Culinary Smack Down


Iron Chef America, like the Japanese original, is fascinating for its delicate balance of culinary spectacle and utter silliness. (The acrobatic chairman, a wholly unnecessary character, is supposed to be the nephew of Japan’s Iron Chef chairman.) Informative as it is (the food scientist Alton Brown makes a great host) the U.S. version, now in its second season, can be less entertaining, especially when it comes to dull secret ingredients (hamburger meat?) and passé challengers (Ming Tsai?).

Sunday night, though, they at least got it half right: the secret ingredient was as boring as ever—tilapia—but the challenger was New York’s own gastronomic nutcase, Wylie Dufresne of WD-50. Thankfully, the chairman had the good sense to pit him against beloved Iron Chef Mario Batali.

Batali, with his enormous knowledge of Italian regional cooking, likes clever twists on traditional dishes, while Dufrese is, as Brown put, “known for reaching into his boyhood chemistry set.” Though both men are loyal to great produce (Dufresne was the first chef at 71 Clinton Fresh Food), the challenger uses futuristic machines and mysterious powders to manipulate ingredients, while Batali usually sticks with his chubby paws and fine-tuned taste buds.

As soon as the tilapia are caught and bloodied on both sides, the contrast between the mutton chop-sporting Dufresne and orange clog-shod Batali is clear. While Mario works on a gazpacho and pulverizes coriander and cumin in a coffee grinder, Wylie breaks out a Poly Science model 7306—a toy that makes nerdy Alton Brown very excited. It’s an immersion circulator: a machine that sucks in water from a large bath, heats it to an exact temperature, and re-circulates it. Batali works with white asparagus; Dufresne works with black licorice. Batali blanches salsify; Dufresne thickens coconut milk with carrageenan, an emulsifying agent derived from seaweed. Batali turns a cast iron skillet upside-down to reinact cooking “a la plancha;” Dufresne’s studious sous chef, Ula, grinds freeze-dried corn into space-aged dust.

When the judges are introduced, I’m thrilled to see Vogue’s cranky food writer Jeffrey Steingarten in his usual center seat, where he can antagonize his peers—Ted Allen, the food expert from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and Karine Bakhoum, founder of KB Network news, a restaurant PR company. All three take the opportunity to comment on the crappiness of tilapia, but as usual, Steingarten puts it most snarkily: “Well, obviously, they have to work very hard to make the secret ingredient even edible, and they’re working very hard.” At that, Brown defends the Food Network’s approach, praising tilapia as a blank slate for culinary creativity.

Back on the floor, boring old Batali has his sous chefs pounding filets and slicing cucumbers while Dufresne is curiously stooped over a calculator. It turns out he’s trying to figure out how much transglutaminase he will need to make noodles out of fish. Brown is, again, all a-twitter as he describes this enzyme as “meat glue,” explaining that Dufresne could, if the temperature is just right, “glue” two pieces of meat or fish together. The chef combines the fish and transglutaminase in the food processor to make a paste, which he forces through a fine screen.

We return to the Iron Chef, who is working on tilapia involtini—a Sicilian word for rolled, stuffed meat. The fact that Brown has never heard of involtini is pretty amazing after his impromptu lecture on transglutaminase. On the other side of the Kitchen Stadium, he sees something so exciting that he blurts out the dirtiest exclamation I’ve heard since the Japanese Iron Chef judges used to say things like, “Mmm, there’s an explosion in my mouth!” Brown yells: “Oh, my, dear Lord! Chef Dufresne is extruding! Oh! He’s extruding . . . right into that vessel with the controlled heat!” Sure enough, the camera cuts to the challenger shooting a long stream of fish noodle out of a hand-held pump and into the immersion circulator.

The challenger, Dufresne, extruding fish noodles.
photo: Nina Lalli

Next, Dufresne makes arugula juice and thickens it with Xantham gum and the plating begins all around. A sous chef for the challenger dips a paintbrush into the licorice syrup and draws a long, broad stroke across a white plate. During the judging, Steingarten accuses a stunned Ted Allen of liking tilapia because it is “bred for the American taste against fishiness,” and tells Dufresne that he may have given the bland fish too much help. Bakhoum puts it well when she says, of a dish combining tilapia with coffee-flavored cous cous on the licorice paint stroke: “It’s very unique and creative, and interesting—definitely. Don’t know if I’d ever like to eat it again.”

Unsurprisingly, Batali’s dishes are more user-friendly. He incurs some criticism for the texture of the fish, but the taste factor is there, and the themes are accessible: deconstructed fish-and-chips, a take on involtini, a take on gazpacho, a Moroccan-inspired dish. In the end, the Iron Chef wins on taste (22-17). The plating is a virtual tie (13 for Batali, 12.5 for Dufresne.) Dufresne’s victory in the originality category (14-11) isn’t enough to save him.

The chairman announces Batali’s win with a holler and a karate chop, and the two men poignantly bow and shake hands. The blank slate battle is over.