'The Next Iron Chef': Crazy Desserts

The Next Iron Chef: You know the premise. They're looking to add a new face to the madness at Kitchen Stadium.

Eight chefs competing. Three judges judging. Alton Brown as ringmaster and the Chairman shouting and carrying on at the top of the show.

The premiere opens with a montage of the upcoming action and then the requisite rundown of competitor bios. [Warning: Spoilers after the jump.]

  • John Besh: Owner of Besh Steak, August, La Provence, and Lüke in "Nawlins." (That would be New Orleans to anyone who doesn't live in the Crescent City.) Back story: He was a Marine, "seasoned for combat," he says, so "it really prepared me for what I do now." Whether he's referring to KP duty or combat experience is anyone's guess, but either's applicable, I'd imagine.
  • Jill Davie: Chef de cuisine and founding member of Josie in Santa Monica, California. "I'm pretty intense," she says. She's apparently one of About.com's 2006 Most Beautiful Chefs (along with Gordon Ramsay and others).
  • Morou Ouattara: Owner of Farrah Olivia in Alexandria, Virginia. "I cook like I speak," says Ouattara. "American with an accent." Interesting to note that he was also chef at the Jack Abramoff–owned Signatures, which closed after the lobbyist's shady dealings came to light. Not that that reflects on Ouattara, as you may have seenor will soon read.
  • Traci Des Jardins: Chef-partner of Jardinière in San Francisco. "I'm probably the most experienced of the group. I have more years in the business than anybody else. I think that's really the thing that will carry me through this competition." Pretty bold words from the 2007 winner of the James Beard Best Pacific Chef Award.
  • Aarón Sanchez: Chef at two New York City restaurantsCentrico and Paladar.
  • Michael Symon: Owner of two Cleveland, Ohio, restaurantsLola and Lolita.
  • Chris Cosentino: Chef at Incanto in San Francisco. "I am brash. I am loud," says Cosentino. "I am probably the most $!*^# obnoxious person that you will ever meet." You should also know that the man has never met a piece of offal he hasn't liked.
  • Gavin Kaysen: 28-year-old chef de cuisine at El Bizcocho at the Rancho Bernardo Inn in San Diego, California. He's the baby of the bunch: "I've got to show them that the young kids know what they're doing out there. I'm representing more than myself. I'm representing every young chef in America."

Cut to the campus of the Culinary Institute of America. Damn. Will you look at that place? So that's where the tuition goes.

The Chairman is playing drama queen, addressing the knife-roll-toting candidates from a balcony above a fountain-splashing plaza: "Welcome, chefs, to the hallowed grounds of the Culinary Institute of America." Blah blah blah, exit stage left, enter Alton Brown from a doorway below the balcony.

"You will endure eight tests, each one cleverly designed to divine in you eight characteristics the chairman believes all Iron Chefs must embody."

Blah, blah, blah, cut to ... a gym? With basketball hoops? Does the C.I.A. field a roundball team against Le Cordon Bleu?

Anyway, as in all most of these reality shows, this one features two challenges. The first one here, taking place on the boards, is a showdown to see who's got the "fastest knife" in the kitchen. Each chef must debone a chicken (25 points), fillet a salmon (15), French a rack of lamb (15), slice a daikon radish so thin you can read a newspaper through it (10), shuck six oysters and six clams (5), and crack two coconuts to extract at least two cups of liquid (5). In the event of a tie, it comes down to fastest time. Oh yeah, and they have 15 minutes.

Competing in waves of four, we have Cosentino, Des Jardins, Kaysen, and Besh up first. And they're off. Running across the gym to grab ingredientsthough not with knives in hand, thank Godthe chefs race them back to their prep stations. Des Jardins is off to a great start, despite confessing that she hasn't done this basic prep stuff in a while. Presumably, underlings are doing it for her. Still, she's on her second item while everyone else is on his first. Brown saunters about, hovering, making comments that should be taken as subtle (or not so subtle) cues when a chef is off track. Despite Des Jardins' quick start, Besh finishes first with five seconds left. Maybe he was on KP duty as a Leatherneck.

