Simon Majumdar’s Top 10 Tastes of the Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs

by in Shows, December 20th, 2011

There is little doubt among the judges that Chef Zakarian (or Iron Chef Zakarian, as he should now rightfully be called) will make a mighty fine addition to the roster in Kitchen Stadium. Throughout the competition, he offered not only consistently the best technique on the show, but also some of the tastiest food placed before us and, of course, Alton Brown.

He was not alone, however. If my calculations are correct, I believe that I worked my way through nearly 100 dishes during the series and, while we were there to judge and offer criticism of their dishes, the truth is that the majority of what the chefs offered up would have received a definite thumbs up in any restaurant.

There were a few clunkers, of course, but I will get to that later. For the moment, let me just share with you the dishes I consider the very best of this season of The Next Iron Chef.

I called Chef Guarnaschelli’s Kitchen Stadium take on a humble sausage and pepper sandwich “ballpark perfection” and even now, some months later, it is still one of the dishes I dream about the most. The combination of hot dogs with other sausage meat gave intense flavor, while the addition of crunchy onion rings added necessary texture. It was smart cooking and showed her to be a real player in the competition.

An Iron Chef does not just have to cook a great plate of food — they also need to sell it to the judges in Kitchen Stadium. I suspect there are not many donkeys with their hind legs still attached anywhere near Chef Burrell’s house as she can certainly weave a mean story. She can also cook like a dream and proved it with this complex and evocative dish that brought together her small-town roots, her New York lifestyle and her love of Italy. The chicken fried chicken liver and the “everything bagel” panzanella salad were the perfect base for a moist grilled Cornish game hen. Sensational stuff.

Chef Zakarian acknowledged that the protein in his main dish of coconut crusted halibut was overcooked. In my eyes that could have been enough to send him packing. However, although we had warned chefs against making more than one dish unless it was called for, in this case it proved to be his salvation. How different the result of the whole competition could have been if he had not made a last-minute decision to create one gloriously memorable bite of halibut crudo.

All three judges liked the use of a plastic knife as a stick for Chef Hughes’ tilapia corn dog, but it was the perfect frying that really earned it a place on this list. The batter was crunchy and had puffed up around the tilapia, allowing it to steam to perfection inside its casing, while the sour cream with flecks of dill made a pleasingly sharp dipping sauce. If all ballpark food was like this, I might become a convert.

I don’t think there are too many chefs on this planet who would choose to cook with this rather grim ingredient. That Chef Falkner did so and with a ludicrously short cooking time marks her out as one of the most remarkable chefs in the country. That she made a soufflé that astonished all three judges with its flavors shows just why she made it all the way to Kitchen Stadium. The accompanying dashi sauce was just as good and definitely made sure she was our winner for the day.

Throughout his time in the competition I felt that Chef Samuelsson only really came alive when his back was against the wall and he faced elimination. This was clearly evident in the first challenge when he found himself up against his former teammate, Chef Spike Mendelsohn. He took the risky decision to make a duo and, while I thought that his presentation was a little messy, the depth of flavor he achieved in a small bowl of miso soup enriched with scallops and clams was enough to ensure he stayed in the competition.

Cinema concession candy might be the perfect accompaniment to a great movie, but it is hardly likely to be at the top of anyone’s list of fine dining ingredients. For a battle-hardened chef like Anne Burrell, however, the thought of cooking with root beer held few fears and she finally produced a dish that showed she had listened to our pleas to stop playing it safe. The sausage-stuffed quail was juicy and delicious, while the root beer-braised squash was meltingly soft with a stunning sweet and sour tang.

Few chefs in this competition cooked with as much passion as Chef Chiarello, and he showed us his “angry” side with a spicy arrabbiata sauce that topped a delicate piece of raw tuna. The use of garlic and basil provided the perfect counterpoint to the slight fattiness of the fish and had all of the judges nodding in approval.

Chef Falkner does things in the kitchen that no other chef I have encountered anywhere in the world is capable of. There are hits and misses with her food, but when it is on, it can actually change the way you think about food. The Chairman’s request to add a frozen element to our holiday meal led not to a dessert, but to a remarkable salad that combined frisee leaves with cranberry sorbet and a
gelee made from kaffir lime leaves. It was an unlikely marriage, but worked well enough for most of the judges to mark it as their best taste of the finale.

It is fitting, perhaps that my number one spot goes to this season’s champion. I suspect my comments on Chef Zakarian’s chicken in a sauce of cinnamon candy and vinegar ended up on the cutting room floor because I was simply too effusive about how good it was. The combination of spice, sweet and sour captured the finest flavors of North Africa and Southern Spain. I said at the time that asking Chef Zakarian to cook with this kind of ingredient was like asking Mozart to play a kazoo in a marching band. As I said then and will say again now, the man plays one hell of a kazoo.

Oh, and I just know you are all going to want to know what dishes were my worst tastes of the competition. Thankfully, they were very few and very far between. However, let me make this very clear. I never want to hear the words “popcorn risotto” or “gummy candy panna cotta” ever again. And, if anyone ever offers you “sardine bread pudding,” I advise you to alert the local authorities.



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Comments (58)

  1. Ann says:

    Faulkner should have won, very disappointing finale. I have no interest in watching Zacharian

  2. adm says:

    I really liked the judging this season. It was very balanced and finally a female who speaks her mind. Judy Joo was a great addition to the panel. Would love to see more of her on the network.

    • nicfan says:

      I agree. judging was really great. michael simon doesn't seem to voice any real criticism though. he tends to be neutral all the time. judy was funny and looking at her bio, very qualified too. simon majumdar is like the simon cowell of the panel.

    • darren says:

      nice to see an Asian woman for once on the Food Network.

    • tvwatch says:

      so much better than that italian woman they had before on past season! Judy was funny! Simon was funny too! great judges this season. i just finished watching it on tivo.

  3. Ken says:

    Sorry, my wife and I did not enjoy Majumdar as a judge at all. We think we know who he wanted from the start, and thankfully she didn't win.

  4. Ellie_G says:

    I just saw Simon Majumdar as a judge on the Flay/Vallodolid vs. Morimoto/Zimmern Iron Chef episode, and found myself feeling appalled at some of his feedback. At one point, he asked Chef Zimmern something along the lines of, "What makes this different now that you are here?" and I thought that it was an insensitive, incredibly disrespectful thing to say. Simon Majumdar needs to think before he speaks, and in general, judges on Food Network competitions (i.e., Chopped, as well) need a remedial class on rudeness and constructive criticism.

  5. Mishkat says:

    I really enjoyed watching this season. My son 16 year old and I cheered for Chief Zakarian all the time. We voted for him online many times. My son jumped of his seat saying YES, when Chief Zakarian won.

  6. denisechin2011 says:

    This is possibly the worse judge on the show. He is only a blogger with no cooking credentials… Chop him

    • FanFare57 says:

      Well, he WAS the only judge to blog each week. The others couldn't be bothered defending the head scratcher results. I appreciated hearing something akin to an explanation. I don't know whether he can cook or not, do you? He does have an experienced palate. To judge food, that's all that's required.

    • jeri says:

      You don't need to be able o cook to taste. SM has an extremely seasoned palate. E has tasted all variety of food all over the world. If that doesn't qualify or judging, I don't know what does.

    • denisechin2011 says:

      I agree with GS knight comment above. What some say is that he has eaten a lot of food variety and has a good palate and that qualifies him to be a good judge.
      1) How do we know he has a good palate. A lot of bloggers don't gain prominence by having a good palate.
      2) He appears to have limited cooking knowledge as he seems to reward personality over performance or the difficulty in the dish. This is more prominent through the "risk" section.
      3) Experienced palate does not equal good palate. It equals better palate but not necessarily good.

      • LyndaS says:

        With experience, comes wisdom… The "many bloggers that have a good palate" may not judge cooking contests. However, they also would know if something is prepared correctly or not. It's not rocket science. Simon M. simply makes his living this way. Just because you don't approve of him, doesn't make him unqualified to be a judge.

    • judgethis says:

      All of the judges are very qualified. Simon Majumdar was the only judge to blog probably because he was the only one asked to. Michael Symon is a chef. He doesn't always speak the most articulately or grammatically correctly "it was cooked perfect" should be "perfectly", but he is qualified. Simon Majumdar eats around the world and has written books. So, he is qualified. Judy Joo is an Iron Chef too, and has also been a restaurant critic for Time Out magazine. So, she is qualified too. They have done a lot more than any of us in the food world. So stop complaining and have some respect.

  7. G. S. Knight says:

    We are regular Iron Chef fans and loved this season the best. We hoped that cooking technique and taste would win out, and for that reason were convinced that Zakarian was most worthy of the IC title. This show should never be about personality, or quiz show tricks and celebrity contests — it's popular because it is all about cuisine and the fine art the Iron Chefs display. Chef Zakarian deserved to win, because his dishes were consistently elegant, technically skilled and creative without sacrificing taste for pizzaz. AND, important to us, he is a gentleman who shows respect for the art of cooking and does not need a wacky spiked dye-job and body piercings with tats up his neck to impress. We can't wait to see him compete on Iron Chef and applaud the judges, especially IC Simon for using the right criteria to pick a champion.

    We were not impressed with Judge Majumdar who often seemed to reward personality over performance, and his remarks were often trivialized. We think Iron Chefs or judges with real cooking chops should judge the IC contestants. Thank God for Simon and Alton Brown. We also loved to see Morimoto on the final panel. That restored our faith that excellence would win out over favorites or celebrity.

    • jeri says:

      I agree with most of what you said. Majumdar, I think, is certainly qualified to judge. His comments may seem trivializing and he may favor personality (as I'm sure they all do) but he has a well tuned palate. He has tasted, and written about food, from all over the world. And that fact alone, in my book, qualifies him. Other than that, you're right!

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