How a week can change you. Seven days ago, I cared about no one on Iron Chef Gauntlet, and now I am emotionally invested in them all. “Not everybody’s going to make it out,” observes chef Sawyer, my bearded woodsman, who has finally figured out the premise of this show. “Somebody’s going to cry, and somebody’s going to bleed, and somebody’s going to win.”
As a great man once said, “Allez! Cuisine!”
Tonight, the Cuisine we are Allez-ing is … pig! And what a pig! Even in death, you can tell he is excited to be on TV. Conveniently, the pig comes pre-divided into six distinct cuts of meat, but the twist is that some cuts of pig are more desirable than other cuts of pig. Chef Sawyer draws the loin and is sad, because it is a basic cut, for basic people. Chef Izard gets the belly and seems reasonably excited about it, though not as excited as chef Grueneberg, who gets the head, which is her personal favorite. Chef Dady gets the shoulder, and feels good about it, on account of how he is from Texas, while chef Gulotta gets the feet and tail, which he also feels good about, because he is from Louisiana. The only problem is that chef Gulotta usually cooks these ingredients for at least three hours. That leaves young chef Nakajima with the ham, which worries him slightly, because he only makes seafood. Let the gauntlet be thrown!
Chef Gulotta gets to work pressure-cooking his trotters for some hoof-and-prawn dumplings. “Everything is banking on that the feet and the tail will be done in time,” he says. I note that his version of anxiety is about the level of my version of the calmest I have ever been in my entire life. He is making his dumpling dough without measuring; measuring is time-consuming, and also, it is for wimps. Chef Grueneberg has a similar plan, only she’s doing wontons, not dumplings; and she’s using sweetbreads and seared pork cheeks, not pig’s feet; and also, she’s using premade wonton wrappers, to better focus on the pig’s brains. Otherwise, though, same thing.
You know who does not approve of this decision? Chef Sawyer, who feels strongly that a true Iron Chef would make her own wonton wrappers, and her failure to do so is a sign of feeble character. Luckily, nobody has asked him. For his part, he has invented something called “pork-o tonnato,” which is a pork(o) version of vitello tonnato, a classic Italian veal dish with tuna-mayo sauce. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it, I guess? Anyway, his version is just like that, only with pork-o instead of veal, and smoked scallops instead of tuna, to hopefully compensate for the oppressive blandness of his loin.
Across the kitchen, young chef Nakajima is marinating some ham slices for his toasted-sesame-ham salad — a choice! — while early front-runner chef Izard is twice-cooking her pork belly, to be served over Chinese silver-needle noodles. A cool thing about silver-needle noodles is that they look white, but turn transparent when you cook them, because of how the starch gelatinizes. Science! Our old pal chef Dady, meanwhile, is working on Texan pork-shoulder ragù with celery-root agnolotti — or he was, until his agnolotti dough came out too thin, and he had to make it into ravioli. Like a happy marriage, pasta dough requires compromise
As the clock runs down, Alton urges the chefs not to overthink things, but also not to underthink them, either. Truly, words to live by.
Time to taste, and it is a general disappointment all around. Chairman Alton finds chef Sawyer’s pork-o “incredibly interesting,” but also messy and undercooked. Chef Izard’s pork belly, on the other hand, is overcooked and chewy, and frankly, her silver-needle noodles and oyster sauce would have been better without it. If he is honest, the chairman rather liked chef Dady’s pork-shoulder ragù over ravioli, only it “isn’t a pork dish.” Still, it’s a step ahead of Nakajima’s microgreen salad with ham slivers, which is “flirting with blandness.” Both dumpling dishes fare notably better: Chef Gulotta’s trotter-’n’-prawn dumplings are very “pork-forward,” while chef Grueneberg’s wontons are “very porky,” even if her wrappers are a bit overworked.
“I’m so happy!” chef Grueneberg beams. “Something’s working for me today!” She is correct. Also, she is the winner, despite the wrappers. Now, it is time for the bad news: Though many dishes were not successful, the least successful was chef Nakajima’s flavorless microgreens. “I thought chef Sawyer was going to be at the bottom!” says chef Nakajima, speaking for both of us. Apparently, chef Grueneberg thought so, too, because after extremely careful consideration, she sentences him to face off against chef Nakajima in the Secret Ingredient Showdown. If it helps, she feels very bad about it.
“It’s intimidating, going against chef Sawyer,” chef Nakajima says. “He has a lot more experience. I need seafood!” And the secret ingredient is … bananas! (Also, plantains, banana blossoms, and banana leaves. Anything banana-ish, basically.) If there is comfort, it is that chef Sawyer doesn’t know anything about bananas, either. It is a powerful reminder that our similarities are greater than our differences.
The chefs decide to cook everything except bananas. Since chef Nakajima’s plan is to do “Japanese food no matter what,” he begins marinating salmon roe, or as I like to call it, the bananas of the sea. Chef Sawyer kicks off his process by attacking a pile of onions and garlic. Chef Nakajima starts on a tama-miso paste, which involves miso and eggs, but not bananas. Finally, chef Sawyer begins hacking at a pile of banana blossoms, which he will serve with artichokes, because they are very similar, in spirit and in flavor. It is a brilliant idea, unless it isn’t.
Eventually, chef Nakajima must confront the banana. “I’m trying to think of it as soft, sweet seafood,” he muses, grating plantains into his miso sauce. I worry that I will never look at a banana the same way again, but I support him. While we are on the subject: Did you know that a Cavendish banana is only ripe when it has black spots? It’s true. In celebration, chef Sawyer is hard at work on a boca-negra banana cake. “I’ve made this cake plenty of times,” he says. “Has it worked out every time? No.” I admire his confidence!
Sixty minutes later, here are the menus:
Chef Sawyer opens with leche de tigre ceviche, only with bananas. For his middle course, he’s serving a medley of banana blossom and artichoke wrapped in a banana leaf, and then he’s topping it all off with the boca-negra chocolate cake with bananas baked inside.
Chef Nakajima starts off his banana frenzy with scallops and spot prawns in plantain-miso sauce. He’s following that up with Thai snapper and unripe-banana nanban — chunks of both marinated in pickle juice and fried — and for his finale, salmon-and-banana kuwayaki, which is pan-fried and covered in a sweet glaze.
Who will the winner be? That is up to tonight’s judges, Food Network impresario Anne Burrell, and bona fide Iron Chef Jose Garces, both of whom are very impressed with chef Sawyer’s ceviche. A strong start! Unfortunately, his Italy-meets-the-Maldives banana-blossom-and-artichoke mélange is somewhat more controversial. Anne Burrell thinks there are too many artichokes. Jose Garces thinks there is just the right number of artichokes. Then again, Anne likes the chocolate-banana cake, and Jose is “not thrilled with it.” The “outside has some issues,” see.
Jose Garces has absolutely no issues with chef Nakajima’s plantain miso, which is sculptural in its beauty and transcendent in its taste. Nobody would expect salmon roe and banana to work so well together, and yet somehow they do, and isn’t that the magic of the culinary arts? According to Anne, the nanban “doesn’t scream banana,” but is delicious, nonetheless. The kuwayaki makes no sense to either of them, but on the bright side, they both agree it is well-cooked.
“It’s going to be a tough decision,” Jose Garces opines, gravely. Just kidding! When the scores come in, it’s a landslide: 33/40 points for chef Nakajima versus 25/40 for chef Sawyer. “He smoooooooked him,” gasps chef Grueneberg. “It was an honor to be here,” agrees chef Sawyer. He came to show America “what someone who loves food can do with it,” and so, in a way, he has achieved what he came for: If he has fallen, he has done so with dignity.