Living life between the barrel staves in Bourbon Country

The Final Word: Iron Chef White House Battle

The IC Chairman was less omnipresent than normal, being beamed in via closed circuit with Alton Brown as his onsite surrogate.

It was promised to be “the biggest night in culinary history”. It would regardless of the outcome be, no doubt, one of the more popular blog and twitter topics on Monday morning. But Sam Sifton and Kim Severson of The New York Times kicked things into high gear with not one, not two, but three separate blog posts on last night’s “Super Chef” battle on the Food Network. Dawn Fallik of The Wall Street Journal had her blog post up within 30 minutes of the show’s conclusion. The blogosphere and twitterverse were either cheering or apoplectic. The verdict had been rendered.

The Premise

I’ve already discussed the much hyped Obama administration foray into gardening (see The Power of the Chef), so the premise was certainly more plausible than a Dan Brown novel. While one can certainly cry “hype” considering the Food Network ran promos every 5 minutes for the duration of the New Year’s weekend, ultimately I like the idea of a White House engaged enough to co-opt a show about food competition to promote it’s agenda on sustainable and healthy eating. It’s no different than Nancy Reagan pairing herself with celebrities to promote her “Just Say No To Drugs” program during the 1980’s. At least First Lady Obama’s cause célèbre isn’t as controversial as Hillary Clinton’s. Remember health care reform? Oh, right….

The Judges

Anyone who watches Iron Chef on a regular basis is use to a bizarre array of celebrity judges. Culinary personalities, journalists, restaurateurs, athletes, actors, and comedians – it seems everyone has an equal opportunity to be a judge on the show. Knowledge of food, witty banter and – let’s be frank – good manners are not a requirement. But I still found the choice of judges to be somewhat odder than normal. Nigella Lawson is a well known cook, cookbook author, and TV personality in her own right. Her personal story, more than a little tragic, is one that is well worth reading. She has been described by many as the Queen of Food Porn, and they weren’t talking about her cooking either. By the time Flay/Comerford presented their dishes I thought I would need a cigarette and a nap if Nigella licked her fingers one more time. I mean really! She even had Ted Allen (formerly of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) drooling. Watch closely as he stands at the judge’s podium – he sneaks a look straight at her cleavage. The Food Network could put on a show called “Watching Nigella Eat”, about nothing more than just that, and it would be a hit, pulling in that all important demographic of men between the ages of puberty and death.

Jane Seymour was a stranger choice. Sifton in one of his Times blogs this morning incorrectly identifies her as British, along with Nigella. Seymour in fact became a US citizen in 2005. If Nigella was the culinary judge, Seymour represented the celebrity.

Natalie Coughlin, the third judge, is a multiple medalist at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. In Beijing she became the first female athlete to win 6 medals at a single Olympics. As an Iron Chef virgin judge, she held her own and was unafraid to offer opinions that were less than complimentary (calling Batali’s radishes “burnt” and “bitter”). So in the end, there was only one point regarding the judges that bothered me. They were all women.

I’m sure in the history of the show there are other battles that featured a single sex judges panel, but I can’t ever remember 3 female judges. Ted Allen was demoted to the roll of floor reporter for the evening. Mo Rocco was presumeably considered too far afield as his commentary never, ever, has anything to do with the food. Was Jeffrey Steingarten’s schedule too busy? Steingarten, IC veteran judge, food writer for Vogue, and author of The Man Who Ate Everything, would have been a great choice. It’s possible the powers to be were afraid he might prove too tough a critic (he announced on the most recent Next Iron Chef competition that he “wouldn’t pay” for the food one of the finalists served). Steingarten is a huge Batali fan, and it would have been worth the price of admission to see him staring incredulously as Nigella Lawson licked all three of Emeril’s remoulades off her fingers, one by one. While a male perspective is not necessary to give the judging validity, I feel it would have balanced out the panel a bit.

There is the as of yet unexplained absence of the Chairman, at least in person. Presumably actor Marc Decascos is enjoying a career renaissance and that is what kept him away from arguably the biggest Iron Chef battle ever. His appearance via closed circuit was a little unnerving. Maybe he didn’t pass the security clearance. I know of a couple of White House dinner guests who could give him some pointers on getting through security.

