I have only been to a handful of ballgames during my short time living in the U.S. So, I was pretty certain, as we strolled into Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres, that I would be the person present who knew the least about ballpark food.
I was wrong.
The Chairman’s Challenge for the nine remaining super chefs was one of transformation. He asked each of them to take classic ballpark dishes and re-create them in a Kitchen Stadium-worthy manner. It was no easy task, and the fact that each chef approached the challenge in very different ways showed that some of them, thankfully, knew even less about ballpark food than their British judge.
I may be from the wrong side of the pond, but even I can recognize ballpark perfection when I see it. Chef Guarnaschelli was first up, and her duo of a sausage and peppers sandwich followed by lemon sherbet had each of the three judges and Alton Brown making noises that should normally be heard coming from the honeymoon suite . As she returned to her place, I muttered to the other judges, “They are going to have to work hard to beat that,” and it definitely proved to be the case.
Some chefs fared better than others. Chef Samuelsson came closest in my estimation, and his bite-sized pork sandwich was breathtakingly tasty. However, he once again took the risk of producing more dishes than he had been asked. Although his skill saw him through this time, he was warned in no uncertain terms that this trend of oversupplying food would begin to annoy the judges sooner rather than later.
In the middle of the pack were Chefs Falkner, MacMillan, Hughes and Burrell. All of them produced one dish that wowed us, as well as one that underwhelmed. They would all survive to cook another day, but would certainly need to up their game if they wanted to progress in the competition.
That left Chefs Chiarello, Zakarian and Irvine staring into the abyss of the Secret Ingredient Showdown. I marked Chef Zakarian down for simply ignoring the Chairman’s Challenge. But, I had to agree with my two colleagues that ballpark food or not, his dishes tasted astonishingly good. He definitely needed admonishing, but we could not send him home just yet.
So it was that Chef Chiarello and Chef Irvine stood in front of Alton Brown waiting to hear what ingredient stood between them and elimination. I am pretty certain that I could hear some choice Italian swear words when Mr. B announced that they would have to prepare one dish with peanuts to stay in the competition.
As Chef Chiarello declared, both chefs “went at it like warriors” and, as the judges suspected, both prepared dishes that showed their immense creativity and skill to full effect. Chef Irvine definitely used peanuts imaginatively in his dish and also served up a perfectly cooked piece of halibut. He was, however, marked down for presenting his fish on top of a slightly sludgy peanut hummus. Chef Chiarello stayed true to his Italian heritage, replacing pine nuts with peanuts in the terrific pesto that topped his fettuccini.
It was a brave move, as indeed was attempting to make pasta in 30 minutes. The skill of the two combined was just enough to push him over the edge to safety, which meant that Robert Irvine was the second chef this season to hear the dreaded words of elimination from Alton.
Chef Irvine is a great guy and a great chef, but as he found out, once the Chairman gets involved, some tasks really are impossible. Even for him.