IRON CHEF AMERICA:
Battle of the Masters
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Our ultimate competition is with ourselves. That is what my uncle told me when I would visit him as a young boy. Now I prepare myself for my most savory challenge. My uncle, the man the world knows as Kaga the Chairman, has decided that although America is a young country, we now possess the proper palate to host our own Iron Chef competition, an American celebration of the world's high art of cuisine.

Recaps by Chico Alexander, GSNN


FACT FILE:
Host ("The Chairman"):
Mark Dacascos
Culinary Commentator: Alton Brown
Iron Chefs: Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, Wolfgang Puck
Creator: Keiichi Tanaka (based upon "Ryori no Tetsujin/Iron Chef")
EP: Steve Kroopnick
Packager: Triage Entertainment, Fuji Television Network, Food Network
Aired: April 2004


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Flay vs. Sakai - April 23

If memory serves me right, Chairman Takeshi Kaga has commissioned that America be granted its own Gourmet Academy and that it would be headed by his nephew. In order to christen the new arena of battle, Chairman Kaga has dispatched two of his Iron Chefs, Iron Japanese III Masaharu Morimoto and Iron French II Hiroyuki Sakai, to do battle against the three Iron Chefs of America, California cuisine grand master Wolfgang Puck, Italian gourmet Mario Batali, and southwest chef Bobby Flay, in what promises to be "a most tantalizing Battle of the Masters." The first battle would be Iron Chef Flay vs. Sakai. "Gentlemen... prepare for battle."

This should be an interesting match, as the Iron Chefs of Japan still have unfinished business to settle with Flay, a Southwestern chef of 20 years training and a 1-1 record in battle. Sakai, on the other hand, is the winningest of the Iron Chefs with an 83-7 record and 41 years of French cuisine under his apron. Credentials and focus that made him the King of Iron Chefs at the original series' finale in 1999.

The theme ingredient for this battle is TROUT, gold and brown varieties. Reminder: both chefs have one hour to come up with at least five unique dishes that present trout. The chef that does so the best as judged by a panel of gourmands/writers/celebs wins.

"And now, the moment of truth," Chairman Dacascos decrees. "I stand before you with a full heart and proudly proclaim the words of Kaga, a phrase that now resounds through all of food history.

"I say unto you... ALLEZ CUISINE!"

And battle is on. Both chefs spend the first few seconds figuring out how to catch the live trout, catching the live trout, watching the live trout wriggle its way onto the stadium floor, resecuring the live trout, trying to keep the live trout from knocking over the precious salt, and then promptly de-live-ning the live trout. Flay goes for the decapitation method, while Sakai goes for his ring mold, possibly for custard or a tartare. Floor reporter Kevin Brauch says that Sakai wanted the gold ones, which have been bred with rainbow trout. His sous-chef goes for the foie gras while Flay goes for ginger. The foie gras just got blended, and we're led to believe that he's going to do a custard.

Sakai's glad he got trout with two colors that represent health and good luck in Japan. And some good luck right away with skilled knifework in the cucumber department. Over on Flay's side, it looks like soup and a vinegar reduction. Periodically, we'll go to online votes from Foodnetwork.com. This first one says that Flay is a 60.2 percent favorite.

Sakai has just molded his cucumbers in the rings, while Flay is maple smoking his fish and preparing crawfish for sautŽ and some avocado for guacamole, possibly for the smoked item. Sakai just put some marinated steaks in the deep fryolator. Meanwhile, Sakai slices some daikon and starts frying some sharkfin.

"Fifteen minutes have elapsed." We go to Kevin Brauch with today's judges: restaurateur of Simon, Kerry Simon (who, if you remember, did battle against Todd English in ICUSA - again, OOC); executive editor of Bon Appetit, Victoria von Biel; and comedian Brian Unger. Flay's team is making a mean masa while we go to a live poll. The fans have turned Flay from a 2-to-1 favorite to a 2-to-1 dog. Sakai's team have a broth going into the wok with the shark fin. Meanwhile, heavy cream goes into Flay's crayfish.

Alton has Iron Chef Morimoto on the sidelines, thinking that he's going to integrate some Asian flavor. "He has an open mind." As far as predictions go, Morimoto's not playing favorites. How diplomatic.

Back to the action, Flay is straining some while Sakai is searing the oil out of the freshly-caught fish. So this is definitely going to be a tartare. Flay's going to the four cast-iron skillets with trout on tarragon with a little butter.

"Thirty minutes have elapsed." Half of the first ICA battle is in the books, and Sakai is a little taken, but not that much. He's been in 26 battles with seafood, and has only lost one (to San Francisco chef Ron Siegel - Battle Lobster). Flay thinks that Sakai is the crme de la crme of the Iron Chefs. "He can adapt to anything. Whatever ingredient they put up there, he's going to have 500 ideas in his head as to what he's going to do." Sakai will face him believing in his own victory.

Twenty minutes to go, and some milk, sugar, and trout is in the blender on Sakai's side. Could be ice cream. Kerry Simon notices a difference from the first five minutes and now, especially in the chatter department. Victoria von Biel is following Sakai as closely as she was following Flay. Brian Unger loves the smell.

