By Lori Acken
And so it has begun. Outside in a field. By a pile of wood, a couple’a campfires, a lake so pure one of the chefs will make a sauce of it, and random crates and piles of fruits and veggies stacked up on hay bales.
Oh, and also a slew of slain pigs on ice.
OK, actually it really began in hallowed Kitchen Stadium, where the chairman appears all buggy-eyed and choppy-hands on a gigantic screen before the contestants. Alton explains the new rules— Chairman’s Challenge first, losers’ shoot-out second — ramped up to test the mettle of the masters. Then the chefs draw matches.
Nope, we’re not looking for the short stick. We’re looking for the red head.
Top Chef superego Spike Mendelsohn has it.
The first challenge is a partner challenge, so Spike gets to choose himself a partner and then pair up all the other chefs however he pleases. Since we’ve already heard Mr. Mendelsohn say he has all of Marcus Samuelsson’s cookbook’s, it’s no surprise he chooses the Top Chef Master and Chopped judge for his partner. “I just want to keep my strongest competitor as close as possible to me,” he says. Behold, team Sparcus. Or Sohn-sson. I can’t decide.
The he matches legendary Food Network sparring partners Anne Burrell and Robert Irvine. Ms. Burrell stabs herself in the chin with her finger and growls, “Good God. Again?” Irvine smiles serenely. Team Burr-Vine is born.
Next up — Top Chef contestant Elizabeth Falkner paired with Chopped‘s Alex Guarnaschelli, because, says Spike, one’s a pastry chef (Elizabeth) and the other has a great French background (Alex), so he’d like to see them butt heads a little bit. I’ve eaten some really great french pastry, so I don’t get this, but I’m not too worried about it … because the way Ms. Guarnaschelli cooly regards her partner like she’s a butterfly that momentarily blew by seems to indicate that Team Guarnaschelli (and that other girl) it is.
Next pairing — the Cooking Channel contingent, Chuck Hughes and Michael Chiarello get matched up next, on Spike’s theory that the French (ok, French Canadian) can’t get along with anybody, including pastry chefs and Italians. Whatever works, Spike. We have Team ChiaChuck.
Then, for sport — and because they’re the only guys left — super-elegant Geoffrey Zakarian, who pronounces himself “the Monsignor” of the competition, and bold and brawny Beau MacMillan shall compete as my newly christened Team ZakMac.
Alton tells the teams that the Chairman commands them to demonstrate Resourcefulness. Using only heat and meat. In “the middle of nowhere.” Which brings us back to the field and the lake and the wood and the fire pits. Irvine, the Former Dinner Impossible star, throws his hands in the air and thanks the Lord. “I am home!” he exults. Alex forsees a lot of drama. As long as Alex is on the show, I foresee a lot of drama, too. It’s her wheelhouse.
Alton appears, wearing appropriate middle-of-nowhere attire — a natty safari jacket, infinity scarf and aviator-style shades. Let the fire-making and pig-butchering begin.
Team Burrvine gets right to it, Anne ably breaking down the pig while Robert ably brings up the fire. On their menu: braised pork belly and pork cheeks. Also, porchetta.
Over at team Sparcus Sohn-sson, Spike suggests a really porky soup. Marcus amends it to stew. Stew made with “the real pure” water from the lake that does not look real pure at all. I watch for fire hot enough to boil lake creature bath water into edible sauce. For dish number two, they decide on ribs … even though their porcine partner is hardly the most robust of the lot. I love ribs. I’m game.
Team Guarnaschelli (and that other girl) has decided to just cook up every ounce of the damned pig and see what turns out the best. Ears. Tail. Kidneys. Tongue. The whole shooting match. So dish number one will be an appetizer of fancied up pork offal, followed by the ever-popular pork belly and pork leg. For those of us accustomed to her being downright Queen Buddha-like on Chopped, what happens next is flummoxing — Alex begins to devolve into a pile of nerves, burning her pig leg, blinking in the sunlight, announcing she doesn’t feel good. Elizabeth Falkner rises up to become cheerleader, dish fixer, done-getter. I rename the duo Team Elizamess.
Over at Team ChiaChuck, they’re cooking up a salad of roasted beets and pigs cheeks and ears. Also a mushroom duxelle stuffing that they’re going to jazz up with some pigs brain. And sure enough, there’s Chef Chiarello digging his knife right into a pig head complete with intact eyeball. Now Alex isn’t the only one having herself a little anxiety attack.
Lastly ZakMac is the very model of efficiency, dolling up pork shoulder and hindquarters with vegetables, whipping up something called a Barigoule. You’d barely know they were cooking in the middle of nowhere, for all their calm and components.
Burr-Vine is a machine, coming up with earthy side dish after side dish as their pork parts cook. Sohn-sson is struggling with blandness in Field Of No Salt And Pepper. Everyone is realizing that cooking over a windy fire is an iffy proposition, heat-wise. Except maybe Geoffrey, who is cooly slicing up a pickled kidney in the sunshine while Beau whips up a barbecue sauce of rhubarb and raspberries and outdoorsy magic.
