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"Batali vs. Tramonto & Gand: Battle Fennel" - July 30

Editor's Note: What follows is a televised-move-by-televised-move recap. Because a sixty-minute battle, intro, and judgment has to be edited into 45 minutes of airtime, not every move will be shown.

The Challengers: Rick Tramonto & Gale Gand. She's an innovative pastry chef. He's a wizard in the kitchen. Together, they head up the kitchen at the four-star restaurant Tru in their native Chicago. He brings creativity to the entrees, having been inducted into the Fine Dining Hall of Fame. She conjures up tempting desserts, having been named Bon Appetit's Pastry Chef of the Year. Together, they hope to stand a chance against Iron Chef Mario Batali.

The Crib Sheet:
Mark Ladner & Anne Burrell, sous-chefs
Stuart Davis, sous-chef
21 years EXPERIENCE 30 years
Italian COOKING STYLE Progressive French
8-4, lost last battle against John Besh BATTLE RECORD Challengers

The Theme Ingredient: Fennel, baby and mature.

The Rules: Each chef must create a five-course meal, with each course utilizing the theme ingredient, within 60 minutes. The judges will score the dishes on a 20-point scale: 10 points taste, 5 points plating and presentation, 5 points creativity and use of ingredient. The chef who best articulates the theme ingredient through his dishes wins.

The Talladega Nights battle clock is set at 60 minutes, which will start when the Chairman, with full heart and empty stomach, utters the words of his dear uncle.... "Allez cuisine!"

Tonight's Judges:
Comedian and media gadfly Mo Rocca (NPR's "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me...")
Editor-in-chief of Food & Wine Magazine Dana Cowin
Author Ed Levine ("Pizza, a Slice of Heaven")

Semi-educational moment: Fennell (foeniculum vulgare) is the only ingredient to have a vegetable, an herb, and two different spices, the seeds and the pollen. The name fennel actually comes from a very old Latin word meaning "little hay". The top is used as an herb, while the stalks and bulb are used as vegetables. The seeds and pollen are used as spices, as they are intense in both flavor and aroma. They're very expensive. In fact, if Alton sneezed right now, then Food Network would dock him about $75.

Looks like the Iron Chef is going for a salad, a tuna, and a tartare of some sort. He calls the challengers "truly amazing" as they have the ritziest eatery in the Midwest. The challengers say that they just want to finish.

Rick & Gale are done with seven dishes... and an origami, that Kevin calls a bit cocky. We'll see if the judges feel the same way.

Judgment (Gand/Tramonto): Tramonto: "Fennel is one of those ingredients that adds flavor to so many things, so for me I needed to build stuff around the proteins and still accent the flavor of the proteins."  Gand: "I was trying to treat it like it was a fruit." Dishes: Fennel Soup, Peekytoe Crab Salad with Fennel Pollen, Roasted Fennel Risotto (with a note: Miracles are to come), Roasted Halibut with Fennel, Venison with Fennel, Yuzu Mousse with Fennel Macadamia Salad, Pate a Bric with Caramelized Fennel

Judgment (Batali): "I was practically born with fennel coursing through my blood, so what we've done is treated fennel five different ways to extract five different essences of fennel. I hope we're successful." Dishes: Shaved Raw Fennel Salad, Tuna "Cruda" on Steamed Fennel, Squab Breast in Fennel Seed, Arista Toscana with Roasted Fennel, Fennel Tartare.

The judges are mixed with the challengers' dishes. The fennel was almost a bit too subtle until the venison dish. They did love the mousse. As for the Iron Chef, Ed quotes friend and fellow ICA regular Jeff Steingarten: "I would pay for this in a restaurant." But whose cuisine reigns supreme? The verdict...

Taste 28 21
Plating 12 15
Originality 14 10

... 54-46 in favor of Iron Chef Mario Batali. Check out the 28 score in taste. That means that at least one judge gave the Iron Chef a perfect 10 in that category. This is the biggest win that the Iron Chef has had in a long time. Simply put, a visual play of dishes could not beat the flavor and originality of the "Ayatollah Italiano".

Until next time, we bid you good eating.

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