Photo: AP Photo / Food Network
Never was that more apparent than this week. When the lids came off the trays and the no-longer-new-to-this-Iron-Chef-thing champ Jose Garces and fresh-faced challenger Kelly Liken were presented with mounds and mounds of stinky blue cheese, they didn't so much as blink. Hell, Garces didn't even look up at the chairman. When Liken unnaturally leaned in and started petting some of the cheese wedges (?!), the gig was up. This, clearly, was not an ingredient that was "new" to them.
The recipes reflected as much. Liken's stock-in-trade in Vail, Colo. tends toward local/regional cuisine, and her recipes were for the most part sophisticated and well thought-out -- except for that final fruit crisp that substituted a blue-cheese layer for butter, just under the crumb topping. Kudos for ingenuity, but -- ew!
And if Liken's dishes were brainy, Garces' needed engineering degrees to put together. Okay, maybe that's overstating it a bit, but his fig and Cabrales salad wrapped in jamon Iberico, tossed with a bacon vinaigrette and plated alongside blue-cheese croquettes, was a symphony of complex flavors. Or, to use the favorite culinary phrase of guest judge Lou Diamond Phillips -- La Bamba himself -- a great "marriage" of tastes.
The two chefs' dishes kept falling into the same patterns: Liken with her twists on comfort food, and Garces with his acrobatic techniques and bold flavors. But if there was a deciding factor, it was their dueling tenderloins: Liken's pork one with cranberries and cheese just seemed poorly balanced, with the chutney overwhelming everything; Garces, on the other hand, took a piece of tender beef and adorned it with a sublime stuffed mushroom cap.
Advantage: Garces, who retained his crown at the end of the day. But the real winner may have been the bad taste of host Alton Brown, who got to subject the captive audience to more terrible puns than he has in weeks: First he was "not feeling blue" about this challenge. Then he waited "to see who the big blue cheese is." And at the end? "The winner blue it," of course. The pun possibilities were endless -- which makes us think the producers are holding him to a 3-pun-per-episode limit nowadays. At least, we can only hope.