Tonight is the night: Chef Stephanie Izard will either take her place among the Iron Chef pantheon, or, alternatively, she will not. Since she was a little girl, chef Izard explains, she has dreamed of this moment. “Can someone beat three Iron Chefs in a row?” chef Izard wonders, expositorily. “I’m here to show that it’s possible.”
But is it possible? Alton Brown and friends will be the judges of that. The chairman explains how tonight’s Gauntlet finale will go down: Upstart Izard will compete in a series of three separate battles against three different Iron Chefs, using three distinct special ingredients. If, by evening’s end, her cumulative score from all three battles exceeds the combined score of the collective Iron Chefs, she will live forever in the village of the gods. If she does not, she will go home to Chicago and live there, I guess.
Here’s the competition: Iron Chef Bobby Flay, the first American Iron Chef and hero of the also–Food Network show, Beat Bobby Flay. Do you know the premise of that show? It is the same as this. He is joined by original Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, and Iron Chef Michael Symon, who seems delighted to be here, as he always is.
There is no time to dillydally: The first secret ingredient is … peppers! “This is an ingredient I was not expecting!” says chef Izard. Which Iron Chef she will be cooking peppers against, though, is entirely up to her, and because she is a chef of honor, she goes with southwestern star Bobby Flay. “If I’m going to go up against Iron Chefs, I’ve got to beat them at their own game,” she says. Bobby Flay smirks. After all, he has built his entire career on peppers and smirking.
“I’m going to use as many peppers as I possibly can,” huffs chef Izard. Her plan is to make scallion pancakes, only with peppers, instead of scallions, and then use them as taco shells for Asian-style pepper-marinated beef tacos. It’s a globalized world! Since the main thing she’s learned so far is that “to be Iron Chef–worthy, you have to use the ingredient like a million times in one plate” — true! — she is using all the peppers in all of the ways. This seems like a sound strategy.
King of the Peppers Bobby Flay, on the other hand, is hard at work on the most classic pepper dish there is, chiles relleno — which he is stuffing with eggplant, goat cheese, and jalapeño pesto and then giving a real simple fry. “Anybody can just make a hot, spicy dish, but chiles have flavor,” he muses. “Chiles have feelings. They want all their personalities to be appreciated.” Chiles: They’re just like us.
Frankly, I don’t know what to think, but luckily, tonight’s judges seem to have a lot of opinions. Exceedingly French chef and restaurateur Ludo Lefebvre, for example, loves chef Izard’s beefy pepper taco, although he does worry that if he were eating it blind, he might not “understand zee pepper concept.” Veteran Iron Chef judge Anya Fernald mostly agrees. Next is Bobby Flay’s Veracruz-style chile relleno, which is also extremely delicious, and perfectly peppered. As Ludo muses, Frenchly, “You use very well, zee pepper.”
Who is the winner? That is a revelation for another time. For now: on to the second secret ingredient, which is … cheese! Chef Izard boldly picks Iron Chef Symon as her next competitor. With another 45 minutes on the clock, chef Izard settles on a plan for a simple blue-cheese ice cream, which is very on brand, assuming her brand is making very strange ice creams. “This round, I want to pull back just a bit,” she explains, and there’s nothing more restrained than a classic blue-cheese ice cream. For his part, Iron Chef Michael Symon is going for a straightforward cheese-filled pasta with a brown-butter chicken-liver sauce. “Hmmm, that sounds weird,” says chef Izard, like she isn’t the one grating Parmesan cheese into a simmering vat of chocolate.
Then everything goes wrong for everyone. Chef Izard goes to test her blue-cheese ice cream, and finds that it is a soupy, salty, partially frozen mess. “I don’t even know what to do!” she mumbles, frantically moving her soup ice cream from one ice-cream maker to another. “This might be the end of my Iron Chef gauntlet.” Meanwhile, Iron Chef Symon is just affably bopping along, stuffing his tasty-looking tortellini with no problem, when he abruptly decides to scrap the whole thing and start over with new and better pasta dough. Eleven minutes to go!
Turns out, everything is totally fine. Chef Izard coats her perfect blue-cheese ice cream in chocolate parm sauce. Chef Symon finishes his perfect second round of pasta. All is well.
The only snag, says Ludo Lefebvre at judgment, is that the one cheese he doesn’t like is blue cheese … pause … pause … unless it is in chef Izard’s bizarro ice cream, which is transcendent. “I really like it; it’s genius!” he raves. “You have some ball, like we say in my country.” After they figure out what he is talking about, everyone laughs uproariously.
Alas, it turns out that Iron Chef Symon has significantly less ball. No one thinks his tortellini with brown-butter liver sauce is very creative, even if it is good. Anya Fernald feels it does not exude “an essence of cheese.”
Time for the final battle. The opponent: Iron Chef Morimoto. The ingredient: tilefish. It is a nightmare. Morimoto is a fish champion. And tilefish is a fish. “I’m just going to make food that tastes good and hope that my flavors can get me through this,” says chef Izard, breaking down the 25 sea beast for a creative interpretation of laksa, a spicy noodle soup. Only, instead of making regular noodle noodles, she’ll make experimental noodles out of extruded tilefish. She is also doing a tilefish dumpling, and assorted accoutrements, including grilled pineapple and spicy ceviche.
Here is what Iron Chef Morimoto makes: everything. Tilefish with uni and XO sauce steamed in bamboo leaves, and also steamed tilefish cheeks with black beans, and also a tilefish crudo with grilled bell peppers and fresh mozzarella, and also grilled tilefish soup, and then rice with tilefish bones and soy sauce, just for good measure. Classic underachiever. The problem is that there are a lot of components, any one of which could cause problems and ruin the whole thing. (To avoid this situation in my own life, I generally try to do almost nothing.)
Soon enough, it is time for final judgement. Chef Izard, you’re up first. Again. Ludo Lefebvre loves the “exotic flavor” of her broth; and if fish noodles “do not look that good,” they are extremely delicious, taste-wise. Anya Fernald wonders if maybe there could have been fewer of them? Whatever, they’re great. Very tilefish-y.
Now it all depends on Iron Chef Morimoto’s multi-dish tilefish extravaganza, and the verdict is mixed: the steamed tilefish with the XO sauce wasn’t tender enough, but the uni was good; the presentation on the black-bean fish cheeks was lovely, but the beans were too beany. The fish soup was perfect, “so Japanese, so precious,” but the crudo, while beautiful, wasn’t fishy enough. “This is going to be hard,” sighs Ludo. Oh, Ludo. It always is.
The final tally: Iron Chef Bobby Flay won the first round, with 31/40 pepper points, compared to chef Izard’s 27. But chef Izard made a comeback in the second round, beating Iron Chef Michael Symon, with 32 cheese points to his 26. She’s ahead by two points, and there’s still the Morimoto ruling to go. The chairman announces the news: In their head-to-head fish battle, Morimoto got 30 points, but chef Izard got 31, which means that, with a total of 90 points to the Iron Chefs’ collective 87, chef Izard is now officially an Iron Chef!
It all feels a little anticlimactic, honestly, after the six weeks of anticipation — but then, perhaps that is always how history feels, in the moment it is happening. “Yes! Yes! Yes!” cheers now–Iron Chef Izard. Morimoto says she’s going to be great. Bobby Flay says she’ll get a lot of work on reality television now, which is the greatest prize there is. “Iron Chef Izard,” she says, taking her place on the podium. “I think I like the sound of that.” And for once, in this cruel and unforgiving world, it seems that justice has been served.