The Next Iron Chef IV: Handicapping

The first season of The Next Iron Chef was awesome. It seemed to fit within the faux-mythology of the show, the contestants were interesting, the winner (Michael Symon) has gone on to be a far better Iron Chef than Bobby Flay ever was, and adding someone to the ranks seemed like a big deal.

But then they turned it into an annual reality show competition, and now we've gotten two more Iron Chefs. Jose Garces, who seems like a seat-filler at the Iron Chef Oscars, and Marc Forgione, who's good, but who I really need to see more of. The dude has literally been in TWO battles since winning the title. Plus, at this point, we're up to six Iron Chefs. Do we need a seventh? Bobby Flay's never stepping down, after all.

That said, TNIC is the only cooking competition Food Network puts on that really holds my interest, so I'm still looking forward to it when it kicks off at the end of October. Even though all the contestants this year are being drawn almost entirely from within the ranks of Food Network and Cooking Channel, which I suspect means payroll's a little tight at Scripps right now. We've got Anne Burrell, Michael Chiarello, Elizabeth Falkner, Alex Guarnaschelli, Chuck Hughes, Robert Irvine, Beau MacMillan, Spike Mendelsson, Marcus Samuelsson, and Geoffrey Zakarian.

I'm going to rank these in the order I think they're going to be eliminated, under the assumption that (a) the competition is based around their ability to cook, and (b) my interpretation of their ability to cook based on their TV shows. I'll also divide them into three tiers to further hedge my bets.

THE EARLY LOSERS:

Elizabeth Falkner: I don't subscribe to the belief that pastry chefs are inferior to savory chefs, but I do subscribe to the belief that Iron Chef is FUCKING WELL NOT ABOUT CAKES. I'll be shocked if she has the chops to make it through the first episode.

ROBERT IRVINE: A hack who the Food Network keeps around to do his Gordon Ramsey impersonations. The farther he gets in the competition, the farther in you know the fix is.

Beau McMillan: My least confident pick for this tier. He has chops, but no real flair or style, and couldn't even avoid being replaced by Irvine on the second seasson of Worst Cooks. I don't see him going far.

THE MIDDLE TIER:

Spike Mendelsson: On Top Chef, Spike defines the middle tier. I expect him to do the same or worse in this crowd.

Geoffrey Zakarian: Zakarian is probably too far down this list, but I don't care, because I cannot fucking stand him. He's the one who berated a contestant on Chopped for not treating it with the gravitas a weekly game show with a cheap prize deserves. Fuck him.

Alex Guarnaschelli: Another Chopped judge. She has a reputation, and seemed competent in the biography show I paid a little attention to when I came across it on Cooking Channel. I'm fairly confident with her in the upper-middle.

Chuck Hughes: The dark horse this year. Probably my favorite personality out of the bunch, kind of a French Canadian Michael Symon. He shows amazing chops on Chuck's Day Off, and recently beat Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America, but he basically serves upscale bar food, so I'm not sure he has a complete enough skill set to

THE TOP THREE:

Michael Chiarello: He was a bit of a dick on Top Chef Masters, and I don't think his Napa Valley douche snobbery will give him the title, but there's no denying his talent, and he has experience with the format.

Anne Burrell: Burrell was Mario Batali's sous chef for dozens of Iron Chef America battles. That alone should give everyone else pause. Since then, she's shown solid talent on Worst Cooks and Secrets of a Restaurant Chef, and that, combined with her experience with the format, should take her far.

Marcus Samuelsson: Samuelsson's the 900 pound gorilla in this room. He's Godzilla, and everyone else is riding an above-ground model train through Tokyo. The dude won Top Chef Masters in Season 2, has global cuisine chops nobody else in this group has, and really is, from everything I've seen, in an entirely different league. He's like Ming Tsai last year, only without the rust from years of public TV and marketing jarred sauces, plus competitive cooking experience.

Anything can happen, and there's no discounting the possibility that the whole thing's a work, but he's my pick to take it while barely breaking a sweat.