Monday, August 09, 2010

surprise, surprise: we say goodbye to Aria

I've been remiss in providing commentary on the elimination process over at Food Network's "The Next Food Network Star." Last I wrote, we said goodbye to Brianna, the self-admitted diva who cooked at a consistently high level, proved bizarrely able to work with others despite her prickly nature, yet fell in the end because she never quite demonstrated that "it" factor-- the elusive quality that allows some folks to be comfortable in front of a camera, but not others.

Since then, three episodes have gone by. We lost outspoken, frenetic Serena in the Week 7 episode while Aarti once again proved able to shine despite her native timidity. Week 8 saw some of the judges in tears as they cut Brad-- the "pro" chef whose cooking proved far too inconsistent for my taste. Brad probably had to go: whatever charm he had in person with the judges, it never registered on camera for me. I found Brad personable, but little else. In his own environment, I don't doubt he's an excellent chef, and we did see some flashes of that excellence over the course of several weeks, but ultimately, I couldn't see him as a TV host. (NB: Food Network already employs some dry presenters. Michael Chiarello comes to mind right away, and I often find myself wishing that Ina Garten would liven herself up. The difference, though, is that I think Garten is a far superior chef.)

This brings us to tonight's episode: Week 9, which may well be the most controversial episode of the season. This was the episode in which we went from four to the final three. When I originally predicted who would be in the top five, I named Aria, Herb, Serena, Aarti, and Brad. Of those five, I would have said that Aria and Aarti would be in the top three, along with Herb. As it turned out, we lost Aria tonight, and Tom-- who I thought would wash out before the halfway point-- has somehow managed to tough it out to be in the final three.

Tom's inclusion is what makes this episode controversial, at least to my mind. If we think purely in terms of a story arc, then I've enjoyed Tom's improvement over the weeks as he's come to understand what it takes to work with the camera. Tom's problem, though-- and I mentioned this last time-- is the enormous gap between his concepts and his execution. Far too many of his dishes have started with the best of intentions, only to end in culinary ruin. The same rough-edged lack of discipline that allows Tom to be creative is also what makes him produce some truly inedible dishes (e.g., that awful jerk-spiced slaw from several weeks back). I fully expected Tom to be leaving us tonight.

The Week 9 challenge saw the contestants traveling from California to New York, and instead of a two-challenge event (usually it's a camera challenge followed by a "star challenge" the next day), this episode featured only one challenge in two parts, with Alton Brown hosting a scaled-down version of "Iron Chef America." The judging panel included the regular three judges-- Bob Tuschman, Susie Fogelson, and Bobby Flay-- and added three more Iron Chefs to the mix: Michael Symon, Masaharu Morimoto, and Cat Cora.

Alton Brown explained the rules: the two chefs who were cooking would have to produce three dishes in 60 minutes using the secret theme ingredient; meanwhile, the other two chefs were to patrol the studio and offer Kevin Brauch-style commentary that was as spot-on as possible. After the one-hour combat, the pair that had been commenting would don their aprons and cook while the previous cooks would become commentators. In the end, both the cuisine and the commentary would be judged.

Herb faced off against Aarti; their secret ingredient was shrimp. This left Aria and Tom to comment on the action, and it quickly became obvious that Tom was far more thorough and engaged than Aria who, to all intents and purposes, didn't seem to be taking her role too seriously. Her demeanor justified a constant complaint by Bobby Flay (and sometimes the other judges as well) that Aria, because she's naturally at ease with the camera as well as an excellent chef, often seems to be coasting by or phoning in her performance. Along with the notion of a clear culinary point of view, the judges value progress in the contestants, and if the contestants don't seem to be evolving over time, what seemed initially charming could curdle into something far less appealing. Tom knew ingredients and procedures, and when he didn't know the answer to a question thrown out by Alton Brown, he quickly found the answer out and gave it to Brown, stat.

Aarti was, predictably, the winner of the contest between her and Herb. Herb's first dish was pronounced excellent by all the judges, but his second dish included a bit of grit from some improperly cleaned clams, and his third dish was considered a failure. Aarti, meanwhile, received high praise from all the judges for each of her meals. Despite her slowpoke style in the kitchen (Bobby Flay was visibly irritated that she wasn't moving faster), she ended up producing food that some of the Iron Chefs deemed worthy to appear in Kitchen Stadium.*

Aarti and Herb switched hats and became commentators while Tom and Aria geared up for battle. Their secret ingredient: bacon. Aria, insistent upon her "family style" culinary point of view, made the mistake of using bacon as little more than a garnish or a side in all three of her dishes. Tom, meanwhile, made the hilarious decision to go for broke, featuring bacon as the star of all three of his dishes, and in the process creating some of the most horrifying food I've ever seen anyone make. I was shouting "Don't do it! Jesus!" at the TV when he told the camera that his second dish would be a "bacon steak," which turned out to be exactly what it sounded like: an obscene, steak-sized slab of bacon! Unlike pork chops, which can afford a slight pink hue in the middle,** bacon needs to be cooked all the way through. When something that thick gets cooked that thoroughly, what you're left with is shoe leather. Even I could see that coming.

