Extremism in defense of tastiness is no vice.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Allez cuisine!

The premiere of Next Iron Chef brought some wildly different results for my ponies, John Besh and odds-on favorite Traci des Jardins. While Chef Besh earned top accolades for his chocolate catfish truffles, Chef des Jardins was the first to be eliminated, vanquished by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, overwrought metaphor, and a salmon roe dessert salad.

The challenges were good ones, difficult without being impossible, and particularly suited to the specific demands placed on an Iron Chef versus those of being a successful executive chef and restaurateur. One notes that the "your purveyor didn't get you that shipment of escarole, your sous chef is screwing a waitress in the walk-in, and, oh yeah, the toilet's overflowing" challenge was appropriately, if unfortunately, absent.

The prep challenge was a good test of basic skills, and des Jardins said what I'm sure most of the chefs were thinking: I hope I can still do this stuff. And for the most part, they could. Besh was impressive, and it was hard not to be caught up in Morou's enthusiasm. Where a Food Network talking head would have panicked, he did the chefly thing and cooked on, bleeding in his food all the while. This, of course, begs the question: when's the pay per view "Sandra Lee, Rachael Ray, and Ingrid Hoffmann Play With Sharp Knives" special?

The second challenge was a good idea that tested a format specific skill while giving a knowing wink to longtime fans. Now, normally I would be among the first to call bullshit on a zany protein pastry challenge--as most chefs will be sure to tell you, they aren't p√Ętissiers. But unlike an ordinary, carbon-based chef, Iron Chefs are built on sterner stuff: cured plum jelly with umeboshi, turkey and bourbon sorbet, swallow's nest ice cream. A few of the chefs embraced their ferrous aspirations. Besh, of course, excelled with a difficult ingredient that was indicative of his New Orleans style. Better yet, offal aficionado Chris Cosentino used his advantage to select -- oh baby -- tripe. Impressively, his fried honeycomb tripe panzanella actually sounded pretty good. (If this whole Iron Chef gig doesn't work out, maybe Cosentino will follow in Tyler Florence's steps. I expect to see that panzanella at Cheesecake Factory or TGI Friday's next spring.)

Chef des Jardins shouldn't feel too bad. Iron Chef Hiroyuki Sakai was notoriously foiled by his trout ice cream, and her own victory over Iron Chef Mario Batali came in no small part due to his woefully misguided parfait of shrimp remoulade. Truly the savory dessert is the hobgoblin of many a humbled Kitchen Stadium contestant.

I did take minor issue with the fact that the kitchen seemed unprepared for the chefs -- while succeeding as a chef demands the ability to adapt to adverse situations, there were enough artificial roadblocks in place that Chef Symon shouldn't have had to deal with a forty degree freezer midway through a competition. Unlike the appropriately weird restrictions of the task, an Iron Chef shouldn't have to deal with a nonfunctional work environment.

Altogether, I found the program entertaining, even if this was due in part to the skill disparity of the contestants here and those on The Next Food Network Star. As expected, there was a lot of talent on display, and it was fun to imagine Rory struggling to puzzle her way through opening an oyster or coconut. It was also enjoyable to see the ostentatious presentation so beloved to Iron Chef fans in the introductory flourishes of the Chairman. On the other hand, that same pageantry felt a bit peculiar within the context of what was, aside from the caliber of contestant, a fairly typical cooking competition. And indeed, the fact that Food Network essentially duplicated Top Chef's model of a quick test followed by an elimination challenge was itself disappointing. Worst of all, though, there wasn't enough focus on the food. Granted, there's only so much that can be done in a limited time frame with eight contestants, but I'd prefer more emphasis on the dishes and less on coconut technique; that virtually no time was given to the contestants' free form desserts is real pity.

On the competitive front, it was sad to see Traci go so early, but of course there's no Colombe or Mikey to throw into the grinder on this program. It was also good to see Ruhlman chew out his Cleveland homeboy Mike Symon for something that only he would know. Sanchez might not be long for the program, either; the editors, at least, would have us believe he's buckling. On the positive side, Jill Davie cooks well and has real charisma--the fact that she said (and I gratuitously paraphrase) "screw Michelin stars; it's every cook's dream to become an Iron Chef" without it sounding entirely laughable is some testament to her charm. Finally, it's going to be hard not to fall in love with Cosentino -- I know he's going to take the tripe for his dessert, but I still can't help cheer the audacity when he does.

$10.99 offal menu, Friday's. Don't let Olive Garden beat you to it.

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