Last Night’s Iron Chef Gauntlet Featured Fishy Desserts and Pickled Octopus Suckers — Here’s the Recap

This doesn’t look promising. Photo: Patrick Wymore

There are just five chefs left, which is a reminder that a show like this feels very quick when there were only seven contenders to begin with. “Does is seem like the kitchen is a little bigger today?” threatens Alton Brown, channeling his inner Disney villain. “Oh, no. There are just fewer of us in here. That will continue.” Harsh, but true!

But first, chairman Brown has a few musings on the nature of the universe. “Some believe that the universe is split in two. There is yin and yang. Light and dark,” he philosophizes. “In the culinary world, our yin and yang are sweet and savory!” For tonight’s Chairman’s Challenge, each chef will use a single ingredient — blue cheese, sesame seeds, fish sauce, beets, or black beans — to create two separate but equal dishes, one sweet and one savory.

I know: Who could have seen this coming?

Chef Gulotta is gunning for the fish sauce — classic dessert ingredient, the chocolate of the sea! — but chef Nakajima gets to it first, leaving poor chef Gulotta to settle for the Gorgonzola. It’s a good lesson: In life, we all must settle for the Gorgonzola sometimes. Chef Grueneberg books it for the beets — solid choice — and chef Dady takes the sesame seeds, which leaves poor chef Izard with the black beans. “I have no idea what I’m going to do. I literally have no idea what I’m going to do!” I will level with you: I have no idea what she is going to do, either.

“The problem with blue cheese is that it can steal a show if you let it,” reflects chef Gulotta. “So even though it is a blue-cheese challenge, you’ve got to know how to rein it in.” Accordingly, he will be doing a caramelized blue cheese, beet, and crab salad (savory), and a blue-cheese-cardamom ice cream with bacon, candied squash, and pumpkin-seed brittle (sweet). I can imagine this could be good, kind of! Meanwhile, chef Nakajima, who got the coveted fish sauce, is now coming to terms with the fact that fish sauce is indeed very fishy. For his savory course, he is braising shellfish in sake, fish sauce, and sesame oil, which is simple; for his sweet dish, he is making yogurt with berry-and-fish sauce topped with candied pecans, which is not.

You know who had a good idea? Chef Grueneberg, when she went for the beets. Across the kitchen, she is grating beet pieces into milk for a beety panna cotta (sweet), and also deep-frying panko-breaded beet rounds for some beet schnitzel (savory). Chef Dady, king of the sesame seeds, is taking Alton Brown’s yin-yang thing very seriously, and is at work on two black-and-white dishes: a white-sesame cheese cake with halva and black-sesame coulis; and a soba-noodle combo served with a duo of sesame dipping sauces, one black and one white. “I’m not really all that nervous about this challenge so far,” he says, calmly tossing his sesame seeds. This is the kind of confidence that worries me! Chef Izard is also worried, specifically about her black-bean dishes, on account of how she still isn’t totally sure what they are: black-bean-miso ice cream, and … something else TBD. “This challenge is making me extremely nervous,” she grimaces. “Does anyone else want to hurl right now, or is it just me?”

Time is running out, both for this competition, and in our lives. Luckily, chef Izard has managed to invent a new dish, which is Indian chaat, only with black beans instead of chickpeas, which sounds … fine? The main thing it has going for it is that it exists. And time! It is possible that chef Nakajima’s clams are irredeemably salty, and his savory dish is ruined. Alas, there is nothing to be done now but hope.

Chairman Brown makes the rounds. In general: not terrible! He is very impressed with chef Grueneberg’s “awesome” beet schnitzel, and if her beety panna cotta didn’t quite set right, it is at least “very beet-forward.” On the whole, a strong and Iron Chef-y showing! Alton Brown is somewhat less taken with chef Izard’s combo: her black-bean ice cream with tamarind-pomegranate caramel is surprisingly delicious, despite the unfortunate plating, but the chaat is overwhelmingly sour and inadequately beany.

Stressful! Photo: Patrick Wymore

Brown loves chef Nakajima’s fluffy, fishy yogurt, but alas, he does not love his braised-shellfish salt fest, and unfortunately for everyone else, it’s all downhill from there. Chef Dady’s yin-yang concept was a flop — his black-sesame seeds were good, but his white-sesame seeds were not — and while Alton was truly moved by chef Gulotta’s cardamom-Gorgonzola ice cream, even if it was too salty, he found the crab-and-cheese salad oily beyond repair.

