Alex Guarnaschelli and Elizabeth Falkner, contenders on Season 5 of "The… (Edward Chen / Creel Films )
There are few things more satisfying in reality food TV than watching veteran chefs go head-to-head in nerve-wracking cooking challenges. The fifth season of Food Network's "The Next Iron Chef America" kicked off Sunday with the chairman's signature flair for drama and all things wacky, including grasshoppers on a sandy deserted island. The 10 competing chefs are fighting for redemption, all having previously competed on "The Next Iron Chef America" or a TV cooking competition.
Here's the lineup: Alex Guarnaschelli (Season 4, chef of Butter, The Darby and judge on "Chopped"); Elizabeth Falkner (Season 4 finalist, Krescendo, Orson); Nate Appleman (Season 2, R&D chef at Chipotle and won "Chopped All Stars"); Amanda Freitag (Season 2, the Harrison and judge on "Chopped"); Eric Greenspan (Season 2, the Foundry, the Roof); Jehangir Mehta (Season 2 finalist, Graffiti, Metaphor); Spike Mendelsohn (Season 4, Good Stuff Eatery, We the Pizza); Tim Love (first-timer, beat Morimoto on "Iron Chef America" and owns six restaurants in Texas); Marcel Vigneron (first-timer, Modern Global Tasting, competed on "Top Chef"); Duskie Estes (fought for the last spot on the show in "Iron Chef American Road to Redemption," Zazu).
This season's judges are "The Next Iron Chef America" Season 4 winner Geoffrey Zakarian; restaurateur and frequent "Iron Chef America" judge Donatella Arpaia; and food and travel writer Simon Majumdar. And of course, with his kung fu sound effect and ever widening eyes, Alton Brown serves as M.C. and the chairman.
This season's format consists of two déjà-vu challenges per episode. The first is the chairman's challenge made up of his favorite contests from the past with a new twist. The judges' two least-favorite chef performances will result in a sudden-death cook-off in a secret ingredient showdown.
In this week's chairman's challenge, the chefs were brought to a deserted island where they were given coolers full of the one ingredient that led to his or her demise on their previous cooking show appearances. They had one hour to cook the perfect dish highlighting their nightmare ingredients, using a limited beach pantry and fire pits they had to build themselves.
The chefs rushed around the beach, clamoring for ingredients and supplies and kicking up sand. It's hard not to get a kick out of watching kitchen veterans, and especially chefs who serve as judges on other shows -- Guarnaschelli and Freitag -- on the other side of the table, sweating, scared and frantic.
Who won? Well, read on if you want to know....
Guarnaschelli proved the victor with lobster, corn and roasted oyster mushrooms -- she only had to cook her lobster three different ways to get one right. It should also be noted that Greenspan, who after cursing to find grasshoppers in his cooler, prepared grasshopper fritters and grasshopper grilled cheese and completely wowed the judges. But Love's performance was somewhat of a joke. While the other chefs were killing themselves to make something "different," Love made a simple salad with his ingredient, kale, kicked back on the beach, cooked himself a steak for lunch and drank some wine. This left me angry or impressed -- I wasn't sure. The judges were definitely unimpressed, called his performance "lazy" and sent him to the sudden-death cook-off. Mendelsohn's busy scallop dish, which looked like he used every ingredient on the beach, landed him in the secret ingredient showdown as well.
The final battle was all about pineapple, or what the chairman calls the "death fruit." Mendelsohn and Love, and all the other chefs -- who stood by watching -- agonized over the fruit ad nauseum. I get that it's spiky, but the death fruit?
Love, who said his last use of pineapple was probably a salsa from the '90s, cooked up a seared quail breast with pickled pineapple and corn puree. Out of spite he added pieces of crispy kale to the dish. He also made time to take a healthy shot of tequila. Spike, who appeared so nervous he could have passed out, managed to fry branzino with sweet and sour pineapple sauce.
I personally thought Love deserved the win, but it was Mendelsohn who will live to cook another day. I can't help but think the decision was personal on the judges' part. After hearing Majumdar diss Love's kale and Arpaia say "I wanted to slap you," Love was totally justified in remarking that he felt as he's been "kicked"
"The Next Iron Chef America" airs Sundays on the Food Network at 9 p.m. Eastern time.
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