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The ability of many Americans to consume an entire meal while watching a movie equally amuses and frightens me. Whenever I head to the movie theater, I almost inevitably find myself seated next to someone slavering over a tray of cheesy nachos larger than a football field or thrusting their hands deep into a tub of popcorn only a tiny bit smaller than my first car.
Once they have finished with the savory element of their repast, they usually move on to dessert and the carefully crafted dialogue of many a great film (and some pretty dreadful ones, too) is drowned out by the rustle of wrappers or the sound of hard candy cracking under firm tooth pressure. Most of these “treats” are neither good nor good for you, and when Alton Brown informed the judges of the Chairman’s latest challenge, I suspect we rolled our eyes as much as the eight remaining chefs did.
It speaks volumes to the quality of this year’s roster for The Next Iron Chef that not only were most of the chefs able to meet the Chairman’s Challenge to show their “Ingenuity” head-on, they also fashioned some staggeringly good dishes from ingredients that would have made lesser chefs run a mile in the opposite direction.
Chef Falkner had been firmly in the middle of the pack in the first two challenges, but this test really gave her a chance to display not only her skill at making desserts, but also to remind us that she has considerable savory chops as well. Her malt ball-battered fish and chips had all the judges purring in pleasure and, when added to a dessert that was unsurprisingly excellent, it was enough to make her our clear winner.
We had challenged Chef Burrell to stop playing it safe and she took us at our word, presenting us with a truly sensational roast quail, where the secret ingredient was used in the stuffing. A root beer float may have been less ingenious, but it was equally delicious. One taste had Iron Chef Symon leaning across and whispering to Judy Joo and myself that “she’s definitely in the game.”
Chefs Samuelsson, Zakarian, Guarnaschelli and Chiarello filled out the middle of the pack. All had terrific dishes, but all had flops. Judy Joo picked up immediately on the fact that Chef Guarnaschelli’s ice cream had split, while Chef Chiarello had underestimated the effect of gelatin in Gummy Bears, leaving him with a dense and unpleasant Panna Cotta. That was a great shame, as his first course of lamb chops remains in my top 10 sublime dishes of the entire competition.
People often say that nice guys finish last. In this case, it was two of the nicest guys in the competition. Chef MacMillan totally missed the point of the challenge by trying to re-create the flavors of rather than using sour candy in his first dish. His second dish was deemed too sweet by Iron Chef Symon and he took his place in the bottom two.
While Chef Hughes prepared a perfectly cooked “popcorn” shrimp, he presented it on a salad that still had me picking traces of popcorn from my teeth for the next few days. His vanilla popcorn “risotto” was better, but not by enough to save him landing in the bottom two. Sometimes it is hard to pick winners and losers, but there was no argument among us that these two chefs would have to face off in the Secret Ingredient Showdown to see who remained in the competition.
Tofu is a pretty tough ingredient for any chef to shine with and, unsurprisingly, both combatants went down the Asian route for their single dish. While Chef Hughes’ silken tofu, with a crisp outer coating and soft, melting insides, was delicious, it sat in a “one-size-fits-all” dipping sauce that overpowered the main ingredient.
Although Asian cuisine is Chef MacMillan’s great love, his dish did not go without criticism either, particularly as he took the risk of presenting us with a trio of bite-sized morsels. I thought he used different types of tofu in three very different ways without any major flaws. My colleagues, however, did think that he had simply thrown too many ingredients at us and marked him down accordingly.
It was by no means certain who would survive. However, after much deliberation, it was Chef Hughes to whom Alton said “au revoir,” and Chef MacMillan who breathed a huge sigh of relief as he returned to the kitchen.