'Next Iron Chef' stirs up drama

By Robin Doublebower
On November 9, 2007

It began with eight, but only two contenders remain in The Food Network's "The Next Iron Chef" competition. With the final episode set to air this Sunday at 9 p.m.,the best of the two finalists will join the pantheon of Iron Chefs, which currently includes Mario Batali, Cat Cora, Masaharu Morimoto and Bobby Flay.

The chefs chosen by the "nimble chairman" are touted by the network as the best in the country and are competing for a permanent position in Kitchen Stadium, where they will battle regularly with other top chefs. Contenders, John Besh, Chris Cosentino, Jill Davie, Traci Des Jardins, Gavin Kaysen, Morou Ouattara, Aáron Sanchez and Michael Symon are from across the country and represent a wide variety of cooking styles and cuisines.

Chef Sanchez, from New York City, has a decidedly Latin flare to his dishes while Chef Cosentino, from San Francisco, Calif. stays true to his Italian heritage.

The two finalists, Chefs Symon and Besh, vary differently in the types of dishes they present to the judges. Chef Besh is a Southern Boy from New Orleans, La. and Southern flavors and cooking techniques are ever-present in his creations. Chef Symon, who hails from Cleveland, Ohio lays claim to no specific type of cuisine, but rather incorporates aspects of many different cuisines into his simple dishes. The finalists seem to be well matched as they battle for the title.

The Chefs are not the only talent present on the show. The three judges and the host, Alton Brown, all carry weighty résumés that have instilled respect, if not fear, in the contestants.

Donatella Arpaia is a New York City restauranteur, Andrew Knowlton is the restaurant editor for "Bon Appétit" and Michael Ruhlman is a food and restaurant critic. Alton Brown is a chef on the Food Network whose shows include "Good Eats" and "Feasting on Asphalt" and he is also the commentator for "Iron Chef America."

Along with the judges, Brown scrutinizes each dish put before them with a more critical eye than the chefs are likely to face in the panel of judges on Iron Chef America.

The final show will be a battle between the two finalists in Kitchen Stadium, much like the battles they will compete in if they are chosen as the next Iron Chef. Throughout the show, the contestants have had to conquer challenges such as preparing an airline meal, cooking outside with only a grill and a cooler packed by another contestant, and preparing a dish with "underutilized" foods such as sweet breads or catfish. The final battle will be swordfish, and judging by the dishes presented by Chefs Besh and Symon in the previous episodes, it promises to be a battle of epic "portions."

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