The Next Iron Chef: Bryan Caswell channels Haven for a day at the fair
To quote another reality show, this was the episode of The Next Iron Chef where the chairman stopped being polite and started getting real.
With the departure of Chef Mary Dumont, the seven chefs left have all proven they had the stuff to be mentioned at or near the top of a challenge or two. In acknowledgement of a turning point in the season, everything in this episode was harder, from the secret ingredient challenge of condiments to the chairman's county fair-themed challenge, both in the limitation of ingredients and number and specificity of dishes required.
Last week's winner, Chef Marco Canora, matched the condiments with the chef, assigning himself the more chameleon-like mayo. And from Marc Forgione's grandma-grave-rolling barbecue bolognaise to Bryan Caswell's ketchup-turned-shrimp-cocktail shot, there seemed to be fundamental disagreement over whether the theme of "transformation" meant completely changing the taste of one's condiment or working with the existing flavor to transform it into being delicious.
After Canora and Ming Tsai traded insults about how neither rose to the challenge (Tsai: He just added sugar and chocolate and called it a pudding! Canora: He just added tarragon and called it different!) one clear victor emerged.
Celina Tio's almond cake topped with hot sauce ricotta cheese perfectly married both the complete transformation of the ingredient while still putting the flavor front and center. On the other end, Chef Chauhan is once again on the bottom with a lemon and ranch mousse which we fully believe was disgusting.
With little ado, the chef-testants are then off to the San Diego County Fair to transform ingredients found at the Midway vendors into three dishes served fair-style: one grilled, one fried and one on a stick.
After half an hour of scouring ingredients from the myriad food stands, the chefs were nearly all knocked off balance by issues with the giant grill. First it was too cold, taking precious blocks of the chef's limited time, then too hot, with flames leaping feet above the surface and burning every pan in sight — one pan of oil looked like it had explosion potential.
Some chefs went as far from fair food as the parameters would allow, like Canora's tomato salad on a stick and grilled shrimp taco. Others really embraced the inspiration of the location, like Tio's funnel cake moon pie, Forgione's chicken-fried bacon cheeseburger and whimsical root beer float on a stick and Tsai's deep fried banana split.
Judging proved that Michael Symon is this show's Randy Jackson, repeating "You did your thing" and "flavors are popping" the way Jackson drops "dawg" on American Idol.
For the first time it's hard to gauge the winners and losers from the judging presentation, with most contestants serving some successful dishes and others that failed to impress on the same plate.
Caswell first gets slammed for his overly weird and unappealing cilantro and charred corn sno-cone. Simon Majumdar later pronounces it a "spectacular failure," with a certain reverence, like if one is going to go down you might as well go down while swinging for the fences. His second dish should look familiar to Houston foodies. It was a sausage and shrimp corn dog on a stick served with a lemonade mustardo, and it looked identical to the popular shrimp corn dog appetizer at Haven, even down to the lemonade chaser.
We'll give Caswell a pass though, because what it lacked in originality it made up in resourcefulness — lacking cornmeal, Caswell had to make his own by macerating corn chips. His third dish is frog legs — really, at a fair? — served up like a barbecue wing with a jalepeño pesto sauce.
In the end Caswell, along with Canora and Forgione, are pronounced to be among the top, neck and neck. But it's Tio who is crowned the champion by turning out three winners — a grilled fish taco in a delicate crepe-style wrap, "pop corn shrimp" with pickled shrimp and sour creamed corn and the aforementioned funnel cake moon pie with a banana, lemon and marshmellow fluff and butterscotch sauce. (Yes, we need one of those funnel cake moon pies in our lives, too. Where's Rebecca Masson when you need her?)
On the other end were Duskie Estes and Maneet Chauhan. Chauhan get faulted for falling back on the same flavor profiles (read: Indian food) and repeating an underwhelming cake patty, while Estes was eventually brought down by a disastrous caramel for her caramel apple, a messy calamari gyro and an unmentioned almond push layer that tricked the judges into tasting undercooked dough.
This is getting good — the difference between a win and a loss is as small as a banana peel, a forgotten descriptor or a grill that's too hot.
Caswell lives on to fight another day, courtesy of a Randy Evans recipe. Perhaps Haven can add a tag to the menu — as seen on TV.
As always, don't forget to vote for hometown fave Caswell in the online fan vote.
And Caswell will be on hand at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston tonight as part of the "Movies Houstonians Love" series to introduce his favorite film, The Big Lebowski.