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Musings on The Next Iron Chef 4.7

Still wearing their chef’s coats, of course, like Ginger Grant aboard the SS Minnow in a form-fitting sequin evening gown for a three-hour tour, the remaining chefs arrive at the Montauk Yacht Club in The Hamptons, playground for the rich and powerful, not too far from Camp Hero where sightings of the Montauk monster – Old Shent – could possibly be explained by the wanderings of Ina Garten.

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As they arrive in the harbour, coasting in along side an enormous yacht upon which the once again ill-dressed for this decade Alton Brown awaits their company, Chef Geoffrey, very much like Moon Zappa many years before him, states, ‘I’m like – Oh my God!’ Though he does not elaborate, one can only presume that he is ‘like’ such because his heart is sinking at the knowledge that the first thing out of Alton’s mouth will be the Mandatory Enumeration now an almost compulsory and sadly inescapable and irritatingly glib ceremony briefly conducted at the beginning of each programme because a simple, casual glance at the four remaining chefs standing together might prove inconclusive or confusing if they were to move too quickly. And trying to keep the complex series of diminishing numbers in successive order is best left for a man who appears to be dressed for a cruise on The Love Boat.

And, as predicted, swaggering down to the top of a moveable set of stairs so that he can gaze haughtily down upon the uncertain number of chefs several feet below him, Alton clarifies for us that there are

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before welcoming the four remaining chefs to Montauk – ‘One of the most spectacular settings in The Hamptons outside Ina Garten’s house.’  He then explains to them that they have ‘all the essentials for a traditional cookout,’ and they stare blankly at him because the awkward piece of editing resulting in this clumsy segue clearly has them standing empty-handed on the docks and unprepared to cook anything unless these so-called ‘essentials for a traditional cookout’ include wood, barnacles, and bits of old rope.  ‘So,’ he continues to expand on a point he never made in the first place, ‘you’ll each have five hundred dollars and two hours to forage for ingredients all around The Hamptons. Then, you will return to the Montauk Yacht Club where you’ll have two hours to cook. Your mission: create a three course seafood-tasting menu.’

Because Alton emphasises the word ‘seafood,’ there may be some ambiguity: are they to create a menu which tastes of seafood or are they to create a tasting-menu of types of seafood?  Thankfully Chef Michael clarifies for us from the Stainless Steel Cookware Showroom that ‘We have two hours to cook a trio of seafood.’

Though last week I complained that Food Network not only strenuously beat their tired metaphorical horses but also kill them with fire and heavy artillery, this week it appears that bothering to explain the general idea of how we arrived at the notion of a cookout was cut entirely from the episode in favour of adding additional dramatic establishing shots of locations around Montauk and more endlessly frenetic crashing of the musical accompaniment.

Alton goes on to tell them that they will be cooking ‘for a party’ of ‘oh, I don’t know, twenty elite members of The Hamptons’ culinary community.’  Chef Geoffrey, trying to make this incomprehensible idea more understandable for the home viewer, states ‘We have to cook for twenty people plus the judges.’ He then adds, rather oddly, that ‘Also they’re outside: we have wind and heat and sun, so it’s really difficult.’ It would appear that, apart from the title of the episode being Hamptons Beach Cookout, this rather crucial bit of exposition was also left on the cutting room floor, as Alton never mentioned anything about it previously other than to say that the four remaining chefs would have ‘the essentials for a traditional cookout.’  Finally he explains that The Chairman’s Challenge this time is all about ‘passion’ and thus instructs them to show that they can – what?

That’s right, Put Their Passion on a Plate ™  and show everyone their spunk, so to speak.

‘Today,’ Alton wraps up, ‘the challenge I didn’t fully explain very well is simple: good food, great chefs. Who cooks best?’ Perhaps he could have just said that at the start and saved more time for clearer expository remarks and careful editing. Because Chef Liz won The Chairman’s Challenge last week, her advantage is a fifteen minute head start ‘to forage for ingredients all around The Hamptons’ (which turns out to be just two locations in the immediate area), one small motor boat to speed her to the first  shopping location, and a book of current trends in more feminine hairstyles.

As she purchases fresh scallops, clams, and various ichthyological specimens  from a local vendor, she explicates aloud to the disinterested fisherman who is bagging her goods about the relative merits of preparing a classic cioppino and explains to him that it is ‘a seafood stew.’ Speaking as someone who has worked in retail for far more years than I ought to have done, let me just say that any customer who needlessly quantifies and qualifies their purchase in such a tedious and unnecessary fashion is almost always assured a place in the next conversation between employees which will invariably begin with ‘Did I tell you about the fucking idiot who…?’

With the shopping soon over and cooking soon to follow, the four remaining chefs gather near the edge of the harbour so that Alton Brown can explain to them that ‘Shopping is over. Cooking is next.’ He also mentions that, because this series has been unbelievably insipid and just about seven episodes too long. This time, like chugging a quart of warm prune juice, there will be a double elimination soon, and he defies the four remaining chefs to ‘Do the math, Kids!’ He goes on to say that ‘Then the second and third place chefs will go head to head in the Secret Ingredient Showdown’ – which is something like a sudden-death cook off – ‘and that’s where another chef will be eliminated from the competition.’