In the second wave, damn, Ouattara is fast. But wait, the speed demon cuts himself at some point during the salmon filleting and doesn't notice till he's shucking oysters. He thought it was blood from the salmon, he says. Blood sausage is one thing, human blood and accidental cannibalism is another. Symon shows his smarts by using a hotel pan to crack his coconuts above, not missing a drop of liquid. Ouattara finishes with a whopping three minutes left. Then Sanchez finishes, with a minute and a quarter left. This squad is a bunch of crackerjacks.

Still, when it breaks down, the unexpected winner is Sanchez, with 75 points. He's fast and thorough, as opposed to Ouattara's fast and sloppy.

Sanchez, then, gets advantage in the second round: making one "freeform dessert" and one using signature Iron Chef "special ingredients." All in 90 minutes. And all without butter, sugar, cream, or cheeses ("unless you make them yourself").

Says Brown, "The Chairman has a serious sweet tooth, but he likes his desserts ... a little weird." I picture the monkey scene in The Temple of Doom. And it's only slightly less crazy. The "special ingredients"? Squid (Kaysen), tripe (Cosentinolike you didn't see that one coming), catfish (Besh), bacon (Symon), beef shoulder (Davie), chorizo (Ouattara), salmon roe (Des Jardins), duck confit (Sanchez).

The challenge lies in making desserts from these decidedly savory non-dessert items, thereby showing creativity and pluck.

Again, the chefs work in fours. The first group is go. Sanchez, Ouattara, Davie, and Symon. The kitchen is hot. (They must have shot this during summer.) Blah blah blah. Symon's plans for ice cream melt, as the freezer is no colder than 48 degrees. The cream leaks out of the ice cream maker. The heat is also borking Sanchez's flan plans, so he switches up to making crêpes. OK. Cut, cut, cut, and they're done. Speed demon Ouattara finishes first.

Second group is go. Cosentino, Besh, Des Jardins, and Kaysen feel the heat. Des Jardins worries that her dairy (she's making crème fraîche) won't whip up. "When was the last time you were in a kitchen so hot you could pour honey right out of the container," Cosentino asks. Whatevs. If you can't stand the heat, as they say.

Brown wanders the kitchen, all the while asking questions of the contestants.

Besh is going to town with his catfish-based dessert.

Brown: "Did you choose catfish because you're familar with it or do you actually have ideas for it?"

Besh: "Have you ever had a catfish ganache–stuffed truffle?"

Brown: "No."

Besh: "Neither have I."

Cosentino shows some real thought as well with his idea for a panzanella. "The toasted tripe emulates bread, so you'll have that really nice crispy. I'm adding fruit and acid, and it's making it into a less savory dish."

Kaysen's squid is not going well. "You got hosed," Brown says.

OK. And they're done.

Cut to the judges.

  • Andrew Knowlton: Restaurant editor, Bon Appetit magazine. "What I'm looking for is a warrior in the kitchen. No matter what they throw at you, whether it's battle brain or battle apple, that you accept it and make no excuses." Battle brain? Battle apple? When did this turn into Dungeons & Dragons?
  • Donatella Arpaia: As Brown says, she's "one of the most successful restaurateurs and lifestyle experts in the country." What's she look for in the NIC? "An Iron Chef has to know who he is and be very confident about it. And you also have to have the passon and the dive to take things to the edge."
  • Michael Ruhlman: "A trained chef and an author," Brown says. And, as many of you know, he blogs. I'm sure he's typing up his recap right now as well. "All great cooking, no matter whre you are, rests on the fundamentals. I'm looking for the fundamentals."

OK. It's getting late and this thing is getting looooooong, so I'm going to wrap this up. In order of judging:

