This week finds the four finalists - Aarti, Aria, Tom, and Herb - in New York. On their first day in town, they get to stay in a posh suite and do dumb touristy things like gawk at the tall buildings and tramp through Central Park while eating dirty water dogs from a cart.
The next day, after a fitful night of of bad dreams about the next challenge - will they have to design tablescapes with Sandra Lee? judge one of those stupid Dora the Explorer cake competitions? listen to Tyler Florence talk about himself? - the Wanna-bes head to the Food Network Studios and find themselves on the giant soundstage that is home to the set of Iron Chef America, aka "Kitchen Stadium."
There they are met by the not-quite-imposing figures of Michael Symon, Cat Cora, Masaharu Morimoto, and Bobby Flay, all dressed up in their Iron Chef costumes, plus the gaunt figure of Alton Brown.
The Wanna-bes are told that today's challenge will test them in two areas: the ability to cook and be creative and the ability to talk about food on the fly. In other words, they will not only compete as Iron Chefs, but they will also act as commentators.
In the cooking portion of the program, each chef will be responsible for three dishes. The judges want to see their "POV on a plate." They also expect the unexpected. In other words, as the usual expectation is "FAIL," the Wanna-bes will instead have to succeed.
Rather than the usual suspects (e.g., the cranky-but-erudite Steingarten, Andrew "Breck Girl" Knowlton, Michael "maybe people will like me if I'm bitter like Bourdain" Ruhlman), the four Iron Chefs plus Tushface and Bride of Fogelstein will pass judgement on the competitors.
Of course there can be no battle without the able assistance of at least one sous chef, so out of the wings come four skilled and not-so-skilled people to fill this very important role: former Wanna-bes Brad, Serena, Brianna, and Paul. Because Tom won the last challenge, he gets to choose his assistant - Brianna. The other three draw names: Aarti gets Brad; Aria gets Serena; and Herb is stuck with Paul.
Aarti and Herb are the first combatants. Great clouds of dry ice are activated to hide the men who manually lift the lid on the platform on which the secret ingredient rests. And it is revealed to be - Shrimp!
While Herb and Aarti get to work, Tom starts diligently taking notes on his side of the stadium. He wants to be on top of things and do a great job at both aspects of this competition. And from his prompt answer to Alton's first question, it's clear to see that he is in it to win it.
They should seriously think about sending Kevin Brauch back to Canada.
On the other side of the stadium, Aria isn't as focused or serious. Alton has to call her repeatedly to get her attention and when she finally wakes up and responds, she doesn't seem to have much information to share. However, consistent with her POV, her comments are aimed at kindergarteners. At one point, she refers to a shrimp's vein as the "poop chute."
Herb is loving the challenge and is running around the stadium, grabbing ingredients and sweating profusely, while on the other side of the room, Aarti is being slow and deliberate. The judges liken it to the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare. Not to give things away, but we all know that slow and steady wins the race.
Time's up, utensils down!
Herb presents first, and his dishes go from great to awful. His Enchilado de Camarones is homey, flavorful, and well-liked by all of the judges. The second dish, a Mexican shrimp stew, has grit from unwashed clams but otherwise has good flavor. And the final dish of baked shrimp stuffed with shrimp mousse is tough and just plain bad. While the dishes were uneven, Morimoto loved Herb's energy.
Aarti wowed the judges with all three of her dishes - a "South o the Border" prawn masala, a coconut-tomato gazpacho with pickled shrimp, and shrimp stuffed with garlic and cilantro. Michael Symon said in three years of judging the Next Food Network Star, hers were the best dishes EVAR! Which, considering the previous years' competitors, probably isn't saying much.
Next up, Tom vs Aria in Battle Bacon!
Tom is making "bacon steak" and "bacon crab cakes."
Aria looks at bacon and thinks "breakfast." How inventive! How outside the box! An idea straight out of the old poop chute. She's making French toast "tacos," served "Family Style," with bacon on the side, an omelette with bacon on the side, and a Waldorf salad with bits of bacon in it. She briefly considered serving it on the side but thought she'd change things up a bit to make it interesting.
On the commentator side, Herb is doing pretty well, but Aarti is unsure of herself and rather timid. Alton the Crypt Keeper scares her.
Tom eventually decides to make French toast for his third dish, but when he hears that Aria is doing something similar, he decides to be outrageous. After hunting around in the fridge for inspiration, he chooses to make a clam and chorizo sauce for his bacon-stuffed toast.
Cat Cora wonders if he's crazy or genius. Bobby Flay says he wants his sauce on the side. Morimoto, who in the past has made fish ice cream, is secretly looking forward to it.
Tom gets all of his crazy dishes plated in time but Aria barely finishes. As a result, her plating is an embarrassing mess. Her food doesn't fare all that much better. Bacon is obviously not the star in any of her dishes and because none of them involve decorative squiggles of cilantro and hot pepper oils, none of them are Iron Chef-worthy. Morimoto goes so far as to call it "diner food."
And somewhere Guy Fieri is smacking his lips.
Tom gets points for inventiveness, but his bacon cake is too dense, and the bacon steak is a tough leathery disaster. The judges can't even saw into it with their table knives. But of course - bacon, like pork belly, should be braised slowly, not seared and baked.
Not surprisingly, his French toast stuffed with bacon and mascarpone with clams and chorizo is a barfalicious mess. Even Morimoto gagged a little. Tom went a bit too far with his creativity.
The next day, we see the the final four Wanna-bes in front of the Selection Committee for the penultimate time. Tushface tells them there will be one winner from each battle, and then one person will be sent home.
First we hear the verdict for Battle Shrimp:
Aarti is praised for her wonderful food...
...but scolded for her meekness as a commentator. Herb was told that he was fun to watch in the kitchen, and the ICs loved his personality, but his commentating and dishes were inconsistent. Aarti's culinary skill wins the day for her - she is declared the winner for her battle and will go on to compete in the finale. (See? Told ya.)
Then we hear the outcome of Battle Bacon:
Aria was told that she didn't "push the envelope" and her food was "for 5-year-olds." Hell bent on pushing her POV, she missed the spirit of the challenge entirely. And while her commentary was enthusiastic, it was not expert enough. She displayed no culinary authority. At this, Mr Minx shouts "get rid of her!" at the TV. He has long been weary of this particular Wanna-be.
Tom, on the other hand, gave great commentary. Bride of Fogelstein says he has a loveable personality but his food just plain sucked.
Tushface loved the spirit in which he undertook the challenge, even if the bacon steak was nasty.
Nevertheless, his creativity and commentary place Tom above Aria and he is declared the winner of this battle.
All are sent back to the stew room to drink copiously while the the judges deliberate over who to eliminate. And drink copiously. Aria seems to have devolved over the weeks, but they grudgingly admit she shines in front of the camera. (A little powder might help with that.) Herb is unpredictable and at times pretty rough (not to mention shiny, and not in a good way). But overall, he has the best chance of winning.
And with that, Aria goes bye-bye! And there is much rejoicing at Casa Minx!
Next week: the three finalists shoot pilots with the nauseating Rachael Ray. And one of them becomes the Next Food Network Star! (It had better be Aarti.)