First things first: In the secret ingredient challenge of the latest episode of The Next Iron Chef, did Marco Canora's obsessive repetition of "respect the potato" bring back any awkward memories of Tom Cruise in Magnolia for anyone else?
No? Probably for the better.
This episode was about respect, a marked change from more creativity-focused qualities like ingenuity, innovation and transformation. How back to basics are we going? The secret ingredient was the humble potato.
Bryan Caswell was off and running, making an upscale version of a tater tot and riling Ming Tsai by stealing all the truffles. The clear loser was Marc Forgione, whose plans for a potato agnolotti fell apart at the last minute as he improved a ravioli nudi, which Caswell described as "having the texture of wallpaper paste."
For the win, the chefs were divided between Canora's mixture of butter poached potatoes and Maneet Chauhan's potato ravioli with lemongrass sauce, with the tiebreaker going to guest judge Lieutenant Colonel Barnes, head of the U.S. Army Joint Culinary Center of Excellence. Though he described Chauhan's flavors as "singing," the victory went to Canora.
On the the chairman's challenge. Alton Brown brought out a map and told the chefs they'd be creating four dishes, one to reflect the North, South, East and West on an American culinary road trip.
In the kitchen, chaos reigned. Canora used his 90-second advantage to hoard half the pantry at his station, and Celina Tio's attempt to balance four dishes at once led to a couple do-overs after her rice overcooked and her butterscotch sauce burned.
Judging once again made up the lion's share of the episode, with newest Iron Chef Jose Garces subbing in for Michael Symon.
Chauhan was up first, with a "gritty" New England clam chowder, a perfectly-cooked buffalo tenderloin, a bread pudding that was heavy on the bourbon sauce (all the better for judge Simon Majumdar) and a luau salad of pineapple, avocado, macadamia and a tahini vinaigrette in an avocado shell, singled out as one of the worst dishes of the challenge.
Ming Tsai presented next, wowing the judges with a liquid version of gazpacho with a halibut sashimi, butter-poached scallops, Asian-style hoisin barbecue-quail and a braised veal rib and gratin scalloped potato.
Canora began in the East with a snapper crudo, headed West for a raw vegetable salad, a rosemary and lavender cooked lamb chop that Majumdar described as the best cooked lamb he's eaten in America, and a soft-shell crab the judges felt was overseasoned.
Tio followed, leading with a pork belly pot roast perfectly cooked in her first-ever attempt with a pressure cooker, a dirty rice and crawfish etoufee described by Garces as "not dirty enough," a lobster roll variation with panna cotta subbing for the roll (the judges were not impressed by the variation) and an almond cake with butterscotch sauce critiqued as dry.
Finally we saw Caswell's creations, drawn from a map of culinary memories. The judges enjoyed his Waldorf salad with tarragon mayo, his Western watermelon gazpacho was described as having a "chili bite" (that's a good thing, right?), the Eastern crawfish and grits got dinged for not having enough crustacean flavor, but his grandma Bertie Bea's collard greens with a sauteed snapper were a hit with Majumdar (and the name Bertie Bea Caswell is a hit for Donatella Arpaia).
"You'd go home and slap your mama if you tried Bertie Bea's collard greens," Caswell said.
The final judgee is Marc Forgione, who opened by impressing the judges with a steak tartare reminiscent of Delmonico's, and a "delicious" take on Wolfgang Puck's Chinois chicken salad. Less successful was the New England clam chowder, marred by a heavy dose of red pepper, and his collard greens with a halibut. Majumdar declared is so dry as to be inedible. Forgione inexplicably added a fifth dish, a strawberry shortcake, and his effort seemed to win favor from Garces.
In the end, Ming Tsai took the win, as the only chef with four successful dishes, although he was knocked for a plating style stuck in the 1980s, with Canora in second.
Caswell's food wad called out for not having dishes that popped for Garces or Arpaia, though Majumdar defended Bertie's collard greens. The judges asked him to balance the linebacker and the ballerina in him, which he interprets as being somewhere around an NBA power forward. (We see the mix as a more of a tennis player or perhaps Shawn Johnson.)
The bottom two were Forgione and Chauhan, singled out for having the two worst dishes of the day. In a slit decision, Chauhan eventually got the boot. It seems fair, since while Forgione's fish might have been the worst single dish, he also served two dishes that received heavy praise, and Chauhan is no stranger to the elimination stage.
Next week the five remaining chefs head to Las Vegas, and with only five left there's no room for error. Caswell is the last contender standing without a win under his belt — the others all have two — but he's cooked well enough to be considered a big threat. Could he pull a Jay McCarroll, winning the whole competition without ever notching an individual challenge win? We'll see.
Once again, don't forget about the online fan vote — Mario Pagan, eliminated in episode two, still has a vice grip on the lead with over 30 percent of votes.