There is no time for false deliberation: The winner is chef Grueneberg, for the second week in a row. Just when Alton Brown thought he had seen all possible preparations of beets, she showed him more. It is inspirational, in a way. Unfortunately, where there are winners, there are losers, and tonight’s loser is poor chef Gulotta with the greasy blue cheese. He did not see this coming. “I thought I was near the head of the pack!” he says, bereft. This puts chef Grueneberg in the awkward (but advantageous) position of choosing who must go up against him in the Secret Ingredient Showdown. “I honestly have a sick feeling. I don’t want to do this,” she says, but then she gets over it and picks chef Nakajima. For the second week in a row!

All Alton Brown has ever wanted in his life is to say, “Release the kraken,” and together, we bear witness to this dream coming true. “Release the krrraaaakkken!” he bellows, revealing a large tray of assorted octopus. Finally, chef Nakajima gets the seafood he has been waiting for! It is only a shame it is under these circumstances.

Chef Nakajima wastes no time bludgeoning a row of quick-cooking but fibrous baby Thai octopuses with a sake bottle, much to the amusement of everyone (except the octopuses). The plan is to cook them with turnips blanched in chicken stock — dashi would be ideal, but then, what is life if not a series of compromises? Everyone is very concerned, though, because chef Nakajima also grabbed one of the big octopuses, and he hasn’t even started it yet. The twist is that he’s only using the suckers, which he’s pickling in vinegar. Surprise!

As for chef Gulotta, he’s busy painting chorizo-harissa oil onto an octopus, which will become part of his cuttlefish ink-dyed paella negra. Also, he is whipping up lime-leaf aïoli, also with cuttlefish ink. Additionally, he is smashing together curry paste. For good measure, he is marinating cherry tomatoes using a vacuum sealer. What I am trying to say is that there is a lot happening.

Soon, it’s over. Here are the dishes that will determine their fates.

Chef Gulotta: octopus salad with fresh tomato curry and fried avocado; baby octopus over cuttlefish-ink aïoli with tomato-olive-citrus marmalade; paella negra with octopus and assorted shellfish; and lime-leaf aïoli.

Ready to bring it. Photo: Eddy Chen

Chef Nakajima: tempura-fried octopus and shimeji mushrooms, and a single, fried shiso leaf; salt-pickled cucumbers with fried octopus suckers in a simple soy vinaigrette, and topped with flying-fish roe; braised baby octopus with turnips and a miso vinaigrette.

It all comes down to the thoughts and feelings of tonight’s judges, chef/cookbook author/restaurateur/television personality Giada De Laurentiis, and registered Iron Chef Marc Forgione. Giada loves the marinated tomatoes in chef Gulotta’s octopus salad, but Marc feels that perhaps the dish was not so much an octopus curry as a nice gazpacho that just happened to have some octopus in it, which would be fine if this weren’t the octopus challenge. They are both rather taken with the punchy grilled baby octopus — Giada loves the tomatoes, which is the thing about Giada, but she feels strongly that the paella didn’t have enough octopus; and, if he is honest, Marc does not disagree.

Chef Nakajima’s tasting gets off to a rough start, because he cannot properly communicate how much lemon the judges should squeeze over their tempura-fried-octopus-wrapped shimeji mushrooms. First, he tells them to squeeze the lemon, and then he tells them not to squeeze the lemon. It’s too late, though. They’ve already squeezed the lemon. Giada De Laurentiis will never forgive him, you can tell in her eyes. (Marc liked it.) The pickled octopus suckers, though, are a mutual hit — it’s not every day that you turn an octopus into a pickle, Giada observes, correctly — and they agree that braised octopus and turnips exude elegance and finesse.

“Hope for the best and expect the worst,” chef Nakajima tells himself, but that will not be necessary. Though the judges are split, the numbers do not lie: He is the decisive winner, with 32/40 points, to chef Gulotta’s 27/40. “Sometimes, it’s just luck,” chairman Brown tells fallen chef Gulotta, meditating on the randomness of success, and of failure. “It’s a bummer,” he agrees, before disappearing behind the iron curtain. And the saddest part is that he will never look at blue cheese the same way again.

Iron Chef Gauntlet Recap: Pickled Octopus and Fishy Desserts