But doing ‘the math,’ as suggested, reveals not only more extremely poor editing but allows for a logic gap by eliminating vital information in this plan: if there are four chefs remaining and two chefs are eliminated after this challenge, there won’t be any third-place chef against whom the second-place chef can compete.

Regardless, everyone accepts this flawed idea without question and off they go. Chef Geoffrey, rocking some Hell0 Kitty band-aids on his left hand, creates a sea bass salad with a celery roll-up and agro dolce, a blackfish ‘minute steak’ with lemon tapenade, and a scallop sausage sandwich with a couscous and clam risotto.  Chef Liz opts for a vichyssoise chowder, a smoked scallop on corn purée, and the lobster cioppino she bored the fisherman to death about moments before. Chef Michael, deciding this is Storytelling 2.0, tells a lengthy tale about why he is making a scallop on a carrot caponata, a tuna crudo arrabbiata, and a smoked fluke with gribiche which, he says, represents his wife – the fluke, apparently, not the gribiche, because they met on a fluke. One presumes he means a chance occurrence and not a flatfish. Chef Alex is preparing a raw fluke with a lime and tomato jam, smoked clam chowder with bacon, lobster hollandaise and appears to be following this with a meltdown, demanding that uncooperative food items ‘COME ON!’ and swearing a bit as guests begin to be seated at nearby tables to witness the passion.

No word on just how it is these chefs managed to each prepare 72 individual plates for all ‘twenty elite members of The Hamptons’ culinary community’ and all four of the  judges (which Chef Geoffrey mysteriously calculated as 25 people), especially when they are only shown physically plating one dish before an army of servers begin to cart out the meals, but clearly it was a Herculean effort.

The ‘twenty elite members of The Hamptons’ culinary community’, sadly, are seated outside beneath the blazing East Coast sun for their meals and are not privy to what is going on inside the big stark white travelling set of The Wall. For only here, as it is explained to the judges that the Chairman’s Challenge was about passion and that they will have to determine the fates of the four remaining chefs as if they somehow do not fully comprehend their roles as judges after seven episodes, is it finally clarified that  just one Ironite will be removed from the competition at this point, contradicting, it seems, the earlier contention that two chefs will be eliminated. It does, however, lend itself to explaining the earlier anomalous statement that ‘Then the second and third place chefs will go head to head in the Secret Ingredient Showdown.’ It is also made very very clear by Alton that the chef eliminated after this tasting will be sent home… just exactly like all the other competitors who have been eliminated, hence the term ‘eliminated.’

Chef Alex mutters an ‘Oh my God’ beneath her breath as she enters the set of The Wall, clearly as tired of the charade as we are, and explains that her dishes ‘communicate’ not only her true passion for ‘nose to tail cooking’ and for unaccountably explaining things to her peers as if they had no prior knowledge of the culinary arts, but also for cooking and eating. chef-alexBut mostly eating.  Unfortunately her epic clam chowder with a smoked cream base and potatoes and mussels and lemon and garlic and leeks and bacon and then eventually even some clams proves just a bit too salty for Judge Simon, and Chef Alex experiences a Gary Coleman Moment as he scowls and grimaces his way through a stark poo-pooing of it.

Judge Judy likes hers salty though. ‘Eggs and lobster,’ Chef Alex states of her last dish, ‘it’s like cornflakes and milk,’ which might help explain the growing pyramidal shape. Thankfully, though, they interview two of the ‘twenty elite members of The Hamptons’ culinary community’ who provide absolutely no insight or culinary expertise at all.

As for the offerings of Chef Liz, Judge Simon’s usual dislike of flaccid skin on his fish is countered by his need to lick the plate clean from the vichyssoise chowder as a means of saying ‘That tells you everything you need to know about that.’ Judge Michael felt the smoked scallop was ‘one note’ with a hint of vanilla, and two ‘elite members of the Hamptons’ culinary community’ interviewed concurred with these views which truly justifies their presence.

Before Chef Geoffrey is called upon, Alton seizes the opportunity to point out to the judges ‘Passion. Three. Course. Seafood. Tasting. Menu.’ And they nod and smile. It is evident, shortly thereafter, that Chef Geoffrey has not only created a brilliant trio of exceptional dishes but something over which Judge Simon gushes, saying  ‘I don’t think it’s your prettiest plate of food in the competition.’ Indeed, one of the ‘twenty elite members of The Hamptons’ culinary community’ felt that his blackfish was too fishy and Judge Michael still cannot utilise proper verb tense.

‘This isn’t my first rodeo,’ Chef Michael explains to us with some agitation after Judge Michael expresses concern that his scallop was slightly overcooked, but his very long story about food and the history of man appears to last an eternity and at one point it sounds as though he suggests that to the ‘far left’ is a bit of ‘penis.’  Funnily, Alton is sitting to the far left of the judges…

Once the merriment is through, the judges spar and bicker about not wanting to ‘taste someone’s mistakes’ and if they can live with ‘a few technique flaws’ and whose dishes sucked less and finally decide  they would rather have someone who ‘fails interesting’ rather than simply manage to ‘achieve mediocre.’ As such, Chef Geoffrey makes it to the final episode, just edging out rather a put off but slightly more technically flawed Chef Michael by what Alton describes as ‘about six molecules.’  As the second-place chef, he will be competing against third-place failed but interesting Chef Liz, and Chef Alex, having achieved mediocrity, returns, stunned, to the set of Chopped.