Alex thinks they don’t have enough pig parts. Elizabeth starts enumerating pig parts. Buck up, little Guarnaschelli, and throw those ears in a pan.
Chiarello spotted some wild mustard and hibiscus out in the field and makes a run for impromptu salad parts. Chuck is tickled that his partner grew up on a California farm and knows what you can pull out of the wilderness and not kill the judges for your effort.
Meanwhile, to thank Elizabeth for keeping calm and soldiering on in the face of Alex’ seriously unproductive panic attacks, Alex informs Elizabeth that she doesn’t like her plating style. My husband suggests she try replating on Alex’ head. This will get nothing served, I tell him, except perhaps justice. We wonder how much is editing.
And here are the judges. Next Iron Chef victor Numero Uno, Michael Symon who says that whomever makes the tastiest food will always get his vote. Judy Joo, American food writer and chef, who is representing America on Iron Chef U.K. … and has clearly been rehearsing the line, “I expect to have no fewer than 12 food-gasms during this competition” for ages. “Nice!” loud-whispers MacMillian. Alton turns crimson — or it could be the long day in the hot sun. The final judge, food critic Simon Mujumdar, is somber enough to bring everything back to serious. Taste is everything he says. If you wouldn’t send a dish out at your restaurant, don’t send it out to the judges.
Burr-Vine is judged first. Symon likes it all. Foodgasm likes the sweet potato best. Simon sez the pork isn’t great but the sides are exemplary.
Sparcus Sohn-sson is next. Simon is wishing for crunch in the stew. Symon is wishing for acid. Foodgasm calls the ribs anorexic. Simon opines that they are supermodel ribs — but the glaze that clung to whatever shreds of flesh were there is delightful. Symon says the eating of the ribs was aggravating.
Predictably, ZakMac kills it. All three judges are dazzled.
ChiaChuck is up. Symon likes his pig-ear salad. Judy Joo likes it, too. Simon looks off into the distance and sniffs that he’d like more pig ears if it’s going to be called a pig ear salad. Simon also thinks his pork chop is too rare. But overall, says he, the resourcefulness is there, so that’s good.
Alex is nervous. Really nervous. But she does all the talking anyway. Symon calls their pig-four-ways the best dish of the day. Foodgasm likes their ambition, but we don’t see her eat any pig extras at all. Simon … well, Simon is clearly going to be the Simon Cowell of this entire adventure.
And so we move into Kitchen Stadium for final judgement. “Nobody wants to be the first to go home,” says Alex. “Are you going to get a bowl of popcorn and sit down and watch yourself on TV for one episode?”
Not if you’re ZakMac and ChiaChuck, both of which are sent to safety straightaway — ZakMac named the official victor of the Chairman’s Challenge. Beau wants to buy Geoffrey a big cigar and some bourbon and give him a big man hug.
Burr-Vine is shuttled to safety next.
Down to Sparcus Sohn-sson and … Guarn… Eliza… oh, for heaven sake, the two ladies…
… who survive. Elizabeth is humbled and grateful. Alex sees roses and rainbows and unicorns. Honest. That what she says.
And now, oh irony of irony, Spike must face his hero and toughest competition in Battle Scallop (treat), which narrowly missed being Battle Canned Tuna (trick) by a good guess on his behalf. The rest of the Super Chefs get to stick around and cheer the men on.
Alex feels likes she’s in a Roman theater, “watching gladiators duke it out.”
Spike is making Scallop Soffrito.
Marcus seems to be going back down the soup path, but no one can figure it out exactly.
Spike adds liquid Nitrogen to scallop roe and shaves it.
Chuck says he feels like going to cry, he’s not even kidding.
Spike wishes the “peanut gallery” had muzzles.
He faces the judges first. They’re complementary. Even Simon.
Marcus presents scallop corn miso soup with a seared scallop with porcini mushroom. Everyone likes the food, but Simon doesn’t like the way the seared scallop slides around in the sauce on his plate. Fork, Simon. Fork.
The judges are torn, and I honestly have no flying idea who they’re going to boot, but I’m hard-pressed to believe Marcus Samuelsson is the first one off the show. Unless he has another show deal that starts filming soon.
He does not. Or if he does, he’s going to have to find away to squeeze some more NIC in first. Because he wins Battle Scallop and stays to cook another day.
Alton offers Spike one more reminder that he set his own fate in motion with the flick of a red-headed match.
And The Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs serves up a spectacular start.
Next week: “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”
The chefs head to Petco Park in San Diego to take on food related to America’s favorite pastime: baseball. They meet Alton and former Cy Young winner Randy Jones at home plate, where the chefs are challenged to transform classic ballpark favorites into Iron Chef cuisine. With only minutes to grab ingredients from food carts, concession stands and the Petco Park kitchens, the chefs attempt to hit a gustatory grand slam in just one hour. The two contestants who strike out with the judges must go into extra innings, making magic out of peanuts, a ballpark staple. One chef will hit a home run; the other is ejected from the competition.