By Lori Acken
Or maybe, “oh nuts!” In any case, yes, this blog should have been up days ago … but you would not believe what a slew of holiday programming can do to a monthly publication with a teeny little staff of writers. I’ve been knee-deep in December magic when I’ve been itching to talk runny eggs and gummy hummus. But better late than never, NIC lovers. So off to the ballpark we go.
San Diego’s Petco Park to be exact — a far cry from wherever the heck the wilderness plateau was from last week’s episode, but no less worrisome for Super Chefs who are not necessarily anxious to get their beer-and-burger kicks in another open-air challenge.
Alton — once again nattily dressed but more for a horse race than a Padres game, you ask me — is waiting for the crew at home plate. This challenge, he explains, is all about Transformation. How would an Iron Chef create ballpark food? He tells the chefs they have 15 minutes each to plumb the stadium’s kitchen, cantinas and food stands (including a Food Network steak sandwich cart) for whatever they need to create “two ballpark classics.” Except for last week’s winners Geoffrey Zakarian and Beau MacMillan who will get an extra five-minute head start for their efforts. Padres legend Randy Jones — looking like he’s dressed for golf — shows up to congratulate them and send them on their way.
Five extra minutes is great news for the nimble Zakarian who grabs some duffel bags and takes off like a shot. For poor Beau, who rolled his ankle on a middle-of-nowhere rock last week, it’s mostly a chance to get up the stairs in the stands before being run down by the rest of the pack.
As the chefs gather their goods, I am torn between trying to figure out what on earth each is planning to make and being astounded at the scope of ingredients available at this ballpark. I’m pretty sure this is why they headed to San Diego for the challenge. At my hometown Miller Park, you will find myriad sausage and beer offerings, but if there are radishes and basil, balsamic vinegar and tilapia filets in-house, I’ll eat my Ryan Braun jersey.
Then the chefs race up a hill to the “Park at the park” where their cooking stations are located and start to unload. Here’s where it began to get dicey, though I didn’t realize it until much later. The initial directive of “create two ballpark classics” has now become “turn ballpark food into Iron-Chef-worthy food.” “Two culinary hall-of-fame offerings.” That there could be interpreted in multiple ways. Are the chefs still tasked with creating something that you can eat whilst stuffed into a seat with 50,000 other bodies around you? Or are they tasked with taking those sorts of foods and transforming them into cuisine to dazzle the judges’ palates? Hmmm.
In any case, though she professes to having been to one ball game in her whole entire life, Alex has decided to make sausage and peppers with onion rings and lemon sherbet in a lemon cup (Use the ice cream machine and you automatically get an extra point, the Chopped judging veteran reasons). I think she’s spot on. In San Diego or Milwaukee.
Her former Heat & Meat/Resourcefulness partner, Elizabeth Falkner is going to use the ice cream machine, too, but she’s making a cheese steak and thinks her ice cream will be bleu cheese. I like ice cream. I like bleu cheese. Bleu cheese ice cream? Oyf. But maybe. Her second dish will be a “remodeled” corn dog.
Marcus Samuelsson — who almost got sent packing last week — is wearing excellent traffic-cone-colored pants and has decided to interpret the two-dish order as a four-dish order because he has lots of ideas and isn’t afraid of the risk. The other chefs think he’s as kooky as his pants. OK, I think his pants are kooky; they just think he should stick to the number of dishes requested.
Geoffrey — also, by his own admission, immune to the charms of the sporting world — has decided to do Brunch at the Ballpark. Couldn’t eat it in your lap during the game, but you could eat it in the loge or at one of the nicer in-park restaurants, he says. He’s making gazpacho and a sort of avocado-and-egg Eggs In A Basket, with spicy shrimp toast.
Michael Chiarello has decided to pay homage to two of his favorite baseball cities and swank ‘em up. For the San Francisco Giants, he will do a fish polpette cake with shrimp cioppino (anybody else instantly think of the Cosby episode where Cliff ate all the neighbor’s gift of pulpeta which was so not on the diet Claire wanted him on? No? Just me? Oh.). For New York, he’s doing sausage with peppers and onions, which again sounds just dandy, but — in one of those mysteries only a higher culinary mind can decipher — he’s decided to plop a raw egg yolk on top.
Chuck Hughes — who truly seems to be having the time of his life, which makes him great fun to watch — is making a tilapia corn dog, and a shrimp and pork meatball sub. “No matter how high end you want to go,” he reasons, “just don’t make it complicated.”
Anne Burrell seems to ascribe to that theory, too, whipping up pork-and-shrimp stuffed brisket in lettuce wraps instead of a bun, and chicken and kielbasa sloppy joes with spicy aioli. It kinda looks like hash on a loaf to me, more than my Midwestern idea of Sloppy Joe. Which is basically Manwich. So there’s that. We’ll see what the judges say.
Anne’s teammate from last week, Robert Irvine, is opting to gussy up a fish taco (I love the way he pronounces it “tack-o”) with shrimp and pickled radish, and then create what he says is America’s first hotburg — half hot dog, half hamburger. And I believe him, even though it seems like someone should have thought that up, just for the hell of it, a long, long time ago. Also, I want one, even before I see how he goes about making it. Which we don’t get to see, anyway.
Beau says he’s going the corn dog and cheese steak route, transforming by deconstructing. And that’s all we see of Beau.
Time for the judges. And for me to digress.
One of my fellow professional TV watchers took to Twitter this week to point out how odd it is to see these famous faces and culinary giants judged by individuals that he called “less impressive.” I don’t necessarily agree with him about them being less impressive. But I have to admit that I, too, am suffering the same caliber of pangs that I get when I see random actors and giddy actresses show up on the Iron Chef America panel: I get that they have far more experience with celebrity chefs, top-notch restaurants and world-class food than most, but I still think that if I were the chefs, I’d be feeling a heaping dose of “What do you know about it?” when it comes to the techniques and resourcefulness involved in putting those plates-ful of food in front of them.
Hence, it seems like other Iron-Chef-caliber cooks should be calling the results in the kitchen. It just does. I get the selection of Michael Symon and I’m happy to see him here … and I’m familiar enough with Simon Majumdar from ICA to know that he knows what he’s talking about. Judy is quirky and adorable and an Iron Chef abroad. But I still can’t help but wonder if the judging portion of Super Chefs might have been amped up a bit if Symon were joined by, say, Tony Bourdain and Wolfgang Puck. Or somebody else who knows the ultimate great food+good TV recipe that must be crafted in these dozen episodes.
That said, I am sure this panel will grow on me much as the rotating roster of Chopped, with whom I was largely unfamiliar when the show began and now love with my whole heart. But for now, it’s a sticking point. Can’t help it.
Anyway, back to the judging.
For as whack-a-doodle as she was during last week’s pork-in-the-great-outdoors team challenge, Alex is downright zen as she presents her sausage and sorbet to the judges. They, in turn, love the food and her approach to the “Transformation” challenge. “Ballpark perfection,” says Simon. Can’t ask for more than that.
Next up is Geoffrey. Judy and Michael love the food; Michael is a little wobbly about the challenge interpretation. Simon Kitchen-Cowell congratulates GZ on knowing less about the ballpark than even he does, then proceeds to have a micro-meltdown about how he would never find such food in any ballpark anywhere in the entire universe … even though he avoids ballparks like … a Big Mac, I’m guessin’. Geoffrey is dismissed, but we cut away to him reiterating that he was told to take ballpark vittles and turn them into Kitchen Stadium cuisine, and I can’t help but side with him a little. The directions were less than clear.
Beau is up next — Michael says his shrimp-and-grits corn dog is too rich, but Judy likes it fine. Simon says Beau’s carpaccio is really just undercooked beef. And that’s all we see of Beau. Either this guy is going to rise up like a phoenix in future episodes, or whoever does the editing is not Team MacMillan. I hope its the former.