In Kitchen Stadium proper, and not some cobbled-together amateurish version of it, Chef Michael and Chef Liz face each other in what Alton Brown calls ‘The last Secret Ingredient Showdown’ indicating that next week the winner of this challenge will have to contend with Chef Geoffrey in some other form of competition for the title of Next I-ron Chef – such as jousting or midget wrestling or a semi-professional Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock tournament. Their secret ingredients – plural, you will note – are, Alton claims, ‘inspired by your recent sojourn in The Hamptons.’ He goes on to describe them as ‘the types of ingredients guaranteed to create satisfying, enjoyable offerings appropriate for a relaxing Hamptons afternoon.’ And those ingredients are

Three varieties of Keebler Town House crackers and Entwine wine.

Wow. Really? I would have considered a nice brie, or a delicate foie gras, or perhaps some Beluga Caviar paired with a fine cognac, maybe even a bottle of Chateau Latour (within reason, of course) before I would have picked some cheap crackers and a $10 bottle of Chard to represent The Hamptons. And that $10 Chard, by the way, is an unremarkable domestic wine bottled exclusively for Food Network by the Wente Vineyards of California. Nothing like whoring your own brand.

This time, the two chefs remaining – if I calculated that correctly – will have thirty minutes to prepare not one but ‘three bites, featuring Town House crackers and Entwine wines, using all three crackers as serving vessels.’  Once again it seems that these instructions are fairly ambiguous and Chef Michael clarifies for us from the depths of the Stainless Steel Cookware Showroom that what they actually have to do is use the crackers as both an ingredient and as a means of serving their creations. No clarification, however, on the use of the wine.

When they are finished, Chef Liz has three distinctive and well-plated ‘bites’ and Chef Michael has three shot glasses full of ground crackers topped with crackers with some stuff on them. If it were on presentation alone, I would certainly give this to Chef Liz. At the judging  table, Alton discloses that the two remaining chefs were challenged to ‘create three one-bite offerings using Town House crackers and Entwine wines,’ and the judges sit and stare at him as though unconcerned with such trivialities, perhaps wondering what relevance this has apart from revenue from product placement.

With a perfectly straight face, Alton then informs the staring judges that ‘Clearly you shouldn’t cook with a wine that you would not drink, so today both chefs succeeded in using excellent wines to good result.’ Simon Majundar’s eyes fly open widely at this. Indeed, like me, he is clearly taken aback because a) how could Alton possibly know if something was used to good results if the three required bites haven’t been tasted yet and, b) he thought the two remaining chefs were supposed to cook with Entwine wine, not with an excellent wine.

Chef Michael’s goat cheese with cabernet caviar pearls was ‘impressive’ to Judges Judy and Michael but lacked layers of flavour for Judge Simon. His sardine escabeche with panzanella was ‘just there’ for Judge Judy, though she declines to pinpoint just where ‘just there’ is.  Finally the chicken liver mousse with a cabernet mustard and piece of cracker made into brittle had some nice texture.  Chef Liz offers shrimp and grits on a Town House cracker for which each judge had only praise, a chicken liver mousse and red wine syrup called ‘nicely savoury’ by Judge Judy, and a curry-spiced lamb meatball with raita and quite a lot of cumin in it which Judge Simon enjoyed  despite the contorted faces he made.

Judge Simon, shockingly, considers the three small plates with distinctly different ‘bites’ on them provided by Chef Liz to be substandard to the three shot glasses with ground crackers in them from Chef Michael but he does agree with Judge Michael that what really matters is ‘Whose food tastes the best’ and that one of them will go on to ‘shake up Darth Zakarian,’ newest member of The Food Network Sith Empire. Given that the nature of the Secret Ingredient Showdown – or ‘sudden-death cook off’ – is to best utilise and integrate the secret ingredient, very little is actually discussed in that regard until the very end when it is decided that the chef who used the cheap crackers and $10 wine to the fullest possible extent wasn’t Chef Michael.

But the shocking twists don’t end there. As Chef Michael walks the lonely perp walk into the blazing yellow lights of the giant alien spacecraft at the end of the room, Alton Brown, seated with the judges, folds his hands before him on the table and explains to the two remaining chefs that there are

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and, for the first time in seven long weeks, the endless crashing soundtrack from Predator falls silent to allow this idea to sink in. It would also appear that the idea that we had seen the last Secret Ingredient Showdown is undeniably false, as the two chefs remaining are seen to be battling for supremacy next week in Kitchen Stadium using some sort of Secret Ingredient and that Chairman Mark will, at some point, bestow upon one of them with whooshy Kung Fu noises the title of The Next I-ron Chef – an interesting idea for a series if it didn’t suck so much…

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