Hello I am Zin, and welcome to the 2012 version of NIC! I thought about just changing the titles and names and seeing if anyone would notice but that would not be very nice, so we will move on and see what The Chairman has in store for us!
Previously on NIC:
The theme this year is Redemption, or, “We are using the same crop of celebrity chefs because real chefs will have nothing to do with us!” In theory all the contestants failed in a prior season, except for a couple of newbies who failed at other things! Which makes it pretty silly, but the Food Network, like the Republican Party, does not worry about consistency and logic!
There has already been a pre-competition! On the Internet! I did not watch it, but I hear Duskie Estes, LeeAnn Wong, Madison Cowan, and Roberto Trevino were the contestants and I was hoping either LeeAnn (almost-finalist on TC1, and the technical producer for five seasons after that) or Madison (who became a breakout star when paired with Lance Nitahara on Chopped) would make it! But no, Olga Korbut (aka Duskie Estes, the resemblance drives me crazy) is back!
The Ins and Outs and In-Betweens:
The format is the same as last time: First, a Chairman’s Challenge, and then whoever does the worst in that does a Sudden Death Secret Ingredient Showdown which seems like an awfully long name for that! I think they wanted to get the word “Death” in there but also the whole “Secret Ingredient” and they could not decide so they just melded them together! I actually kind of like that because it is the sort of thing I would do!
The judging panel is: Donatella Arapaia (she wants the chefs to take risks and stay calm under pressure) and Simon Majumdar (who does not want to see mistakes, duh), and the winner from last year, Geoffrey Zakarian (he wants big bold flavors and I am sad that “subtle” has become a dirty word in American society), who may or may not have paid his employees the back pay they were due before he opened and closed his Miami hotel restaurant though he may be too busy planning his newest restaurant on a luxury cruise ship. It is a good thing he has Iron Chef or his whole family would be out on the street and how embarrassing for them if they should run into those former employees!
For the first challenge Alton meets the chefs at the beach! They have to cook the ingredients that led to their failures last time, which is the sort of mean thing Next Iron Chef just loves to pull!
Time to Eat:
The Top Bananas (and lobsters and grasshoppers):
Alex Guarnaschelli gets the Lobster that did her in last season! She cooks it three ways, in a skillet, in foil, and in a bowl of water, and I thought that meant she was making Lobster Three Ways but no, she was just trying to get a lobster cooked right! After all it is an open pit fire at the beach so it is not that easy to do, and that is where she misstepped last time! The bowl of water does it and she serves it with corn, ginger, lime, butter sauce and shallots, and this works for her! Zakarian says it is heavenly luxurious treatment and Simon likes the layers of flavors – he says it is “almost perfect” and I can sense a “but” there but we do not hear it so maybe not! Or maybe he just does not believe in perfection! Alton tells her she wins so fast she thinks he is kidding, but he is not, she is the winner, and will have an advantage for next time!
Eric Greenspan really draws the short straw on this challenge, since the dish that sent him home in the first (ouch!) week of Season 2 was – wait for it – grasshoppers! And now he has to cook with grasshoppers again! I do not really remember him and was not particularly cheering for him but this makes me feel sorry for him so I am suddenly on his side! He is furious! I do not blame him! But he gets philosophical: “The good thing about grasshoppers is, if you lose with grasshoppers, nobody blames you.” He makes critter fritters with spiced Asian slaw and grasshopper grilled cheese sandwiches which is a good idea because it kind of hides the grasshoppers in yummy stuff! And again he gets philosophical: ” Some people may say grilled cheese is a cop out, and I agree, but I mean, I have grasshoppers!” Well, that is not really philosophical, but it is pretty good! I am beginning to like him! I like him even more when Spike refuses to let him have some curry powder so he steals it! They all make up some excuse for calling their approach “resourceful” since that it the theme this week, but he truly is: he does not have a spider to take the critter fritters out of the oil, so he makes one out of tin foil! As he serves, one of the judges says, “There is a bug in my food!” And the judges love it! Zakarian: “You have evolved grasshoppers into something more elegant, if that is possible.” I would say it would be difficult to evolve grasshoppers into something less elegant, actually, but I get the idea, and I am happy for this chef! They tell him he embodied the concept of redemption! I wish they had given him the win!
