No, that trumped-up spectacle you witnessed was not the next John Woo movie -- it was, of course, the semi-celebrity chef competition "The Next Iron Chef." It's unlikely that anything can challenge Bravo's "Top Chef" as the premiere American cheftestant show, but as an old ad once put it, being No. 2 means you just try harder.
And trying really, really hard is what "The Next Iron Chef" is all about. In fact, all the music, fancy editing and bright lights are beginning to take their toll: Even the eight remaining chefs can't muster up quite that much energy. When your losing chef can utterly shrug off his failure -- something along the lines of "even great chefs have bad days; at least I have two great restaurants and my lovely family to go home to," yadda yadda yadda -- you know you've got a low-stakes kind of show. It's not as if these folks are going to go back to toiling in obscurity, with the added insult of "reality show failure" being tattooed on their foreheads.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. "The Next Iron Chef" has its pleasures, even if they're in a watered-down, "Top Chef" kind of way. Any episode that sings the praises of Los Angeles' myriad strip-mall Asian restaurants can't be all bad, especially when the four chosen for the show are all authentically, unequivocally tasty. Even the blatant product placement of the overexposed-but-still-delectable Kogi Korean-taco truck didn't bother us -- in fact, the mere thought of their short rib tacos gave us the Pavlovian impulse to check their Twitter posts to see if they were nearby.
Creating successful Asian fusion such as this was the evening's assignment, that is, after our hardy chefs got a chance to sample and recreate the local flavors, including Jitlada's phenomenally complex green curry with fish balls, or Din Tai Fung's geometrically gorgeous pork dumplings. Bringing those flavors back into the test kitchen, however, proved somewhat challenging: Either the chefs reverted back to their old tricks, or went too far out on a limb trying to improve on them, or worse, both.
Attempting to integrate Thai with American cuisine, Jehangir Mehta yet again whipped out the ice cream machine for a ginger-lime dish that, due to technical difficulties, never made it past the liquid state. Claiming that "giving up in life is something only a loser would do," he improvised, plating up the said concoction as a shake amidst a bevy of unappetizing green curry "carry-out" containers. We're not sure if Mehta's hubris is true-to-form or just for show, but so far it makes him the clear villain of "TNIC," if there is one in this group of overly kissy-huggy pals.
A far more successful take on Thai was Amanda Freitag's green curry and fish cake, even if it lacked the all-important wow (or in Mehta's case, the "huh?") factor. Some of the rival chefs might have mocked both Freitag and Seamus Mullen for playing it safe, but when it came to the latter's Korean barbecue-inspired Ruben sandwich, just tell us where we can place our order. Now.
Which brings us back to our not-so-sore loser, Brad Farmerie. As if the concept of a "Pittsburgh Pierogi" dumpling weren't baffling enough, his uninspired, vinegary soy broth didn't do it any favors in the eyes of the judges. While you could tell the man was humbled by his inability to craft a doughy gem as well as the masters in L.A.'s San Gabriel Valley, his farewell to the show was something less than bittersweet -- as with just about everyone else here, you can tell Farmerie won't be hanging his head in shame anytime soon.