Iron Chef America: Flay vs. Bayless


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.


22 thoughts on “Iron Chef America: Flay vs. Bayless”

  1. But you must tell us who won, because so many of your readers aren’t in the USA and would LOVE to know!!!

    We get the Japanese Iron Chef here in Australia, and it’s fabulous. I’m assuming that’s what you mean by the original version?

  2. with respect to the man in the red sweater, the english-dubbed version of the japanese production of iron chef is NOT the original iron chef. the japanese language version of the japanese production (ryori no tetsujin) is the original iron chef. without the voiceovers and the ‘backdraft’ theme music, it’s a different show –i think it was much more intense, a little more serious and yes, quite eccentric, but i don’t think ‘camp’ applies. call it a difference in tastes, or something else altogether but japanese iron chef was not too far out of my reality to be considered make believe, and hardly out of the context of japanese society. iron chef america, in my particular opinion, is much more out of context. if you don’t think morimoto-san, chen-san, and sakai-san have “real passion and zeal” and have not “devoted their lives to food” then you haven’t distinguished the difference between what’s real and what’s television in *either* program.

  3. I can’t wait to get Food Network now. I am getting it as part of my basic cable package again next week. Yahoo. Sound like the new Iron Chef America is pretty good. Thanks for the review.

  4. There was a time when I was addicted to the Food network. I’m still struggling with that addiction. Oh to just sit and watch Emeril. And Flay is good too. I’ll be tuning in again now that I’ve read this.

    You’re still on my blog, but my stepson has informed me that you don’t do the cowbell skit–that’s SNL’s Best of Will Ferrel. Maybe you should do a Cowbell skit. I was confused–ahh, please forgive.

  5. Adam, you know I adore both you and your blog — but unfortunately I’m a (slightly pedantic) education consultant (read: English teacher at heart). Forgive me for correcting you, but the urge is irresistable and I can’t let it go by. I know you didn’t mean incantation. I know you meant incarnation.

  6. Adam, I adore both you and your blog — but unfortunately I’m a (slightly pedantic) education consultant (read: English teacher at heart). Forgive me for correcting you, but the urge is irresistable and I can’t let it go by. I know you didn’t mean incantation. I know you meant incarnation.

  7. You do know Rick Bayless has a TV show, right? It’s called Mexico One Plate at a Time and it’s on PBS. You should check it out–it’s definitely a different perspective than you’d get from his Iron Chef appearance, though he does always seem awfully relaxed. Cooking segments are usually filmed at his home, and the touring around Mexico segments include lots of scenes with him lounging around pools sipping booze, leisurely strolling through street markets, and moaning over perfect tacos.

  8. Thanks Julie (&Lauren?)—that was embarassing! Incantation has been changed to incarnation. It’s weird, do you ever type a word and it just seems wrong and you’re not sure why? I think that happened with “incarnation” last night. It just didn’t seem right. But now I see that it was!

    And Santos, I totally hear what you’re saying. When I wrote that final paragraph I knew it was more sensational than sound, but it was still fun to write. Regular non-translated Iron Chef is probably above Iron Chef America. You can quote me on that.

  9. I think there’s a big part of me that has kept me from watching Iron Chef America because I think Bobby Flay is a dick. But I do agree with you on the wonkiness of the judging panel. From what I remember of the ICA’s first run last year, the judges were wimpy and not open to adventure at all. They thought Morimoto’s interpretations were weird, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the token talk-show-sidekick panelist squeaked “eww! icky! ice cream made with fish, that’s gross!” after tasting something unique and refreshing. With all the shifting the foodnetwork is doing, especially with the recent Rachael Ray explosion, I feel like all I’m watching anymore is how to make food a la Applebee’s, or at best, Disneyworld resort.

  10. And how embarrassing for pedantic ol’ me is the double posting! Honestly, I posted once and it didn’t go through. I figured it must be something wrong with the email addy, so I used another which carries my middle name. My luck that the first one eventually surfaced as well. I promise I don’t have multiple personality disorder (Julie! No, Lauren! No, Julie! No, Lauren!)

  11. I also don’t think you mean Simon Callow.

    I think you mean Simon Cowell. Callow is a British actor and Cowell is the nasty man on the Idol shows.

  12. You are probably right about Jeffrey Steingarten. I’ve seen him speak in person and he has a very wry and ironic wit. The producers probably just didn’t get it.

  13. You are probably right about Jeffrey Steingarten. I’ve seen him speak in person and he has a very wry and ironic wit. The producers probably just didn’t get it.

  14. I don’t know who Jerry Steingarten is, but I know that I don’t like Bobby Flay ever since he did an Iron Chef a while ago, and stood on the counter when he won, acting like an arrogant brat. Other than that, the Iron Chef America is pretty good. I’m pleasantly surprised that they didn’t muck it up. and yes, alton does a great job!

  15. The Early Show woman – is that Julie Chen, who just married the president of CBS? I’ve heard that knee pads figured prominently in their early relationship, but just a rumor.

    I have a relative who was a sous chef for Flay at Mesa Grill – said he was great to work for. When Flay was on the other Iron Chef for the second time, I saw Clyde briefly at the beginning of the show – but he works at Uncle Pho’s now.

  16. Here’s the thing – I saw it as well, and it really doesn’t matter who won, because the game-breaker was ONE POINT, and it came from plating of all things (!) – this is the problem with the American version of IC – there is way too much ego involved, none of the judges want to piss Flay off too much, or ruffle the zen of Bayliss. Its only fun if there is a real winner and a real loser when the results are tallied, and I think the star power of the American Iron Chefs is just too cosmic for any real competition to occur. Maybe it is just the camp and the bad translations, but the original Iron Chef seemed like way more of an actual competition. ICA seems to be not much more than a venue for self-congratulatory celebrity chefs to toot their own horns.

  17. i wanna say that you thinking ICA was even decent is horrible, much less you even mentioning it in the same sentence as the original IC. first of all, you complain about the unrealistic theatrics of the original IC, but it’s TV dude. you think us ameircans want to watch a boring cooking show of dudes cooking? hell no. and also ICA isnt even fun to watch. they got so many high tech machines that the chefs just throw items into its not entertaining at all. and i know alton brown is great and all, i love good eats, but him sitting there talking to himself is pretty lame. i always enjoyed the commentary of all the celebrity guests on the original IC. to me ICA is just a boring cooking show and doesnt have the magic or appeal of the original.

  18. I’m not a big fan of Flay and was disappointed with his win. I think Bayless showed significant knowledge in the creation of his dishes, and Flay was forced to stay just outside of his usual culinary safezone to keep from messing up. I mean Flay made tamales for his Japanese battle and the judges appeared to be impressed with his (cough) originality! I guess I’m just a fan of Bayless, and owning all of his cookbooks has really changed the way I eat . The things I have learned helped to transform my own recipes and create new dishes. Often the things I make are as good or better than what I can find in most restaurants here in LA.

  19. As a fan of both Iron Chef series (Japanese & American), I agree with your comments that the new ICA series is all about the cooking. That’s enough entertainment, just watching the incredible chefs they have lined up. Of course, the promotional videos are quite funny as well…

  20. It may be editing but in my opinion Jeffrey Steingarten sucks. He is a pompous, condescending, and probably loves himself more than just about anyone. I wrote to food network to get him taken off the show. He appears too fat to have taste buds and he trashes the other judges. I don’t like him.

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