Nate Appleman is a complicated person with an interesting history – from James Beard winner to Chipotle’s. He reminds me of “Rocket” Romano from ER (the helicopter guy), and in his first NIC appearance he acted like him too! But then his son got sick and he became a New Man! There was something about him I kind of liked before even though he was a bit of a meanie in NIC2, and I am not sure about the new, earnest version, but it is not his job to amuse me, and I hope he is happy! He has to do bananas since that is what got him in NIC2! He goes savory because risk is what redemption is all about! Actually I think redemption is more about changing your life when your son needs you so he has already done the real thing, but who am I to say, whatever he wants to call it is fine with me! He makes charred curried bananas with clams and uses the peel and banana leaf and yogurt and Aleppo pepper! That is a pretty fancy ingredient to have in a “limited pantry!” He is aiming for an herbaceous Thai curry, and they love it! Zakarian calls it sophisticated and delicious, and Simon says yes, it is authentic Thai and the smokiness suits the banana.
The Middle Tier:
Elizabeth Falkner became one of my favorite people because of her appearance on TCJD1 – you remember, she was so nice to the “Red-Hots are for my mommy” guy! She lost NIC4 (to Zakarian) on black garlic, so that is what she finds in her cooler! She likes its mushroomy soy sweet flavor, so she puts it in barbecue sauce for duck breasts and makes summer veggies with black garlic vinaigrette, and cornbread with black garlic honey butter! Cornbread! Over an open pit fire at the beach! Cool! But I am biased! Simon loves the combo but the duck is overcooked and a little tough! Still he says the cornbread is the best thing he has eaten on NIC/ICA which is probably an exaggeration but I am happy for her! Zakarian loves the use of the garlic but the veggies are undercooked.
Amanda Freitag, another favorite of mine, has to face the shiitake mushrooms that sent her home from Tokyo in NIC2! In fact she thinks it was one single raw mushroom by one single judge that did it! So she does grilled marinated skirt steak over lemon-poached mushrooms and a twist on gremolata that uses sunchokes and mushrooms! Donatella loves the balance! Simon likes the juiciness once he gets over the sliminess (ewww) of the mushrooms, but it is missing heat.
Jehangir Mehta is another one of those people who could be annoying but somehow is not! He was a little sneaky in NIC2! I think I remember he grabbed more grape leaves than he needed just to keep someone else from using them, IIRC! And he said “I have to do it” in that way the psychopath in a horror movie might say it before he slices off a body part – or, yes, like the mother in Sybil when she strung her daughter up and got the button hook! Those are some heavy-duty associations but somehow he is still quite likeable and by the end I was hoping he would win NIC2! He has to deal with buffalo which is awful. He makes a hot (satay with beer and mustard seed) and a cold (tartare) with a mushroom salad and pomegranate dressing. Simon struggled with oversalty buffalo and the mushrooms were swamped by pomegranate syrup, but Donatella thought the sweet and salty while too much on their own balanced each other and it was a lot of fun!
Duskie Estes annoys me for some reason I can not name! It must go beyond the horrible pigtails! And it was before she beat my favorites for the final spot, I did not like her on NIC3 either but I am not sure why, she has done nothing untoward! She is dealt calamari, and makes a po’ boy by sautéing the tentacles in chardonnay and frying the bodies in beer batter! Then she makes a garnish of pickled asparagus and watermelon rind, this sounds like a very good sandwich even to me and I do not like any of the components but it sounds like it goes together! The problem is Donatella has trouble eating it and the bread is soggy, but the flavors are very good! Simon loves the pickles and it is too bad they are not the main element. Zakarian wishes it was a composed salad because the bread got soggy and was awful and in the way!