Herb turned out to be a very competent commentator during the Tom/Aria battle; he was both engaging and alert. He messed up the scripted line he had to recite for the camera, but was otherwise quite good. Aarti, meanwhile, stood around doing very little, offering commentary only when prompted. She was probably worse than Aria, who also seemed somewhat disengaged from the action.

In the end, Aarti and Tom were declared "safe" by the judges-- Aarti for her excellent cooking, and Tom for his excellent commentary. This left Herb and Aria on the chopping block, and given their respective performances that episode, it was Aria who got the chop. As Bob Tuschman noted, Herb's food was better than Aria's that day (Aria had played it too safe, and may have missed the point of the Iron Chef challenge), but it still came as a surprise to me that Aria was cut while Tom was allowed onward to the final.

If I understand the judges' reasoning, Aria was eliminated because she had failed to demonstrate any real growth over the course of nine weeks. She came into the competition with a natural poise and camera-friendliness, as well as a clear culinary point of view and plenty of raw talent. However, as time went on, her unapologetic insistence on that point of view-- which she never truly refined or amped up-- became her downfall. Tom, on the other hand, came into the competition as a recently unemployed chef, and unlike Aria, he learned from his trial by fire on the show. All the same, I think Tom's improvement has been entirely in terms of his on-camera persona; his cooking remains as undisciplined and inconsistent as when he started. It's amazing to me that he could produce three inedible dishes*** and still be allowed on to the final (as was the case in previous seasons, the finale will pit three contestants against each other). As much as I've enjoyed watching Tom, I don't think he deserves to be among the final three.

That brings us to the finale next week. My prediction: Aarti will win. Her on-camera poise and consistently excellent cooking skills, along with her Indian-themed approach to food, will prove irresistible. I also think, however, that Herb may end up being offered his own show as well, just as happened with runner-up Adam Gertler (currently doing "Kid in a Candy Store") of Season 4. Personally, I'm rooting for Herb. He's nowhere near as consistently good a cook as Aarti, but his enthusiasm is infectious, as is his earnestness. I've also seen him produce some remarkably beautiful dishes over the past two months, and think he has what it takes to be a star in his own right.

*I've never liked the name "Kitchen Stadium." Both nouns, "kitchen" and "stadium," are generic; when placed together, they sound even more generic. The name conveys no oomph. They should call the place Morimotokan!

**This wasn't always the case. The old doctrine was that all pork had to be cooked until well done because of the possibility of trichinosis. Nowadays, despite all the flak about factory farming, most pork is parasite-free and can thus be cooked just short of well done to preserve tenderness and juiciness. Think I'm lying?

***Tom's first bacon-themed dish was a "bacon cake," i.e., a crab cake-style concoction made from bacon. The bacon steak was his second dish, and his third dish was a bacon French toast... with clams. If I hadn't seen Tom cook decent food in other episodes, and had been allowed to judge his abilities only by the evidence seen in Week 9, I would have assumed he was a culinary idiot. Bacon cake sounds very much like something I would make at home... but only when alone, and purely for the sake of naughty experimentation. I would never, ever, inflict something like that on another human being.



Elisson said...

Your usual thoughtful, well-reasoned-out analysis... with which I heartily concur. I was sad to see Aria go, given that SWMBO and I have actually met her... and yet I could not help feeling, over the past few weeks, that she was increasingly out of her depth. Making home-style French toast with bacon on the side for an Iron Chef Battle Bacon is... well, whatever it is, it ain't Iron Chef.

I really like both Aarti and Herb. They'll both end up with shows, I'm sure... and I'll watch 'em both. Both of these fine chefs just need to be a little more self-confident to make it to that top tier.

Kevin Kim said...

Agreed. At the beginning of the season, Herb seemed like such a strong contender, but as time went by, we came to see how emotionally fragile he is. Those ups and downs are a bit worrisome, and it feels almost as if he stumbled his way into the finale, but I'm hoping that, if he ends up with a show of his own, this will go a long way toward helping him master his personal demons. We don't need to see a show called "Cooking con Bipolaridad."

Charles said...

Dear God, Tom's bacon dishes sound horrid! (Did anyone do a carbonara?)

There was a show here in Korea (don't know why I just thought of this now) that was similar (actually, it was more like Hell's Kitchen, but without the foul-mouthed Brit). My wife and I watched it from the beginning down to the very end. In the end, a girl with very little experience and inconsistent cooking won, and we were both quite disappointed. Like I've mentioned before, editing determines in large part what you will see, and thus how you feel about the contestants, but editing can only do so much. This girl was quite immature, not really considerate of those she worked with, and didn't show any particular imagination or talent when it came to cooking (in my opinion). Her opponent in the finale did drop the ball, but she also had a much harder challenge (there was some pre-challenge that determined who would get the harder finale challenge--which I thought was completely retarded).

Eh, anyway, I haven't watched the show, but I do know that in these types of "elimination reality shows," the clunkers get to the final for one of two reasons: either as obvious cannon fodder or as dark horses. Of course, you only find out which one it is after it's all over.

(But bacon steak? Geez...)