The Garden

So the White House garden didn’t qualify as organic due to soil contamination, big deal. Good luck finding ANY urban garden where the soil doesn’t have some level of contaminants in it. The Obama’s arrived in Washington with the food world already in a buzz, ensuring that Rick Bayless never again has an empty table at one of his restaurants (particularly Topolobampo). I love the idea of a garden at the White House. The entire idea behind the presidential residence is that it is suppose to be a house – not a castle, not a mansion (though it is certainly that). And house, after all, should have a garden. This is one aspect of the Obama adminstration that I hope is around for a very long time.

There was one moment in the show that passed so quickly I’d be surprised if very many people picked up on it. White House Assistant Chef Sam Kass was being interviewed in the VIP box and spoke of the amount of produce the garden produced in the six months since its inception. Not all of the food is used by the White House. Some of it, Kass stated, was donated to a soup kitchen “in our neighborhood.” That little phrase, “in our neighborhood”, speaks volumes of what makes America different. The White House is on a street, not a walled compound. It’s not the Forbidden City in Beijing, or Buckingham Palace in London. The White House, the home of the President, has a soup kitchen in its neighborhood. That should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever visited D.C., as Lafayette Park has a pretty regular population of homeless people mixed in with the political protestors. The food’s not going across town, it’s being grown and used in its neighborhood. It feeds world leaders and the homeless alike. That may ultimately be the garden’s biggest bounty. It is, without question, the meaning of sustainability.

The Battle

I’ve read quite a few complaints that the show could have been condensed to an hour rather than it’s running time of two. I don’t agree. One reason the regular show can be shown in an hour time slot when the competition time is itself 60 minutes is much of the cooking ends up on the editing room floor. By stretching the Super Chef battle to two hours, much more of the actual cooking could be shown. For the first 30 minutes Emeril seemed out of his element, reduced to making remoulades and following Mario Batali’s orders. Frankly I was a little disappointed he showed none of the personality and vigor of his Emeril Live persona. Had he simply mouthed the word “Bam” toward the camera one time it would have substantially lightened the mood. Instead one of America’s great chefs seemed in the weeds from the beginning. Bobby Flay’s humor was likewise absent, both chefs obviously feeling the pressure. Comerford, in contrast, never lost her focus or her composure. When you cook for presidents, Prime Ministers and dignitaries, you play Iron Chef every day.

Hopefully, no health inspectors were watching as Batali stirred a sauce, stuck the spoon in Lagasse’s mouth, put the spoon back in the sauce, stirred it, tasted the sauce himself, and then walked off stirring the sauce still with the same spoon. The judges, it would seem got a little more of the chefs’ je ne sais quoi than they bargained for. It was probably just Batali’s way of exchanging bodily fluids with Nigella Lawson.

The Food

Still think this wasn’t an important cultural event? Three of the top 20 search terms on Google for January 3rd were “White House Chef”, “Natalie Coughlin” and “Alton Brown”. No word on how “Icicle Radishes” were trending.

Too much has been made over the White House sweet potatoes. Bobby Flay asked the First Lady a question, possibly scripted. She answered, and everyone include sweet potatoes in their presentations. Nuff said.

I do agree with the criticism that for a show purported to be about healthy eating, there was a lot of frying going on. I had issues with the turkey roulade from the beginning, the word turducken kept echoing around in the recesses of my brain. There were cries from many points that a battle featuring vegetables should have forgone the proteins altogether. The objections came mainly from vegetarian quarters. Let’s be reasonable, asking Batali, Lagasse and Flay to forego meat would have been like asking Paula Dean to hold the butter. The challenge was to create dishes that made American go “Mmmm.” While there is nothing wrong with vegetarian food, it’s not how a majority of the country eats. And it’s unlikely that Iron Chef Michael Symon would have been watching the show and twittering about if there wasn’t at least one pig thrown in the mix.

Midway through the battle I made my opinion known via Twitter that I thought Lagasse was playing too close to what was expected from him, something I think may have cost his side the win. Adding carrots to the beignets might be delicious (and I’m sure it was), but it’s not going to win any originality awards on this show.

