Forget New Moon’s team Edward versus team Jacob, Red Sox versus Yankees or even vanilla versus chocolate. In the green room, we’ve caught up with Mehta versus Garces. You can cut the tension between these last two rivals for The Next Iron Chef with a santoku knife. Not really, since grace under pressure is a quality they share, one that helps make them the only remaining contenders to become the next chef to join the roster at Kitchen Stadium.
Stovemates since the top of the season, Chef Jose Garces and Chef Jehangir Mehta boast innovative culinary styles but also a full menu of Iron Chef qualities, including fearlessness, integrity and a gut instinct for innovation. No wonder the final battle for Sunday night’s season finale (9pm/8c) is between them, a world of flavor with a jolt of competitive spirit. Check out the video above for their take on the competition, portion sizes and how the show has changed their cooking; go here if you want to see what they talked about during a live Facebook chat earlier this week.
Garces, executive chef and owner of several Philadelphia restaurants, says Chef Mehta would bring a “refreshing approach” to Kitchen Stadium. Mehta, executive chef and owner of New York City’s Graffiti restaurant, is equally gracious: “Chef Garces would be an excellent Iron Chef.”
Intensity and seriousness of purpose doesn’t mean these guys lack a sense of humor. We do a little wordplay to loosen up their chefs’ jackets. The first phrase that comes to Mehta’s mind when I mention Judge Jeffrey Steingarten is: “The best grandpa you could ask for.” (Hey, Judge, don’t hold it against him–he’s nervous, and Garces, for his part, calls you a “wildcard.”) Asked what he thinks of when he hears the word “pressure,” Garces smiles: “What I’m feeling right now!” He calls Bobby Flay “bold” and Alton Brown “cerebral”; New York City is “kinetic” and Philadelphia is “home.”
We talk food for a moment or two, as well, before they head into battle, laughing at the stinkiness of the stinky tofu encountered early on in the competition and discussing the caliber of the food on their plates as well as from their fallen competitors. (Neither has a bad thing to say about anyone, natch, but Mehta admits bigtime admiration in particular for Dominique Crenn and Brad Farmerie.) On ingredients: Chicken is a snooze to Mehta; Garces says it can be bland–or quite good. Garces wrinkles his nose at cockscombs (not big at my house, either); Mehta lights up with excitement at fennel. For my part, I’d rather whip up Mehta’s mango salad or Garces’s soft-cooked eggs with lobster and asparagus.
So no big reveal behind the scenes here at Chelsea Market, but a fun quick talk with two big kahunas and a big reminder to myself not to miss out on Sunday night. I don’t know who will win. But I do know that the judges will have almost as tough a time deciding as these masterful, gracious, delightful chefs will have when they walk into Kitchen Stadium and start cooking.