As I said last night in announcing these results, it was a hellishly difficult chore for the judges to pick a winner, and it was particularly frustrating in that the scoring system we decided to use - the original Iron Chef Japan - with three judges each awarding up to 10 points for taste and 5 each for presentation and originality for a possible maximum of 60 per contestant - tended to reward the offbeat, deliciously "weird" entries at the expense of the delicious but more traditional entries. Next time we do one of these things, to make it even closer, we may re-visit the scoring system. Still, all four contestants have a lot to be proud of - all the entries were spectacular. Thanks to Deb and Suzi for joining me as judges. I sure wouldn't have wanted to do it alone!
Curiously, the contestants drew straws to determine the order, and totally by coincidence, this order turned out to place the four contestants in order from most traditional to most far-out, and in increasing order of point scores. Congrats to Stephen Dennison for taking the prize, but we really did have four winners last night.
It was tough to take detailed notes at the same time as judging and talking, so all of you, chefs and judges, who find nits to pick with my details or descriptions, please jump in. Here are my comments and the detailed scores.
Marsha Lynch, Pastry Chef, Cafe Lou Lou
Marsha went the traditional route, fashioning a fairly standard BLT heightened by the use of high-quality ingredients and careful prep. Honey wheat from By Bread Alone was stacked with Broadbent's pepper bacon, Kentucky Bibb lettuce, watercress, avocado and roasted garlic aioli, with a bit of Irish butter for good luck, and garnished with a crisp, tart homemade refrigerator pickle and a perfect grape tomato. The taste was excellent, although some of the judges felt that the bacon's high level of smokiness overcame the tomato; and it won loads of points for presentation, for its look and for the pretty Fiestaware-color plates she presented them on. Unfortunately, the Iron Chef judging criteria, which reward creativity and punish traditionalism, hurt Marsha on the points scale, although I heard her sammy was, for many, the People's Choice.
Taste, 23; presentation, 13; originality, 8, total 44.
Dan Thomas, Chef, Big Spring Country Club
Dan also went with a fairly traditional approach but kicked it up a bit by building a triangular sandwich on three-cheese-and-onion focaccia. Three flavors of Father's brand bacon - hickory-smoke, Cajun and pepper - added complexity to the B, with the L and the T covered by hydroponic Bibb lettuce, a mix of Better Boy and yellow tomatoes. Garnishes of guacamole, separate dollops of pesto and ranch mayo, and a toothpicked garnish of cocktail olive, pickled radish, Chicago sport pepper and kosher dill cornichon pulled it all together. So many flavors! Yet they all worked together remarkably well, complex but not busy. Dan's entry pretty much topped the group in the flavor department, and as he had said, the Father's bacon was spectacular; but he did lose a few presentation points for a "wet" sandwich that tended to fall apart in the judges' hands and run down our arms.
Taste, 29; presentation, 7; originality, 10, total 46.
Ethan Ray, Pastry Chef, the Oakroom
Now we started to move from the traditionalists toward the wild-eyed radicals, as both of the next two chefs thought far, far outside the box in putting their entry together. Ethan's, presented on a small white curvilinear plate, was an open-face work of art that essentially deconstructed the BLT and then put it back together again in a new form. An oval of savory sourdough french toast went down first, topped with yellow tomatoes concentrated into a gel; bits of Allan Benton's Tennessee hickory smoked bacon went on top, with the admirably offbeat addition of what Ethan alled "faux mayo," pure cream ice cream infused with a touch of smoke! Micro mezuna on top made a delicate substitute for lettuce, and a shake of bourbon-barrel smoked salt heightened the bacon-smoky theme. It was a microgastronomy concept worthy of an acolyte of El Bulli's Ferrà Adrian, and it wowed the judges, who gave all-but-unanimous top scores for both presentation and originality. In the flavor department, as you might expect from such an offbeat concept, things got a little more controversial. All the judges liked it, but flavor scores were less consistent than the two previous entries, and discussion centered on how successful the bold effort had been. The overall flavors were great, and the combined textures were right on, but the ice cream - not the smoke, which was subtle, but the cream - seemed to dominate the sandwich and defeat the complexity that Ethan was obviously shooting for. Still, borne on his top grades for looks and creativity, he moved into the lead at this point.
Taste, 22; presentation, 14; originality, 14, total 50.
Stephen Dennison, Key Employee, Varanese
Just when we thought Ethan had raised the bar beyond reach, along came Stephen with an even more off-the-wall effort: BLT sushi! I am not kidding about this! Stephen built a pair of sushi-maki (rolls) that he evocatively called "from the barnyard to the rice paddy," recommending that the "barnyard" roll be eaten first. I'm sure I missed some items, and even Stephen himself forgot to mention the Hudson Valley Camembert in one of the rolls. But it went something like this: The "barnyard" roll, so named for its earthy flavors, was a futomaki-size sushi-style roll of German rye bread, not rice, wrapped around applewood-smoked bacon, the meat of roma tomatoes, caraway seeds and pickle, touched with an artful stripe of buckwheat honey and black molasses scented with Chinese Five Spice and a dash of cayenne; alfalfa sprouts went on top as garnish. The "rice paddy" roll was a standard short-grain rice roll around Broadbent Kentucky Country bacon and arugula, a dill pickle slice on top, a Middle Eastern spice ("zatora"? Stephen, help me out here), topped with Sichuan pepper aioli, tomato "caviar" and pulverized Telicherry pepper. The "barnywrd," as noted, was earthy and complex, with the Camembert making a definite statement, sweetness on the back palate, but bacon and rye always coming through. The "rice paddy" roll could have turned up in a real sushi bar and no one would have been too surprised. The judges did think the BLT concept got a little lost in this one (although it was there full force in the "barnyard," but overall, this effort ultimately took top honors because it successfully bridged spectacular creativity while retaining respect for the BLT character.
Taste, 25; presentation, 15; originality, 14, total 54.
Thanks to all who brought goodies - busy with judging, I didn't get a good handle on who brought what, but Dave Pierce's tomato confit and Andrea E's wonderful brownies from her Q&A Sweet Treats cannot fail to be mentioned.