Monday, August 18, 2008

What does Michael Phelps Have In Common With Iron Chef Bobby Flay And Chef Jose Garces?

You’ll have to read until the end to find out, or maybe this is just a shameless way to incorporate the greatest Olympic champion of all time into this post.

Iron Chef America
Chef Bobby Flay battles Chef Jose Garces
Whose cuisine will reign supreme?

I was interested to see this Iron Chef episode, because I had dinner last week at Chef GarcesAmada in Philadelphia. I wanted to see how his global Latin approach would play in kitchen stadium.

Chef Garces, dressed in a black chef’s coat with a fine crest on the upper left, choose Bobby Flay as his opponent. That makes sense, because Bobby’s southwest bold and spicy POV does complement Garces’ own approach. He was born to Ecuadorian parents in Chicago and he incorporates different regions of Latin cooking in his restaurants. He cooked in Spain after culinary school in New York and then in Philadelphia at Alma de Cuba and El Vez with the Starr Restaurant group and now in his own Amado, Tinto and Distrito, all in Philly.

We learn from the Chairman that the secret ingredient is…melon. There are Asian, Crenshaw and cantaloupe melons and little watermelons. Bobby says “That’s cool.” Jose says (somewhat less enthusiastically),”It is”, and so the battle begins.

The Chairman continues that he’s a great fan of brain freeze and so one component of each dish must be frozen. He wants “brain freeze magic”. Alton is right there talking away. In fact, he’s inches from Bobby’s nose. It’s amazing that Bobby can resist the urge to take a swing.

There is plenty of cutting, paring and blending happening at breakneck speed. Remember, though, that it takes HOURS to film these shows and that the chefs are given, IN ADVANCE, the names of THREE potential secret ingredients.

Bobby throws out a pan of almonds. Stuff is going into a huge commercial ice cream machine. They are running around, but somehow they seem a little less urgent and crazed than usual. Is that because there’s literally less heat in the kitchen because so much is being frozen? They’re also using the blast chiller and a CO2 canister.

The chill is on, Alton says. For some reason I’m not really minding Alton’s know-it-all attitude here.

BTW, while I’m watching Bobby laboring for the Food Network, Wolfgang is on over at HSN, (125 items for sale with his name on them) where he’s selling his 120 dollar Multi Position Tri-Grill with Storage and Removable Drip Tray . He had just sold 21,335 of them as I looked in.

THERE’S the reason for his place on the money making list. Bobby is running around like a madman, sweating, straining and COOKING while Wolfgang is hosting a relaxing home-shopping segment as his fortune grows by the second. (Believe me, I think Wolfgang works incredibly hard too, it was just noteworthy that these 2 different TV moments happened at just the same time.)

The judges are Ted Allen, eye candy Victoria Recaño from The Insider (a garbagey gossip show…which I never miss…not really…okay, maybe I watch a little, but I like Extra better) and Jeffrey Steingarten .

About the secret ingredient, Ted says, “Melons are a terrific opportunity for adult beverages”. Victoria says she’s a little surprised by the ingredient. Why? Jeffrey believes that “melon is one of those gifts of nature that is almost never better when chefs fool around with it.” In other words, they’re good as they are, don’t mess with them.

Bobby tastes some grilled melon, He chews, ponders, considers; he chews, ponders, considers. He chews, ponders, considers. BOBBY, you only have 29 minutes left. He chews, ponders…Okay, okay, thank goodness he likes it.

We learn that adding sugar increases the freezing time and now there’s less than 20 minutes left. We see tiny melon squares being blow torched, honeydew juice blended with avocado and Serrano ham is undergoing a deep-frying… Oh, and let’s not forget the vinaigrette that Bobby is freezing on the anti-griddle. Richard would have been in his element. This is kind of wild. Liquid nitrogen is all over the place and egg yolks are going on top of melon!

Here’s a great idea for a garnish that we could copy at home. Cut a melon in a thick wedge. Peel it, or maybe you don’t have to. Using a vegetable peeler, peel thick slices off the edge of the melon and roll it up as you would a tomato skin to make a rose. I love that. THAT’S something we could do without an anti-grill or blast freezer.

The judges are presented with the dishes. Chef Garces goes first. He says his take on the challenge was to present a global approach.

His first dish is for breakfast - Caramelized Cantaloupe served with an Over-Easy Quail Egg, Maple Butter, Smoked Bacon tossed in a Coffee Glaze and an Espresso Granita with Whipped Cream and Shaved Cinnamon. (Did you get all that? It took me 20 minutes to get all those ingredients down.)

Jeffrey: “It’s sweet and salty and smoked. It’s a wonderful combination.”
Victoria: “Really, really outstanding.”…just like her vocabulary.
Ted: “Very clever, but also very simple.”

