Food Network competition shows come in two flavors. There are dignified-ish, self-serious tests of professional chefs' mettle or bubbly Midwesterners' star quality (Iron Chef, The Next Food Network Star) and then there are horrifying-looking food gauntlets that mix Survivor with the sneers of slightly better known reality figures (Chopped, Extreme Chef). The Next Iron Chef neatly straddles those two categories: Just enough stern lectures from Alton Brown about technique mixed in with a heaping serving of frantic, panic attack inducing competitions that involve butchering a warthog on ice skates or something.
Too much professionalism can kill a reality show. The problem with the first season of Top Chef Masters was that chefs that reach the top of their game without the aid of reality programs know how to keep their cool under pressure. It makes for delicious food, reasonable work environments, and pretty boring TV. That was my fear with this season of The Next Iron Chef, which gathered together some of the greatest hits from various other Food Network franchises and lumped them together into a sort of intra-network Super Bowl, only one where everyone has fish knives and knows what a Barigoule is.
Luckily, tonight's premiere escaped drabness, though the constant insistence on just how important and hard it is to be an Iron Chef was more wearying than usual. The collection of personalities on display ranged from the Top Chef Master-seasoned, stalwart Michael Chiarello, to the Einstein-haired schoolmistress-type Anne Burrell, to the beefy, Swingers slang-wielding Beau MacMillan, a.k.a. Guy Fieri light. The odd one in the mix was Spike Mendelsohn, who has migrated to the Food Network camp after his unsuccessful stint on Top Chef All-Stars. By this time, Spike is a pro at gaming reality game shows, and he proved it by hogging the confession cam and trying to scheme his way into a successful pairing in the team challenge right out of the gate.
Spike paired up the teams, choosing Marcus Samuelsson as his comrade in arms while strategically pairing up chefs whom he thought would clash. The teams were dropped off into "the wilderness" and tasked with building a fire and breaking down an entire pig to make two delicious porky meals. This, apparently, is all about resourcefulness, which is a word the contestants repeated more than a troop of boy scouts. Not having a pantry and kitchen tools is obviously a hardship for a professional chef, but the amount of fuss some of the contestants made out of it made it seem like they were having to source blueberries on a tundra to make the meal. Seeing Alex Guarnaschelli, who basically never smiles when judging Chopped, freak out about a contest instead of blithely commenting about the salt content in a dish some poor sucker hastily assembled out of crackers and sunchokes was pretty satisfying.
In at least in one instance, Spike's machinations backfired immediately. The odd couple team of Beau MacMillan and Geoffrey Zakarian (professor and frat dude) turned out some of the most delicious looking food of the night. Spike and Marcus, on the other hand, decided to do a stew with lake water (which I hope they drained? and filtered? It was unclear). The weirdest entry of the night was Chuck Hughes and Michael Chiarello's mushroom and pork brain stuffing. Judge Judy Joo reminded everyone that she expected foodgasms (ugh) and then proclaimed everyone's food slightly less up to caliber than she expected. (Was it just me, or do all of the judges have hard-to-place foreign accents? Even Michael Symon's Yankee inflection seemed emphatically odd.) Zakarian and MacMillan won the group, while Marcus and Spike ended up in the bottom. Which meant it was time for a good old-fashioned chef-off!
Seeing contestants try to take the weird tropes of reality contests with a straight face is part of the fun, so seeing Marcus Samuelsson, a chef of pretty high caliber, try to stay blank faced while the Chairman did his odd speech was greatly entertaining. The secret ingredient choices were in two boxes: one contained scallops (which the chefs got) and the other, canned tuna, to which the rest of the audience expressed actual gasps of horror. Despite his assurances that he was going to deliver "a knockout punch in the face of scallopness," Spike's sofrito couldn't quite overtake Samuelsson's soup-and-scallop porchetta duo. Alas, Spike will not be the Next Iron Chef. But like the reality show vagrant he is, it surely won't be long before he's settled, hermit crab like, into another cooking competition franchise.
- Anne Burrell holding up a pork cheek and saying "I'm feeling cheeky!" is the exact point in which my Dad's sense of humor merged with haute cuisine.
- "I come from England where all the pork skin is crispy." Sure, Robert Irvine. And the roofs are made of lollipops! And the streets are paved with Monopoly money!