I have come to love Food Network's The Next Iron Chef. The first season it struck me as gimmicky, and I was severely disappointed that my favorite chef, John Besch, didn't win. (In fact, the second season my favorite chef, Amanda Freitag, didn't win either.) Over time, and especially as the new Iron Chefs have proven successful, my attitude has changed. I realized that my original argument ("Who are these guys?") was as valid of most of the original Iron Chefs (except Morimoto, whom I recognized from the original Iron Chef program) as it was the NIC contestants, given that I don't live in New York where most of them have restaurants. Nor did I watch their other shows on Food Network.*
This season is especially fun. Most of the chefs have appeared on other Food Network shows** and therefore bring with them their reputations and relationships with each other. This clearly affects the mood in the kitchen.
So, herewith, my opinions of the chefs through episode 6:
[Do I really need a spoiler warning at this point? Sigh. WARNING: SPOILERS]
Chef Most Deserving Of Being The Next Iron Chef: Elizabeth Falkner. Three words: tuna jerky souffle. No, wait, nine words: tuna jerky souffle with tuna jerky cream dashi sauce. As Alton Brown commented, the words are enough to fill one with dread. That she actually won that challenge given such a horrid ingredient was remarkable. (Forget that she only had twenty-five minutes: that she was able to make anything remotely palatable from tuna jerky is impressive.) Anne Burrell's complaint that Falkner is a pastry chef and doesn't cook "real food" ignores both Falkner's work in the competition as as a whole and that of the other judges. It is as valid for Falkner to rely on her ice cream/souffle skills as it is for Burrell to return to her Italian cuisine roots, or for Zakarian to concentrate on French style preparations. Falkner's "country" simply happens to be desserts rather than an actual place. She also seems unflappable, which I deeply respect.
Chef I'd Most Like To Have As A Dinner Companion at a Fancy Restaurant: Geoffrey Zakarian. Urbane and intelligent, he'd be a wonderful addition to any sophisticated party. Although, actually, my ideal dinner companion would be the delightfully snarky Alton Brown. (I loved his comment to Michael Chiarrello, when the chef said that he could cook live Maine lobster in sixty minutes ("so could any first year culinary student").)
Handsomest Chef: Marcus Samuelsson. Hands down. If it weren't the expressive eyes, it would be the cheekbones to kill for.
Chef I'd Least Like to Work For: Alex Guarnaschelli. Don't get me wrong, I like Guarnaschelli -- on other shows (or even in NIC when she's commenting, not cooking). She's funny and insightful, and was the chef I was rooting for at the beginning of the competition. But man, is she a holy terror in the kitchen. She also tends to panic, a bad thing in an Iron Chef.
Chef I'd Most Like To Teach Me To Cook: Anne Burrell. She seems very personable, and my hunch is that she would have the right mix of encouragement and pushing. Also, I love the hair.
Chef I'd Most Like To Be Related To, And Have Over Every Thanksgiving: Beau MacMillan. As Simon Majumdar observed as MacMillan was eliminated, he seems like a genuinely nice guy.
Favorite judge: Majumdar. Maybe it's the accent.
Least favorite judge: Judy Joo. She gushes, which I find annoying in the extreme.
Judge Or Contestant I'd Most Like To Simply Hang With: Michael Symon. As with Beau Macmillan, he seems like a nice guy. Also, he giggles, which I find cute. Not to mention the shaved head.
All in all, a fun show. I can hardly wait for the last two episodes.
* Actually, the very first season of Iron Chef America, Wolfgang Puck was an Iron Chef. Him I had heard of.
**The message board hostility towards Elizabeth Falkner has often centered around the fact that she is not a"Food Network Chef but Bravo chef," as one commenter put it, along with the fact that she was eliminated relatively early from Top Chef Masters. This is ridiculous: the fact that she is not affiliated with FN does not diminish her skills, and as far as the other competition goes, any chef can have a bad competition. The speculation that the competition is rigged to result in the Next Iron Chef being a woman does not even deserve comment.