Next, with his homeland of Ecuador as inspiration, Chef Garces serves Watermelon Ceviche with Coconut Habanero Sauce and Toro Tuna topped with a Frozen Honeydew Melon Bonbon.

Ted likes "the contrast of the frozen bits with the fatty toro.
Victoria: “It just makes your mouth water.”

Next dish is from Spain, Melon con Jamon - a Terrine with Garrotxa is encasing the Cantaloupe, Fresh Sliced Serrano Ham and Frozen Shaved Cantaloupe served with a Sherry Reduction with Alberquina Olive Oil. (Alberquina are tiny spicy Spanish olives.)

Jeffrey wonders if Chef Garces invented shaved frozen melon. He says it’s a whole new experience and wonderful. But isn’t that reminiscent of a melon granita? That’s not so new, but this IS ingeniously presented with the ham.

Ted wants to know what Garrotxa is. Come on, Ted, get a grip
, it’s Spanish goat cheese from, guess where!, Garrotxa in Catalonia. (I’m kidding, Teddy, I lived in Spain for 3 years and I never heard of it either. Remember there are NO STUPID QUESTIONS! Except if they really are stupid, which this one wasn’t.)

Chef Garces presents Thai Style Melon and Beef Pouches - Bitter Melon, Cantaloupe and Watermelon Radish tossed in a Peanut Ginger and Lemongrass Dressing with Kobe Beef. The frozen element is a Honeydew and Avocado Milk Shake.

Ted’s melon falls out of place, (I’m proud of a gay man for admitting that), but once he had it all organized he loves that the melon was the star and the beef was just a condiment. Jeffrey loves the shake and says that mixing the honeydew with the avocado somehow lets you really taste the honeydew. He never tasted “anything that was so honeydew as this.”

Dessert is Watermelon and Strawberry Soup with Melon Mosaic with Ricotta Ice Cream and a Lemon and Anise Effervescence, which is that foam on top.

Victoria: “I love everything about this dish, except the effervescence…is a little powerful.” Jose says it was meant to give the dish a little punch. Jeffrey says it’s a like a knockout punch. THAT’S a shame that the ONE element that the judges didn’t like was in the last thing they tasted.

Does that bode well for the Iron Chef? Will he reign supreme?

Bobby’s approach, he says is to put the melon in the forefront.

His first dish is White Gazpacho with Honeydew Melon and Toasted Almonds with Garlic, White Grapes and Cantaloupe in a Cava Granita with Frozen Champagne Grapes, garnished with Honeydew, Grapes and Almonds.

Watch Victoria LOVE everything Bobby does. She may have to interview him sometime when he opens another restaurant in Vegas. OH, I’m wrong, she screws up her face and says “Is there GARLIC?” No, honey, he was lying when he said that there was garlic in a dish that simply couldn’t be made WITHOUT garlic and still be called Gazpacho! Then, as if it didn't really bother her, she says, “It has a nice punch."

Bobby tries to teach her about white gazpacho. She just says (because she knows nothing) “Very nice." Ted particularly likes “the note of the almonds”. You know, I don’t think he’s so bad. He DOES know what he’s talking about and he takes this all awfully seriously.

Next is Melon and Serrano Ham Salad - Grilled Crenshaw Melon with Rice Wine Vinegar and a Frozen Vinaigrette. Jeffrey says it’s amazingly good.

Melon and Scallop Ceviche with Pickled Melon comes next. This is Frozen Crenshaw, Honeydew and Watermelons mixed with Raw Sea Scallops, marinated in Lime Juice, Fresh Red Chilies, Mint and Cilantro.

Ted likes the fact that the frozen element really keeps the scallops cold and that’s what you want in a ceviche.
Victoria says that pickling the melon is pretty interesting. “First when you taste it, it’s pretty potent. It’s ACTUALLY really nice and goes real well.” Whatever...

Next up: Profiteroles filled Cantaloupe Sorbet and Cream Cheese flavored with Guava served with a Guava and Watermelon Glaze on top and Honeydew Sauce cooked with Star Anise (oh no) and Cinnamon and Port Wine.

The star anise must have been really mild, because no one mentioned it, luckily for Bobby.

Victoria: “It’s really, really good. The cream cheese - it’s an unusual thing to put with melon, it seems like it’s Christmas.” Seriously, what about that is like Christmas, unless you’re used to Christmas on the equator…with an Iron Chef handy?

Jeffrey: “The cream cheese has the effect of cheesecake and that also goes extremely well.”

