The pantheon of American Iron Chefs grew one bigger last night as chef Geoffrey Zakarian defeated chef Elizabeth Falkner on the season finale of The Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs.
Lauded by host Alton Brown as a “classically trained master technician at the peak of his career,” the bespectacled chef-owner of New York restaurants The National and The Lamb’s Club brought all of his culinary talents to bear in Kitchen Stadium to create the ultimate three-course holiday feast.
You read that correctly: the Chairman presented not one secret ingredient to the finalists, but an entire smorgasbord of (somewhat) traditional Christmas-dinner staples—everything from squash and parsnips to beef and salt cod. Turkey, you’ll note, was not included. Ever cunning, the Chairman also intervened three times during the 60-minute showdown to announce challenging “surprises for his amusement”: on top of their original three dishes, the chefs also had to create a cranberry-based dish, an ice cream, and a holiday cocktail.
The cooking, as expected, was fast and furious; we saw the usually cool chef Zakarian finally break a sweat, while chef Falkner had to overcome technical difficulties when her ice cream maker literally froze up. The action was so intense that previously eliminated chef Alex Guarnaschelli was conscripted to assist the two finalists.
When it came time for judging, both competitors earned fulsome praise from an expanded panel, including regular judges Simon Majumdar, Judy Joo and current Iron Chef Michael Symon, plus elder-statesmen Iron Chefs Bobby Flay and Masaharu Morimoto.
Chef Falkner’s extra dimension as a pastry chef was a much-discussed asset demonstrated in her various creative dishes, in particular a beef wellington that would’ve brought a smile to Gordon Ramsay’s face. Her dessert background also helped her to produce the evening’s most talked-about dish, a cranberry sorbet with frisée and fennel salad plus kaffir lime and tarragon gelée.
But, in the end it was chef Zakarian who pulled together the seasonal elements with superior panache. Among the offerings in his fanciful modernist Christmas feast? A parsnip and cardamom bisque with “frittata-style” sausage stuffing, cranberry risotto made with sake (for its floral quality) instead of wine, and roast beef cubes with tiny “gifts” of turnip, squash and potato.
It’s been a pressure-packed eight episodes, folks, filled with all manner of ingenious Chairman’s Challenges and Secret Ingredient Showdowns featuring 10 of North America’s absolute best chefs. I wonder, how many of you predicted that it would be chef Zakarian’s oversized headshot finally hanging in Kitchen Stadium? At the start of the season he seemed primed for a fall, almost too self-assured; by the end he was slightly humbled, but his confidence was clearly earned. I’m sure many of us were rooting to see Montreal’s Chuck Hughes rise above the competition, and I know at least a few ladies who could’ve used a few more weeks of Marcus Samuelsson on screen. Or perhaps you would’ve picked chef Falkner, the deserving finalist, who appeared to be just scratching the surface of her culinary potential.
What do you think of The Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs finale? Did the right competitor win?
Moy is an editor at a Toronto-based city magazine. He also writes about
all manner of cultural topics, including food culture.