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As Chef Guarnaschelli dons her jacket and prepares for her first battle this Sunday as a fully fledged Iron Chef, I now have a chance to look back over the last eight weeks and select my highlights from the nearly 100 dishes that were placed in front of the judges during the competition.
It’s certainly no easy task, as I genuinely believe that the level of cooking this year was even higher than in previous seasons. But I’ve come up with my list of the top 10 tastes from The Next Iron Chef: Redemption.
10. Clam Chowder: Chef Estes (Road to Redemption Web Series, Battle Potato)
Chef Estes never really showed her considerable skill to the best effect this season. The clam chowder (pictured above) she prepared in the cook-off competition against Chef Wong, however, was evidence that she deserved her place in the final 10. If you’re going to serve chowder to the judges, it had better be the best you’ve made. I suspect this was pretty close and it received rave reviews from Alton Brown, Iron Chef Jose Garces and me.
9. Lobster on the Beach: Chef Guarnaschelli (Challenge: Resourcefulness)
It was poorly prepared lobster that eliminated Chef Guarnaschelli during Season 4 of The Next Iron Chef, so she couldn’t have been too delighted to be presented with it again on the first episode of Season 5. She cooked lobster three different ways to find the perfect preparation and presented the judges with a bite so perfect we named her the immediate winner of the challenge. There was no doubt in my mind that she came back with a bang.
8. Falafel: Chef Mehta (Challenge: Innovation)
Discovering Chef Mehta’s food was one of the greatest pleasures this season. His ability to deftly manage spices combined with superb technique meant he presented the judges with many memorable dishes. This was particularly evident when he was asked to innovate traditional falafel during the second challenge. Both the beautiful presentation and subtle tastes in his falafel wrap helped declare him the winner for the day.
7. Critter Fritters: Chef Greenspan (Challenge: Resourcefulness)
I can begin to imagine how furious Chef Greenspan was when he opened his cooler on the beach and saw that he was faced once more with preparing bugs. He pulled himself together, however, and produced not only a terrific grilled cheese sandwich, but his crunchy and delicious “Critter Fritters.” He may not have won the challenge, but no one redeemed themselves more than Chef Greenspan that day.
6. Luxury Bite: Chef Appleman (Challenge: Simplicity)
Combining as many luxury ingredients as you can get your hands on may seem like an easy way to win a challenge, but unless it’s done with as assured a hand as Chef Appleman’s, the end result can often be a huge disappointment. That was not the case here, as he brought together the most indulgent bite-size morsel to perfectly capture the essence of his rival, Chef Greenspan.
5. Tongue in Cheek: Chef Vigneron (Challenge: Risk)
Chef Vigneron’s cooking really developed throughout the competition (particularly once his high school buddy had gone home). The moment he presented us with a stunning dish of braised beef cheeks, everyone at the judging table acknowledged that he was now a serious challenger for the title of The Next Iron Chef.
4. The Elvis: Chefs Freitag and Appleman (Challenge: Transcendence)
Too many chefs may spoil the broth, but when you bring chefs as talented as Amanda Freitag and Nate Appleman together, the chances are that the results are going to be pretty glorious. That was definitely the case in their dessert, “The Elvis,” which combined bacon, bananas and peanuts to astonishing effect. I said at the time that it would be in my top 5 and it is.
3. Monte Cristo: Chef Falkner (Challenge: Innovation)
I felt that Chef Falkner only gave her best this year when she found herself in the Secret Ingredient Showdown. That was certainly the case when she was presented with white bread and transformed it into the memorable dish of goat cheese Monte Cristo With French Toast Ice Cream. It was, as I said at the time, 100 percent stunning.
2. Pasilla Chile Cherry Tart: Chef Guarnaschelli (Finale)
Chef Guarnaschelli may have had to battle her way to Kitchen Stadium, but once there she definitely brought her A-game. Her Pasilla Chile Cherry Tart was proof of that. Iron Chef Flay declared that it was the best taste of the whole finale. I’d go further and say that once I had tasted the silky cherries, with the slight heat from the chilies and the crumbly almond-based crust, I thought it was one of the very best tastes of the whole competition.
1. Lusty Lemon Chicken: Chef Freitag (Finale)
All it took was one bite and the judges agreed that Chef Freitag’s take on roast chicken was enough to see her into the finale. It was really that good and remains one of the best things I have eaten in any Next Iron Chef competition. It’s definitely the one dish I day-dream most about from Season 5 now that it’s over.
And to answer the unspoken question, I still have nightmares about deep-fried paiche scales and mortadella mousse.