Over on Sakai's side, we see shiitakes, pepper sauce, and Chinese cabbage going into the wok for another soup. The sugar/milk concoction is going into the ice cream maker, while Flay starts on a tamale dish and... grits? They think they'll harmonize. Only time will tell. Right now, after a live vote that puts Sakai as the 2-to-1 favorite, we see more sugar milk going into the favorite's ice cream maker. And yes, Alton, they did have an ice cream maker, but it was a toploader. Sakai makes time to joke about not being a friend to Bobby Flay, at least not in Kitchen Stadium.

Flay's making a serious chile rub. It's a wet rub, and if he's smart, he'll go for a little bit at a time. "Fifteen minutes to go." Guacamole and trout are going together, while Sakai is prepping garnishes of watercress. Flay cracks a coconut and saves the juice. Looks like he may be using them for bowls. But he uses the juice to stew crab meat.

Sakai is going for the caviar to finish his tartare. That kicks off our plating. Very important, as we eat with our eyes before eating with our mouths. Flay starts prepping his colorful blue corn tortilla tacos, while the live vote has not changed. Sakai preps parsley and olive oil for plating.

Flay has battered and fried an entire fish, while there might be a bit of a break. It seems that Sakai and his chefs forgot one dish. Can he finish it in the 12 or so minutes remaining?

Flay hopes not. He's got his crayfish sauce on the fish while Sakai is busy preparing kambu kelp for broth. Or maybe not. He's making his fish with that and the olive oil/parsley concoction...

"Ten minutes to go." Okay, it's used for a visual. And Sakai is done with at least two. Honey and berries are accompanying the ice cream with 6:45 to go. Judges are ready to eat, and they're pretty curious about the ice cream. "Give it to Brian, he'll eat anything." Flay has the cast-iron skillets out and they'll be used as plates.

"Five minutes to go." And we go into Sakai's trademark apple-peeling. A favorite of any Iron Chef fan. Meanwhile Flay is going for his soup presentation, as he's using the coconut for a bowl and several aromatic spices as garnishes. He's pouring it on rather generously. I think I know why.

"Three minutes to go." The ice cream is done with the trout-skin wafer. Flay is still pouring his soup. Sakai is pointing to a bottle of grapeseed oil with his picture on it. Ninety seconds to go, and we're going into the finishing touches. For Sakai, it's giftwrap. For Flay, it's tapas. Looks like both chefs will make it.

"Five seconds... three... two... one... Your time is up." It's all over but the tasting and judgment. Each judge is allocated up to 20 points for each chef. Of those 20, ten will be awarded for taste, five for presentation and plating, and five for originality and theme.

Flay thought that the trout was bigger than he is used to. Flay's dishes: four tapas, trout and crab coconut soup, Yucatan-grilled trout tacos, cast-iron cooked trout fillets with grits, and crispy whole trout with tamales.

Brian loves the harmony in the tapas. Flay based his soup on the "overflowing affection" of being served sake in Japanese sushi bars - like "you give us your business, we give you more than what you had hoped for." Kerry likes the tacos, while Victoria appreciates the simplicity of the trout fillets and the flavor of the trout tamales.

Live vote before going to Sakai's dishes. Flay's still a dog. Sakai knew he would have a good time cooking. Sakai's dishes: trout custard in Chinese soup, trout tartare with ginger sauce and lime, spicy homestyle trout soup, trout with parsley sauce and bell peppers, and golden trout ice cream.

He used the sharkfin in the soup to honor Iron Chinese Chen, who couldn't make the trip due to being ill. Victoria loves how the delicateness of the fish goes through the first two dishes. Brian enjoys the contrast of textures. Kerry likes the simplicity. Brian thinks the ice cream is subtle, and Kerry thinks it works well with the fruit. "This is what we call extreme cuisine."

Now comes the all-important question: whose cuisine reigns supreme? Here's the Chairman.

"In the battle royale of Sakai and Flay, today's winning master is... Iron Chef Bobby Flay!" The two congratulate each other, as well they should, judging from the point total:

FLAY: Taste 24, Plating - 14, Originality - 17, Total - 55

SAKAI: Taste - 22, Plating - 13, Originality - 16, Total - 51

Flay may have doubted a bit in the battle (and so did the viewers as the final tally gives the nod to Sakai). "When you go against the Babe Ruth of the Iron Chefs, you're just lucky to be there."

Congratulations to Bobby Flay, whose cuisine reigns supreme tonight.

My take, well, as an Iron Chef fan from the first time I saw the show on a bootleg tape at a COUp meeting in 1998, it's hard to me to remain unbiased... so I'm not even going to bother. An excellent addition to the ongoing legacy. Of course, the shift of the spotlight to food as opposed to just recreating pro wrestling results in something that honors the original series. Of course, the addition of Alton Brown and the subtraction of William Shatner doesn't hurt either.

But one episode doesn't a favorite make. I have to watch at least three more. Oh, you have three more. Cool! Next time: Batali vs. Morimoto.

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