The final dishes ran as follows:

Iron Chef Mario Batali / Super Chef Emeril Lagasse

  1. Scallops with Radishes and Fennel Salad
  2. Oyster and Salad Trio with Three Remoulades
  3. Sweet Potato and Ricotta Raviolo
  4. Duet of American Birds (Quail and Heritage Turkey)
  5. Sweet Carrot Beignets with Café Brulot

Iron Chef Bobby Flay / White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford

  1. Fennel and Apple Salad with Oyster
  2. Fresh Garden Salad with Lobster and Squid
  3. Broccoli Clam Chowder
  4. All American BBQ
  5. Sweet Potato Tart with White House Honey

Which side best represented the secret ingredients – the produce from the White House garden? Look closely at the names of the dishes. Batali/Lagasse presented scallops with radishes and fennel salad. Flay/Comerford presented Fennel and Apple Salad with Oyster. And so on. For the winning side, the vegetables lead in name – and apparently in the judges’ minds – in other ways as well.

The Verdict

Much of the internet was quick to call “Foul!” after the team of Flay/Comerford defeated Batali/Lagasse. Batali is in my opinion, and that of many others, the toughest chef on the show to go up against (with the possible exception of Masaharu Morimoto). To be honest I fully expected Batali to win. I also think his sous chef Anne Burrell might be the best sous on the show, though on her own I find her unlikeable in the extreme. Even so, I find Sifton’s cry that “The Fix Was In!”, assuming he was serious, a bit hard to believe. Such a rigging would require the complicity of all the chefs involved, three of which have media brands to protect which would be subject to intense criticism and ridicule should the deed be made known. It would also, one would presume, require the knowledge of the judges – or would at least require a rather remarkable amount of stupidity on their part to not realize the verdict announced was not the one they rendered. One would also think that Chef Comerford, not exactly a household name or a TV personality, would have to have gone along with the plot. For all the fun the night promised and brought, Comerford operates in the political world. While it’s possible a deal was struck for Batali to throw the match in exchange for Michelle Obama wearing that hideous orange skirt on national TV (it’s his colors!), one would think the participation of the First Lady would ensure the proceedings were fair and no pay offs were made to ensure a favorable outcome. After all, Chef Comerford is from the Philippines – not Nebraska.

There is simpler answer for what appeared to many to be an upset victory by Flay/Comerford. The secret ingredients were from her garden. Think about it for a minute. If I grow a carrot in my garden in Kentucky, and you grow a carrot in your garden somewhere else, we don’t end up with the same carrot. Variables such as soil, weather and temperature all affect the final product and its taste. That is the very principle of the French concept of terroir. It’s possible that Chef Comerford just knew her produce better than the other chefs. In Asian cultures, meat is the accompaniment to the vegetables in a meal, a point Anthony Bourdain has stated he expects to become the future in this country as well. In America and Europe the opposite is true. Chef Comerford’s Philippine background would likely have given her an edge in ensuring the vegetables were the focus. The backgrounds of Batali and Lagasse may have actually worked against them in this case.

A second answer was actually eluded to by Chef Batali’s introduction of their courses. He made two, Chef Lagasse made two, and they collaborated on one. On the other hand Chefs Flay and Comerford seem to have collaborated more on all of their dishes, perhaps giving the added points in the originality category. Emeril went straight for his comfort zone, something which is routinely criticized by judges on the show. In many battles, the deciding margin of victory is not taste, but originality or even less frequently I think, presentation (a category I despise, probably because I’m not very good at it). Presentation is the score that is never discussed, at least not directly. Sometimes a comment will be made on how attractive a dish is, but most of the time it is the taste and originality of the dish that is the focus of the judge’s discussion. Presentation, in that respect, is the stealth score that can sneak up on a chef in the end.

So I don’t think the verdict was rigged, though there is a mischievous side of me that could almost believe Batali is capable of deciding to throw the match completely on his own. It would make a great dinner story. “Yes” Batali would say over a bottle or two of wine, “I told Emeril ‘Let’s let the kids win’. I’ll burn the radishes, you f**k up the turkey.”

In my mind’s eye, I almost wish that is what happened.

What Others Are Saying:

The New York Times – November 3rd, 2009

The Wall Street Journal post battle blog – January 3rd, 2010

The New York Times post battle blog 1 – January 4th, 2010

The New York Times post battle blog 2 – January 4th, 2010

The New York Times post battle blog 3 – January 4th, 2010

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