Once upon a time, Food Network’s crème de la crème show was Iron Chef: America. After three years away, the original cooking competition show has come back.
Food Network never actually canceled Iron Chef: America or the reality competition spin-off, The Next Iron Chef. They simply never cast the latter’s sixth season, and they let the former peter out in a slow decline of “specials” that never quite cohered into a final season. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t call this a comeback. Iron Chef may have been here for years, but it was taken down, and hard at the beginning of this decade by upstarts like Chopped, Worst Cooks In America, Guy’s Grocery Games and Cutthroat Kitchen. After 30 years, the format had become slow and obsolete.
The reality spin-off, Next Iron Chef, was still popular. It had originally been the injection of fresh blood the show had needed in 2007 was now a millstone, producing Iron Chefs faster than the show could find challengers for them in later seasons. But how could you have one without the other? Enter Food Network’s solution: Iron Chef: Gauntlet.
The first, and biggest change is that Alton Brown, who was the original commentator for ICA, and has slowly taken over the Chairman’s position through the Next Iron Chef seasons is now officially promoted. (Original Chairman Mark Dacascos has moved on to action villain roles on network TV and films.) He has seven contenders who we will whittle down to a winner in six weeks. That winner will then face the three chefs that Food Network hopes we consider the most memorable of the Iron Chefs over the decades: Bobby Flay, Masaharu Morimoto and Michael Symon.
Our seven challengers, like on the first season of Next Iron Chef, are all mostly unknown faces to the network: Jason Dady, Jonathon Sawyer, Michael Gulotta, Nyesha Arrington, Sarah Grueneberg, Shota Nakajima and Stephanie Izard. Whether any of them, like Aarón Sanchez and Michael Symon before them, will go on to be network staples even if they lose, remains to be seen. Let’s run down the dishes we saw them make tonight, and how they did.
Tonight’s Chairman’s Challenge had a smorgasbord of ingredients on the altar, all of which are “wild”: wild mushroom, wild elk, wild rabbit, wild asparagus, etc. Chefs had 30 minutes to make their dish.
- Jason Dady Porcini Crusted Elk Loin: Alton tried to bait him about his seasoning, but he’d made a well seasoned and gamey dish.
- Michael Gulotta Buttermilk Fried Quail in Red Currant Vindaloo Sauce: Brown calls it the best fried Quail he’s ever had. He says the sauce starts to get in the way though.
- Nyesha Arrington Roast Squab with Salsify Puree: Brown is not happy with the medium rareness of the Squab. He says the best thing on the plate is her purée.
- Sarah Grueneberg Forest Rabbit with Bacon and Rabbit Sausage: He loves her rabbit, but says everything else is mushed up. He also dings her for the bacon which is not found in the wild.
- Jonathon Sawyer Sicilian Style Hunter’s Pasta with Squab: Brown loves the mushrooms and the garlic and squab. He feels it needs a brighter finish and things the wine is bullying out the other flavors.
- Stephanie Izard Duck Tartar with Gochujang Mayonnaise: Brown loves the plating, but he thinks the current should have been in the tartar, because separated it detracted.
- Shota Nakajima Grilled Quail with Mushrooms: Brown calls it the best and cleanest plating here, but the dish itself is “awfully salty.”
Chef Izard is named the winning dish for her tartar, calling it the most accessible plate of “wild” food. She is called up to the front, along with Chef Grueneberg who’s Alton Brown deems “the least successful” of the seven.
But Izard is not competing against Grueneberg. She gets to choose who will join Grueneberg in the Secret Ingredient Showdown. It’s a smart twist. Brown says this will happen every week, giving the chefs an added incentive to win. They can then condemn someone in the competition to the bottom who they consider a threat. Izard uses the industry’s sexism to dictate her choice, and pits the only other woman in the room against Grueneberg, making it a battle against Chef Arrington.
Our Secret Ingredient Showdown is Battle Lobster, with an altar full of live sea bugs hanging out on ice. Each chef will make three dishes to present to the judges featuring the different types available. During the battle we learn that Arrington actually sou chef’d in an Iron Chef battle back in 2012, and while Grueneberg may never have been to Kitchen Stadium, she has competed and won on Beat Bobby Flay, which as been the closest thing to Iron Chef on Food Network these last three years.
The judges for this Showdown are Season 4 Next Iron Chef winner Geoffrey Zakarian and Donatella Arpaia (now Arpaia-Stewart), who has been a judge on Iron Chef America, and was a series judges on The Next Iron Chef.
Sarah Grueneberg Spiny Lobster Aguachile/Turmeric Black Pepper Pasta with Spiny Lobster/Butter Poached Lobster with Charred Eggplant Puree Donatella and Zakarian love the spice on the Aguachile, though they do say it creeps up to the edge of “too spicy.” As for the pasta, they are impressed how she used non-Italian spicy and made it feel Italian, though Zakarian argues it’s a pasta dish, not a lobster dish. For her closing dish, the complaint is that the dish is “sleeping with each other” rather than flavored that are properly married.
Nyesha Arrington Lobster Boudin Wrapped in Swiss Chard in Lobster Broth/Spiny Lobster Coconut Nage/Spanish-Style Maine Lobster with Chorizo & Corn Puree Donatella is in love with her presentation and is very impressed with the first dish. Zakarian is not. The second dish Zakarian likes better, and says he likes the “island feel” of it. Donatella is a coconut freak, so of course she loves this. As for the last dish, Donatella is impressed how the overpowering flavor work well together. Both she and Zakarian think it’s a little sweet, and it could have used a bit of acid to cut through.
Each judge can award up to 20 points to each competitor. Like on Iron Chef America, the categories are taste, appearance and creativity. As Alton breaks it down: Ten for flavor, Five for plating and Five for “originality”.
The final score:
- Grueneberg: 29 (14, 7, 8)
- Arrington: 27 (12, 8, 7)
Izard’s choice is out, and Grueneberg gets to cook another day. An interesting outcome indeed.
Next week: “Nose to Tail” I can’t wait.