders if it was a smart risk to take when it’s the lasting flavor in the judges’ mouths? You see where I’m going with this, dontcha?

Instead of the typical Iron Chef scoring on taste, originality and plating, Brown just asks all the judges to write the name of who they think should be the next Iron Chef. This is just like grade school when you voted for who you wanted to be hall monitor. (I was always elected because I was such a nerd, but now I’m paying for it because I never hung out with the cool kids.)

Commercials. Did you notice Food TV has more commercials for itself than other advertisers? Or maybe that Ritz commercial with Rachel Ray is confusing me.

The Chairman is at his position, talking about the long road and hard challenges faced by the two cheftestants. Chef Besh looks worried; Chef Symon looks stern. Then in dramatic form (would we expect any less?), the Chairman unveils a big portrait under this red cloth and we get blinded by the spotlight shining off Symon’s head. Screams from the audience, and hugs all around. Oh well, so my favorite didn’t win as I predicted, but he came pretty close. And although I knew nothing about Symon before this show, I’ve learned that he’s gutsy, is a quick study, and is not a mechanic. He has his Iron Chef pose down so I’m sure he’ll do well as the latest chef to join celebritydom.

POSTSCRIPT: So the gossip on the blogosphere is that the vote for The Next Iron Chef was 4 to 2 in favor of Chef Symon, and the word is both Donatella and Knowlton voted for Besh while the three Iron Chefs and Ruhlman voted for Symon. Knowlton has some interesting insights about the final meals (scroll down to the Nov. 12 entry), which he thinks Besh succeeded. You'd think that more weight would be given to the final episode since this challenge of all the challenges in the series best reflect what happens in kitchen stadium. Big duh.


Anonymous said...

My favorite to win was Besh too, just seemed the writing was on the wall during the whole show. I wish they could have made both an Iron Chef...but was Besh too...normal? I.E. was Symon more of an entertainer than Besh?

And as for the Chairman, I can't watch an Iron Chef show now without screaming at the TV "Chairman you are a Wraith Worshiper!" (sorry, blame Mark Dacascos's turn on Stargate Atlantis a few weeks ago).

Single Guy Ben said...

Mrs. L, I think you're right. Besh was too normal and maybe people wouldn't be entertained. I also think maybe the Food Network producers might think French cooking is too alienating to the home viewers instead of the middle America cooking of Symon. I hate it when producers don't give their audience enough credit.

As for the Chairman, I don't think I can watch Stargate and see him doing something else! :)

NotSoccer Mom said...

i like besh too. his calmness is so comforting.