The Next Iron Chef: Season Three

So, here we are again.

Two years ago, the first Next Iron Chef competition was held. The set was somewhat awkward, the challenges were elaborate, and the winner was Michael Symon, who's proved to not only be a hell of an Iron Chef, but a breakout star on Food Network/Cooking Channel. His run on Dinner: Impossible pissed on Robert Irvine from a great height, his Cook Like An Iron Chef is the best cooking show on TV right now, and he's even being tapped in a ripoff of Travel Channel's "Food Wars".

Season 2 moved the action into an aircraft-hangar-type set, so there was plenty of room to move around and plenty of ventilation. It was a fun season, even though it moved even closer to Top Chef in format, and it gave us Jose Garces, who's managed four whole battles as an IC before the new season started.

And let's not forget that, like Next Food Network Star, NIC serves as an audition for Food Network. Chris Cosentino and Arron Sanchez landed regular gigs as a result of Season 1, Nate Appleman from S2 appeared on the food truck show, and we cannot seem to get rid of Amanda Freitag, either.

And now, Season 3. It's even more like Top Chef, with an initial Secret Ingredient Challenge, judged by the contestants themselves, providing an advantage in the Chairman's Challenge, which leads to an elimination. The big twist this year is Ming Motherfuckin' Tsai.

Tsai was a celebrity chef in the early days of the Food Network, and appeared on PBS before and after that. He's had his own line of foods and pots and pans. And his inclusion fascinated the hell out of me for the same reason Tsai himself said right off the bat - after going through all that, at a point which most celebrity chefs don't need to actually cook things, can he still bring it?

Well, he certainly dominated the first episode. While he didn't wow in the Quick... er, Secret Ingredient challenge, making a sandwich that fell squarely in the middle of the pack, when it cam time for the wacky Chairman's Challenge, on a beach with each chef getting their "desert island" ingredient from a pre-show questionaire, he pulled off a delicate-looking trio of items that was the only dish that looked Kitchen Stadium-worthy. And in both challenges, there was no footage of him fucking up, or running up against the clock.

Clearly, at least to the extent the editing can be trusted, Tsai is going to be a force to be reckoned with. The first episode was also blissfully free of reality show bullshit, with one minor episode of gamesmanship (the mildly irritating Estes voting for herself in the first challenge) and one dude whose name I can't even remember bringing with him a bit of extra braggadouchio.

Of course, the preview for tomorrow night's episode played up more of that "no you can't have any of this" ingredient and equipment bullshit that creeps into Top Chef a lot, so we'll see how much of it is real and how much is selective culling.

Oh, that reminds me. The judges. No Ruhlman, no Knowlton, no Steingarten - bad/good/good respectively. We've got Michael Symon - it's a good thing he's so damn appealing, because they've got him on the Guy Fieri "put him in everything" rotation right now. There's Simon Majumdar, who is fulfilling the British Accent And Insults trope, and Donatella Arpaia, who makes a living telling chefs on Food Network reality shows if their food is any good or not.

The best part of The Next Iron Chef is that it's the only game show where the natural reality tendency to overinflate the importance of the competition actually makes sense, because Iron Chef has always been about pretending what's happening is more important than it is. And the second best part is that it's hosted by Alton Brown. When he just ripped into poor Estes for not understanding what a pineapple marinade would do to a tiny piece of pork loin, it was a moment of beauty.



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Ming Tsai

Ming Tsai is quite appealing as a show host - his California boy accent is just fun, and though I am not myself a guy, his constant "guys" interjections are kind of cute. That probably won't be much on display in the IC format, of course.

As far as having existing, got-there-the-hard-way professionals compete to be celebrity professionals, let's hope he doesn't follow the path of Robert Best on Project Runway (though admittedly Best was trying to cross over from 1:6 to 1:1 scale, arguably a harder job than going from being a chef to being a chef.)

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