Iron Chef America: Flay vs. Bayless

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I make it a point never to assign myself stories for this site. What keeps everything so fresh and alive is that it’s all spontaneous—if one day I make a lemon tart the next day I may kill a coyote. You never know what you’re going to get.

So that’s the first reason I resisted Iron Chef: America. I didn’t want to make a task of watching it.

The second reason, though, is more substantial. The first incarnation of Iron Chef America sucked. In fact, it sucked so hard I can barely remember it. There was a first incarnation of Iron Chef America, right?

But tonight was a completely different story. Tonight I was grabbed by what ultimately proved to be great television—Iron Chef America: Flay vs. Bayless.

Let’s break down what made this episode so great:

(1) The competitors. This was a good match. I’ve eaten at Flay’s Mesa Grill and loved it and I know Rick Bayless has an impeccable reputation as a champion of Mexican cuisine. (Although his impeccability was pecked a bit by Anthony Bourdain when Bayless endorsed the Burger King Southwestern Sandwich. “In one stroke, he’s negated everything he’s ever said, everything he ever claimed to stand for,” wrote Bourdain.) But, anyway, it was a good match up.

(2) The commentator’s Alton Brown. Perhaps he was the commentator in the show’s first incarnation, but I didn’t really know his work then. Now I make it a point to watch “Good Eats” whenever I have the opportunity. Some of his gimmicks and humor is hoaky (like the vampire garlic episode I watched tonight) but he’s incredibly smart and these gimmicks serve to drive his points home. And he’s the furthest thing from pretentious I can imagine. I like Alton Brown.

(3) One of the judges was Jeffrey Steingarten. Hello! Jeffrey Steingarten! On Iron Chef: America. What’s he doing there? This show MUST be worth watching.

So it pulled me in. And for the most part I was not disappointed. In fact, I was mostly thrilled and captivated. Flay and Bayless both took their cooking very seriously. Flay was a work horse–flying around the kitchen like a deranged demon, stirring pots, blending sauces, and yelling at workers over messed up mango chutney. He was an intense player and for much of the time I found his intensity unappealing, but by the time his dishes were served up they positively glowed with accomplishment. So perhaps intensity is worthwhile.

Bayless, on the other hand, was charming. He reminded me a bit of Stephen King. (Not that I know Stephen King, but I’ve seen him speak.) He has a gentility and an intelligence and a patience that made him equally captivating. Why wasn’t he stressing out more? Even Flay commented on it. “He’s driving me crazy, he’s so calm”* (This is quoted from memory, so it’s probably not right.)

My favorite part of the show was the first 40 minutes—the cooking. It was great to watch these guys at work, to see how they commanded their kitchens, how they interacted with their staff. There’s no doubt that Bayless’s staff looked happier and more fond of their boss; Flay’s workers had the beaten-down quality of indentured servants. When his sous chef left the mango chutney on the stove, Flay said: “It’s dead now. You ruined it.”

But boy did it make great theater. It’s a great study in the creation of art—how some attack their material (Flay) and others finesse their material (Bayless) to create results of almost identical quality. (The final pointage was 24 to 25. I won’t tell you who won.)

Here’s where I got angry at the producers—and this is a personal taste thing—but the only meritorious member of that judging panel was Mr. Steingarten. In terms of status and intelligence and honesty and cleverness he was yards above the CBS morning show Kathy Lee Gifford clone and the Zagat guy. Why was the Zagat guy on the panel? That’s like having a phone book editor on a panel with a sociologist. Zagats is just an assemblage of information–nothing more. I really didn’t get that.

But what REALLY pissed me off is that most of the reactions they showed were the CBS lady’s and the Zagat guy’s. Steingarten barely got any quips in. When he did, he came across as pompous and condescending–when I have a feeling he only wanted to shake things up. On the original Iron Chef, there was always that food critic lady and she was often that show’s saving grace. Every show needs its Simon Callow—he’s the salt that keeps everything from being bland. And Jeffrey Steingarten was certainly primed to salt things up, but the editors barely worked him in. For shame!

However, I must say that this Iron Chef America episode was so good that I’m going to say something outrageous: I liked it better than the original Iron Chef. Here’s why: the original Iron Chef (at least from an American’s perspective) was all about camp. High theatrics; big exaggerated stakes; colorful characters—all very entertaining, but somehow existing in the land of make believe. What Iron Chef America does is replace those campy elements with real genuine passion and zeal—these are people who have all devoted their lives to food (the commentator included) and who really want to prove themselves to each other. The stakes don’t need to be pretend (like being banished from kitchen stadium, etc) because the real stakes are more compelling: in many ways, this is the culmination of long accomplished careers. For example, when again will Rick Bayless be cooking in front of so many people on TV? Sure, he may one day achieve the perfect mole(accent on the e), but who will be there to taste it? Not Jeffrey Steingarten. So it makes for fantastic television. Check it out.

ALLEZ CUISINE!

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