Iron Chef White House

Iron Chef White House:

Three days into 2010 and we’re already celebrating the Culinary Event of the Decade! It’s an Iron Chef America Smackdown, starring Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse and the White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford.

The chefs start off in D.C. Oh Mario, I do love you, but not your Casper Ghost-white legs stomping across 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in orange clogs. Could you not have worn pants? Oy, and in front of First Lady Michelle Obama, who is somehow pulling off an orange dress with 50s full skirt and a natty turquoise cardigan.

Her royal fabness announces the secret ingredient is “anything from the White House garden.” Yeah, that’s rough. Switch to shots of eggplant, beans, thyme and kohlrabi. Well, if one of them can explain how to use kohlrabi, bring it. She tells them not to ignore sweet potatoes, because the first family is all about the orange spuds.

Mission: Return to kitchen stadium to produce a fantastic meal to inspire America. Flay and Comerford are working together. Lagasse and Batali are coupled. Note how this is neatly appearing right when many
people are writing “eat more veggies and lose weight” on their to-do lists.

There’s lots of rapture over fennel and potatoes and cauliflower. Having personally been in “Kitchen Stadium,” for a cod challenge this summer, I can say that it’s a pretty intense place. When the four
chefs enter, there are platters of various foods, all from within 100 miles of the stadium (which incidentally is in Manhattan), including goat cheese, heritage turkeys, and honey from the White House beehive.

The Chairman, who normally “hosts” the show, is MIA and no one cares. Each team has to produce five dishes, each one highlighting something from the White House garden. The winning team’s charity of choice gets $25,000.

(Side question: Is each chef cooking with their own personal chefware? Because I have a bone to pick with Emeril’s pans, quite frankly, and I want to see him use those puppies.)

Onto the judges. It’s Nigella Lawson, who is one of the most passionate and funny chefs I have ever interviewed. She’s perfect for this show because she’s all about people who have never cooked just getting in the kitchen and having fun.

There’s Jane Seymour, the actress turned cheesy jewelry designer. Apparently she qualifies because she has a garden. And Natalie Coughlin. Well of course! No, seriously, I had no idea who she was. But she’s won 11 Olympic medals while swimming for the U.S. and is a home chef.

So Ted Allen, the food writer and witty banter queen of “Queer Eye” is running around on the floor doing commentary and “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” and Pool Girl, neither of whom are actually allowed to eat due to their jobs, are judging? All righty then.

I’m not going to bother with two hours of kitchen action. Because there is no way normal people are going to recreate these dishes — “Iron Chef” isn’t a cooking show a la “Nigella Express” or country cookiung queen Paula Deen’s show (who, I swear, once used a stick of butter to make lemonade.)

Natalie, sporting black nail polish, sums it up. ”I consider myself a good cook, but this is ridiculous.” Ok, props to swimgirl for the reality check.

(Second side note: During the tapings, they really do have one hour to complete all the dishes — the water is already boiling when they start, otherwise, that’d be half the show. There’s no leaving the seats during the challenge.)

There’s a lot of mayo and cream and deep frying going on, which I don’t think fits into my whole “skinny by September” plan. Oh double dipping of spoons from Batali’s mouth, back into the pot and into Lagasse’s mouth and then back into the pot. Did no one watch that “Seinfeld” episode? No double dipping!

How do you stretch an hour show into two hours? Lots of “what’s happened already” summary and pre-taped bits about regional cooking that are weirdly edited into the action shots. Watermelon radishes, icicle radishes and Japanese eggplants all on view. Don’t we all have those in our fridge?

Hellloooo kitchen eye candy! It’s Sam Kass, the White House assistant chef. He’s saying something about the garden and producing 1,000 pounds of food in six months. Of course, it helps to have, you
know, a posse of gardeners and chefs.

Emeril looks like he’s having a hard time of things. Mario keeps telling him what to do and he’s sweating like a heritage turkey in November as he studs cloves through an orange, just like I did in Hebrew school arts and crafts! OK, he’s using his for some complicated dessert, but still, I feel a bond.

Alton Brown says our kids will be talking about this battle to their kids. For real? I mean. Come on. There is hyperbole and then there is the point where you should just say “hell no.”

Dishes are scored on 20 points, 10 points for taste, 5 points for plating and 5 points for originality.

The Emeril/Mario team says their food is an aria with high notes and low notes. I don’t know what that means. But their dishes include: Course 1: caramelized scallops with raw and cooked fennel and white icicle radishes.

It’s in a fennel sauce with white wine and creme fraiche. Course 2: Oyster and salad trio with three remoulades. Each of the three salads comes from the garden, winter radish, watermelon radish and green tomatoes. Course 3: Sweet potato, ricotta and goat cheese ravioli. There are also vegetables which Mario calls ”colon’s little broom.” Course 4: Duet of American birds with quail and turkey. The quail is marinated in honey and over a million vegetables.

The turkey is fried and then braised with a homemade Worcestershire sauce over heirloom beans. And the final course is sweet carrot beignets with Cafe Brulot, a Creole chicory coffee with Grand Marnier and brandy and spiced with cinnamon and orange peel and set aflame.

Dr. Quinn says she’d be happy to have the fennel sauce as a soup and the scallops are like candy on one side and sushi on the other. Nigella thinks the remoulades were too vinegary. They all love the sweet potato dish.

Dr. Quinn and Swimgirl are thrilled and Nigella says there’s a difference between a fresh garden sweet potato and one from the store. Nigella says the bird dish is a little musty and the other two say they prefer the quail. The dessert brings worries about powdered sugar on TV faces. Get messy I say! Jeesh.

Team 2: Flay and Comerford say they were determined to make the veggies the star of the plates. They start with: Course 1: a fennel and apple salad with oysters. Course 2: Fresh garden salad with fried lobster and squid in carrot juice, sweet and sour eggplant with pine nuts and currants.

Course 3: Broccoli clam “chowder” with a hint of ginger. Course 4: all American BBQ with pork, slaw, collard green tamale, cauliflower gratin and watermelon radish pickles. Final course - sweet potato tart with honey, topped with pecan brittle and ginger ice cream.

Natalie says she likes the texture of the first course and the salad is “lovely.” Nigella loves the heat in the lobster sauce and the crispness of the dish. She’s seduced by the dish. The clam chowder didn’t go over as well. Jane says the potatoes weren’t cooked enough for her and the green sauce was too bland.

The cauliflower gratin wins raves in course 4 and.Jane wonders who would want to have noodles when they could have cauliflower. There is much scoffing from Alton and others on this. Nigella doesn’t think it came together as one dish. The sweet potato dish is judged as not too sweet.

The winner is Flay and Comerford by five points. Which is no shock whatsoever because no one is going to diss Michelle Obama and her spinach Popeye arms.

But if the goal is to showcase veggies in a healthy environment, maybe next time they should nix the deep fryer, cheese sauces and remoulades and go for a little stir-fry. Haute cuisine, all.

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