Frozen Watermelon Parfait with a Honeydew Sabayon with Frozen Watermelon served with Honeydew, Crenshaw and Cantaloupe Beignets laced with Mint and served with a Dark Rum Caramel Sauce

Jeffrey says the mint lightens the caramel sauce and the effects of deep frying. Victoria chimes in that “the mint makes you forget it’s deep fried”. Jeffrey glowers at her and says “I NEVER want to forget something is fried.”

Jeffrey says the watermelon pieces in the sabayon are TOO frozen and that he almost bent his spoon on it. Ted says it’s good the watermelon is there, because the honeydew isn’t strongly flavored enough, but the dish is delicious.

Interesting…both of the chefs end beautifully received meals with small critiques. I don’t know who will win. They seem to think each dish of Chef Garces is wonderful and original, BUT they really have a problem with that one element in the final dish.

Bobby Flay doesn't completely slay them on any one dish, but there isn’t anything negative said, except for objecting to a frozen watermelon chunk. I do think Chef Garces’ dishes were more original, but I just don’t know how the judges will view it and I love Bobby, so I’ll say….Bobby will win.

After a really, really long p…a…u…s…e, the winner is Chef Garces. Wow, I thought it might be close, but I thought the Iron Chef would come out on top.

Here are the scores:

Bobby: 59
Taste 22
Plating 13
Originality 14

Jose: 60
Flavor 24
Plating 13
Originality 13

That was the closest of margins and it wasn’t even in originality that the challenger won. It was taste! Interesting.

Alton gives an hysterical shtick about brain freeze. I don’t mean that he was incredibly funny. I mean he goes completely crazy, dodo bird NUTS about wanting to see the Chairman grab his skull in a brain freeze incident. It didn’t happen and Alton got dragged off….in my mind.

Do you see NOW the connection with the Swimming Svengali? Jose won by the smallest of margins, just as Michael did in the 100 meter butterfly. Did the better man win in both cases? In Beijing, definitely. In Kitchen Stadium, Iron Chef Bobby Flay lost by a hair, which means that Chef Garces won by that same hair (not in the food, I hope.)

It WAS almost too close to call, but alas for Flay fans, a decision was made and there will be no grievance filed, no protests brought to bear, no looking at the tape and no second chances. Jose Garces reigned supreme…and on that night, Bobby had to settle for silver.


Emiline said...

Awww, poor Bobby. He was so close.
I haven't watched Iron Chef in a long time. I did catch the end of Ted Allen's new show. Not really my thing, because there wasn't a lot of cooking, but I'm sure a lot of people will like it. But...this is off subject.

What I really wanted to say was, I demand more Michael Phelps posts in the future.

The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

That’s so cool that you got to eat in the restaurant of of Iron Chef challenger. I am always saying that the chef of my favorite restaurant should go on ICA. I think he’d blow the Iron Chefs away, particularly those that tend to cook in their comfort zones like Bobby Flay. My favorite chef is incredibly inventive.

I love the idea of Bobby Flay taking a swing at Alton Brown. I think I’ve had my fill of Alton over the years and I’d love to see someone take him down a peg. I don’t know why Bobby doesn’t get on my nerves the way he does for so many other people. Maybe I just don’t watch his shows enough to get annoyed? In any case, I’m really sure Alton ran away with the whole “brain freeze” concept. He has to go into geeky explanations and silly mental pictures.

You cleared my sinuses yet again with the melons comment! Too bad I have to clean all of that nose-squired coffee off of my monitor again.

I have to agree with that statement about not messing too much with melons. They pair well with salty and sour foods, but there is only so much I think they should be messed with. I couldn’t incorporate too many ingredients into a melon dish.

One thing we learn in customer service is that races aren’t won by miles, they’re won by fractions of an inch. In the end, it doesn’t matter how much. It’s just that one person got ahead. Iron Chef defeated. That’s all that matters to the challenger in the end.

Sue said...

Yeah, poor Bobby, Em, he worked so hard and still came up short, but barely.

I will do my best to bring up Michael Phelps whenever I can. He really is truly hot. I think you should marry him. You could supply him so beautifully with the 14,000 calories he needs a day. Get on it!

Hi Rach,
You know, I really do enjoy your thoughtful comments. Thank you for taking the time to make them. (You too, Em!)

As much as Iron Chef is full of smoke (literally) and mirrors, I think the chefs do have to have real chops to participate. You never see a dish that looks less than superb (although it might taste like crap). And even if they really do have longer than a hour, the cooking is pretty prodigious.

Do you mean the melon remark (which I later removed, because I decided it was sexist) where I said that Victoria is probably most used to the melons that go in her tee-shirt. Whoops! I managed to get it in anyway...

And you're right, it doesn't matter if Chef Garces won by one point or twenty, he still won.