  • Michael Symon, bacon
    Freeform dessert: Rice pudding, made with goat milk and finished with crème fraîche
    Judges' comments: "Undercooked," says Donatella.
    Special ingredient dessert: "6 a.m. Special," an "homage to [his] pastry chef," using vanilla bean French toast topped with bacon ice cream, caramelized apples, and bacon in maple syrup
    Judges' comments: Ruhlman dings him on creativity, since he thinks Symon is too familiar with the recipe. All the judges say they've had bacon-infused desserts and give Symon's stuff a yawn.
  • Gavin Kaysen, squid
    Freeform dessert: Pecan-crusted pain perdu and assorted berries, with a strawberry eau de vie slushie shooter
    Judges' comments: Eh. Very safe
    Special ingredient dessert: Honey and ginger–glazed squid. Marinated squid in lime juice, poached in honey water. Lime gelee, cilantro and fried ginger on top
    Judges' comments: Ruhlman thinks he's pushed himself and has done something creative. Donatella asks if Kaysen thinks it feels like a dessert. "No, I don't think it feels like a dessert because it's squid." Probably the truest words spoken in this episode
  • Traci Des Jardins, salmon roe
    Freeform dessert: Almond and citrus cake with olive oil. Some whipped cream in the center, served with a little stone fruit
    Judges' comments: "It's a little dry," says Donatella
    Special ingredient dessert: Salmon roe and beet salad. Topped with crème fraîche and lemon dressing
    Judges' comments: Donatella: "Did you do anything to the salmon roe?" Ruh roh. Ruhlman: "Love the salad, but there's too much salmon." Double ruh roh
  • Jill Davie, beef shoulder
    Freeform dessert: Limoncello soup, chilled with basil and and heirloom tomatoes
    Judges' comments: Donatella loves it
    Special ingredient dessert: Beef shoulder and blackberry crêpe, with fresh ricotta
    Judges' comments: Donatella: "I'm glad you made the cheese under the time constraints. It was delicious"
  • Aarón Sanchez, duck confit
    Freeform dessert: Banana crêpes
    Judges' comments: No comment
    Special ingredient dessert: Duck confit with cachapa
    Judges' comments: They love the special dessert, even though they they're on the fence whether it's truly, you know, a dessert. Knowlton: "I'm having a hard time with the duck skin." Ruhlman: "I'm not having a hard time with it at all. It's delicious." Knowlton: "But is it dessert?" Ruhlman: "No"
  • Chris Cosentino, tripe
    Freeform dessert: Goat milk rice pudding with honied almonds and summer berries
    Judges' comments: Donatella: "It's perfectly cooked this time." Knowlton: "You made the Italian happy"
    Special ingredient dessert: Fried tripe panzanella
    Judges' comments: Donatella: "I don't mind it. I don't mind it at all—and it's tripe!"
  • John Besh, catfish
    Freeform dessert: White chocolate challah bread pudding, with bananas Foster and a buttermilk panna cotta
    Judges' comments: Ruhlman: "How did you get it so rich? This pudding's fantastic"
    Special ingredient dessert: Impressive array of three different catfish desserts—a truffle filled with grape and catfish ganache; a parfait of catfish in white chocolate, served in a biscuit; and catfish beignets
    Judges' comments: Donatella: "I'm afraid." Alton: "Don't throw up"
  • Morou Ouattara, chorizo
    Freeform dessert: Banana fritters, "the way we make it in Africa." Plus, a cherry sauce, finished with a little chocolate. Next to that, a fresh fruit compote with rambutan
    Judges' comments: Excellent. "Amazing sweetness and depth." Beautifully presented
    Special ingredient dessert: Chorizo risotto
    Judges' comments: Split on whether this could be thought of as a dessert

A commercial for some show called 2 Dudes Catering—and they look liked they'd make and cater food for stoners. A T.G.I. Friday's commercial, a Wheat Thins commercial ("a girl's gotta eat"—because that's what girls eat, I suppose, Wheat Thins), a couple more commercials, and the jury's in.

Despite the guffawing on the judges' part, Besh and his catfish take it. Donatella: "I've never had a catfish truffle before" [and, I can almost assure you, neither has anyone else] "and I liked it." Ruhlman loves the bread pudding. They love that he made three different items from his special ingredient. Besh "survives to cook another day," leaving the remaining seven sweating.

Cosentino: In.

Kaysen: "Squid is your friend," Brown says, "and your friend has kept you here to cook another day."

Morou: Judges weren't overwhelmed but the dishes made strong artistic statements. "You survive to cook another day."

By now, it should be clear that "survive to cook another day" is the NIC version of "You're fired" Except that, obviously, it's a benediction rather than damnation.

Davie: "Beef desert. Gutsy. You survive to cook another day."

Sanchez: "We love the cachapa, unfortunately, it wasn't dessert. You survive to cook another day."

Symon: "You played it a bit safe. It was inspired or borrowed from your pastry chef." He's capable of more, they say, but he survives.

And that leaves ...

Des Jardins: "We would have liked to have seen a little more classic dessert." The kill phrase: "Sometimes good chefs have bad days. You will not be the Next Iron Chef."

OMG. This recapping thing is evil. I'm going to bed.