Ms. Burrell admits she’s playing it safe this time around and the judging reflects it. Judy wanted more spice in her lettuce wrap. Simon wants more crunch in his Sloppy Joe. Michael wanted less — he likes his Joes on a soft bun, not a loaf.
Here comes Elizabeth and her bleu cheese ice cream. The chef explains how she prefers the word “remodeled” to “deconstructed,” which Alton and the judges appreciate. The ice cream is a hit. Simon finds the kielbasa and corn fritter clunky and thinks there’s more Iron Chefly ways to handle a kielbasa. His words, not mine.
Michael Chiarello is next. The polpette goes over big. The dripping egg yolk atop the sausage and peppers, not so much. The judges merely don’t like it. Alton, on the other hand, holds it up in all its dribbly slendor and admonishes, “If you can’t separate an egg, don’t put it on the plate!” Drip. Drip. Drip. Yikes, a little. Chiarello chafes.
Next up is Marcus and his double dose of food. Everybody likes the food, but Simon can’t let the four-when-I-asked-for-two thing pass unnoticed.
Chuck overstuffed his sausage bun and everyone fusses about the mess factor. Judy calls his tilapia corn dog a “haute dog.” Simon calls it the best bite of food he has had all day. Chuck goes out on a high note.
As I suspected, the hotburg is a home run for the cool Mr. Irvine. Alton likes it so much he talks with his mouth full, which charms me past the dripping egg debacle a few minutes prior. The fish tacko, however, is taken down by the little red pile of fiery pickled radishes.
And that’s everyone.
Back on the NIC set, Chuck, Elizabeth and Alex are declared the winners of the ballpark challenge, with Alex named most valuable cooker.
In the middle, Anne, Beau and Marcus, who is warned again about his tendency to overachieve.
I’m pretty gobsmacked to find Chiarello, Irvine and Zakarian in the bottom three and gobsmacked-times-two when Judy Joo tells Geoffrey he must learn how to behave in Kitchen Stadium. I don’t honestly believe the guy knows how not to behave. So he misunderstood a rather wobbly directive. Under his interpretation, he was pretty much the victor. I am thoroughly impressed at his cool as he takes the criticism stoically. He will survive to cook another day.
And I am sure he is mighty glad of it because Chiarello and Irvine must duke it out in the secret-ingredient showdown … and the secret ingredient is peanuts.
“OMG,” says Irvine, twice. “Crap,” says Chiarello. Then both go out there and do more with the lowly goober than I imagined possible.
Irvine creates a peanut-crusted halibut with peanut hummus and peanut-lemongrass-ginger sauce. The judges love everything, except Michael wanted less hummus and Judy wanted more sauce. “It’s the best I got,” Irvine surmises.
Chiarello makes a peanut pesto over fettucine, with a tomato side salad. The chefs love it, but wonder did he use enough peanut for a peanut challenge. Ah, Next Iron Chef and your tricky, tricky rules.
In the end (and to my admitted surprise), Michael, with his less-than-50-percent-peanut plate, was the victor over what Symon tells Robert was ultimately his gummy hummus. Happy for Chiarello — and I really like the surprising spunk he has no need to display on his own Cooking Channel show — but I must admit that I was hoping for a little more of Robert’s unconventional wit and wisdom on NIC.
It’s the perils of this sort of cast — when everyone’s a star, no one is too easily disposable. But as we begin to pare down the rank and food-o-philes, I am hoping we get to see a little more of the chefs at work on their dishes. Right now it’s a tad frustrating to see them hunt ingredients and present amazing dishes, but have such brief flashes of how they got from Point A to Point B. The fun of Iron Chef is watching a pair of Super Chefs make miracles of a single, surprising ingredient — thus far, that element of Next Iron Chef Super Chefs is, at best, an appetizer. And I’m hungry for more.
Photos: Food Network