Marcel Vigneron is a newbie to NIC but he qualifies as needing redemption because as he says he “made it to the final round in more than one cooking competition but has not won yet.” His biggest claim to fame is nearly getting his head shaved on TC2! His second biggest claim to fame is being a bit of a jerk. He has to work with avocados, which apparently figured into one of his prior losses somewhere. He makes avocado cannellone with salty peewee potatoes, and there is something about shrimp and coconut. Duskie comes over and asks if she can cook her asparagus in his potato water and he says fine, and I wonder if that is a good idea, since asparagus is more likely to flavor (and color, for that matter) potatoes than the other way around! But it seems it does not matter, and they like his dish though Zakarian wants some acid and they all think it is a little one-note.
The Losers Facing Sudden Death:
Tim Love has not been on NIC before, but on ICA he actually beat Morimoto on Battle Chiles (is that the one where Morimoto ate all the chiles to check the heat and sweetness?) so I am not sure what he needs redemption for! His ingredient is kale, which got him eliminated from the very first round of TCM1 – oh, so that is what he needs redemption for, except nobody is allowed to say those words on this show so they just ignore it and figure people either know or not (or they look it up which is what I did since I do not remember, I just remember I do not like him much from his appearances as a judge on TC, though I am not sure there is a specific reason). So he makes kale and celery green salad with apples, pork fat, slab bacon, cheese, and citrus. He knows it is risky to do a salad when he is the steak king, but he does not want to overcomplicate things and so to make sure he does not do that he is resourceful by making a skirt steak for his own consumption! Now that makes no sense! Since the exact dish he lost TCM1 on was skirt steak and kale, I think there was more to this, but for what ever reason he just serves a salad which everyone knows is the kiss of death! At least on TC! And here! And his salad is greasy! Maybe I was wrong about him! Because you really have to be talented to make a greasy salad!
Spike Mendelsohn is the one you call when you need a culinary extra man. I have yet to hear anyone say they like him (except Marcel, it seems they were college roommates or something) but he is always around! They throw scallops at him, big surprise! They say it is because in NIC4 scallops got him eliminated but we all know he will never live down sassing Robert Tramonto in the TC4 Scallopgate! His approach is to include more textures and flavors and ingredients, and yes, he includes cauliflower couscous with pickled raisins (which he seems to have borrowed from a hockey player with a chef degree), and just about everything else, mango, curry, he kept naming ingredients and I could not keep up! Simon lost the scallops, as of course you would with so much stuff! And he was overwhelmed by the curry powder! But Zakarian found it complicated and flavorful!
Sudden Death by Pineapple:
Tim is surprised and angry that he is even in the cookoff! Hey, buddy, you made a greasy salad, then you had the nerve to make lunch for yourself, you deserve it! Alton even says they think he was lazy! Ouch! And Not Resourceful! Take that, cowboy! And he is not happy about the pineapple, it is “a piece of crap” ingredient, he made pineapple salsa back in 1984 and that is about all he has done with pineapple! What an attitude! To be fair, all the chefs seem to agree it is not a good thing to work with as a main ingredient. Alex says it does not know how to work well with others, which is cute! He makes quail breast with pickled pineapple, corn milk and crispy kale, because in the first round Donatella said she likes her kale crispy, so he deep fries it! Now that is crispy! I think he does not like criticism! Zakarian is surprised to find he likes it, but there are these huge pieces of chile thrown in there which are just not edible when that big. Simon loves the corn milk and the quail is cooked perfectly! Donatella is worried about the crispy kale, and Simon says it is “a bit of an up yours as we say in England.” We say it here too! But I do not know why it is a problem, deep fried kale is a real thing! I think this is a pissing match, and it is not a good idea for a contestant to get into a pissing match with judges!
Spike is not happy about pineapple either, it is a fruit salad ingredient to him, but he stews it in a whole bottle of hot sauce! Then he makes branzino for a sweet and sour fish. It is something inspired by his travels in Vietnam. Simon likes it, the pineapple fits in well and has a nice texture, and the fish is terrific with crunchy skin and meatiness! Donatella understands his personality and thinks it is a little sweet but the heat works. Zakarian says it is smart and creative but a little too sweet!
And Finally… Tim Love is out! He does not think the judges understood his food! That was a hard choice for me, I was hoping they would both go out!
Next Week: Going Global!