The Food Network's casting call for "Next Iron Chef" might have read like this:
"WANTED: One chef who – with help – can crank out five top-flight dishes within an hour under stressful conditions, surrounded by cameras and judged by a group of critics who will find even the smallest things wrong. Current restaurant experience a plus, but not a requirement. Some TV experience necessary. Current Food Network employees (and its affiliates) strongly preferred."
That would explain how the next chef to join the "veritable pantheon of culinary giants" came from this group of competitors that was announced Tuesday:
- Anne Burrell** (Host of "Secrets of a Restaurant Chef" on Food Network)
- Michael Chiarello (Chef at Bottega in Napa, Host of "Easy Entertaining" on Cooking Channel)
- Elizabeth Falkner* (Chef at Citizen Cake and Orson in San Francisco)
- Alex Guarnaschelli* (Chef at Butter and The Darby in New York, host of "Alex's Day Off on FN)
- Chuck Hughes** (Chef at Garde Manger in Montreal, host of "Chuck's Day Off" on CC)
- Robert Irvine* (Chef at Robert Irvine's Eat in Hilton Head, host of "Dinner: Impossible")
- Beau MacMillan** (Chef at Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain in Phoenix, co-host of "Worst Cooks in America" on FN)
- Spike Mendelsohn* (Chef at Good Stuff in Washington, D.C., two-time "Top Chef" contestant)
- Marcus Samuelsson* (Chef at Red Rooster in New York, judge on "24-Hour Restaurant Battle" and "Chopped" on FN)
- Geoffrey Zakarian* (Chef at The National and The Lambs Club in New York, judge on "24-Hour Restaurant Battle" and "Chopped" on FN)
* Indicates past competitor on "Iron Chef America"
**Indicates past winner on "Iron Chef America"
There are at least five key questions here.
1. Which Iron Chef is leaving? The current lineup is six, assuming Mario Batali never returns (they at least took him out of the opening credits last year). After Masaharu Morimoto, Bobby Flay, Cat Cora, Michael Symon, Jose Garces and now Marc Forgione, do they really need a seventh? And if there are seven, is the gig really that special? This was always a danger when "Next Iron Chef" was launched four years ago. If the show did well, and it did, it would be done again and again. But unlike launching another show, the success of this one – deftly designed to cut into the territory that "Top Chef" had carved out for itself – directly affects the show it is derived from. "Iron Chef America" has built up a good reputation that too much "Next Iron Chef" could dilute.
2. What's the difference between "Next Iron Chef" and "Top Chef Masters"? The two shows occupy the same space in the chef-o-sphere, targeting established chefs and restaurant owners with some cachet. Samuelsson and Chiarello? They've been excellent on “Masters” with Samuelsson winning Season 2 against an arguably tougher cast than the one he'll face on "Next." Celina Tio, currently on “Masters,” nearly made the final on the last season of “Next.” That's a lot of overlap. If Samuelsson wins – and he would have to be the betting favorite – it will further blur any distinction between the two shows.
3. Why so many Food Network personalities? We just saw six of this cast on "Chopped" as part of an all-star tournament. Every one of them has spent time on the network in a competitive situation or as the host of a show. Is this going to be a requirement going forward? Because if that's the case, the pool of prospects just got a lot shallower.
4. No one from Chicago? OK, this one's a little parochial, but there are any number of Chicago-based chefs who would be an excellent Iron Chef. Koren Grievson would strike a little fear into the heart of almost any competitor and drew against Cora in 2009. Homaro Cantu beat Morimoto in Season 3. Paul Virant barely lost two years ago. Graham Elliot has the skill set and the TV chops Food Network seems to crave. Curtis Duffy has two Michelin stars. Giuseppe Tentori has one and a growing profile. Stephanie Izard won "Top Chef." And that's just a quick list.
5. Why on earth would you risk having Spike Mendelson as an Iron Chef? He's a funny guy with a great pedigree (CIA, Bouchon, Le Cirque), but he has done little to justify his inclusion on the cast. He finished fifth on "Top Chef" Season 4 and departed quickly on Season 8's all-star edition. That's the stuff an Iron Chef is made of? If he wins here after washing out twice on “Top Chef,” it really diminishes “ICA.”
It will likely be good television. As the last season proved, strong judges will have their say and it probably won't go as predicted – just ask Ming Tsai.
But will it produce a great Iron Chef? We'll find out when Season 4 debuts in October.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun