Chef Celina Tio of Julian was on fire again on this week's episode of The Next Iron Chef.
But before we get to the recap, won't you spend a minute to go and vote for our hometown contender to be the Fan Favorite on The Next Iron Chef's website? And then once you've voted for her, won't you vote for her again nine more times? You can vote up to 10 times a day.
As of this morning, Chef Tio was in fourth place, with 12 percent of the vote. Chef Mario -- who isn't even on the show anymore after getting eliminated in week two -- was leading at first with 39 percent. That's no good. With Survivor's Yve Rojas catching a raw deal and getting voted off last Thursday, we're down to one high-profile reality-show contestant. It would be the coolest if The Next Iron Chef were from here. Now on to the recap.
Tonight's theme was "Transformation" -- making ordinary ingredients extraordinary. In the Secret Ingredient Challenge, each chef was to take one of seven condiments, which host Alton Brown called "the American mother sauces," and transform it into something awesome. Because chef Marco Canora won last week's challenge, he got to assign condiments to each of the competitors, and showed his nefarious side by giving Tio hot sauce (she's not into spicy food).
Chef Marc Forgione was given barbecue sauce, and made barbecued pasta with barbecue Bolognese, which seems kind of wrong yet kind of right. Meanwhile, chef Ming Tsai was assigned steak sauce and made steak-sauce carpaccio, for which the steak sauce is the steak and the steak is the cheese and the parmesan is the sauce. Or something like that. It seemed really complicated and involved liquid nitrogen.
The chefs judged one another's dishes, and Canora's plan backfired. Tio won the challenge with her almond cake with hot-sauce ricotta, topped with hot-sauce-macerated cherries and hot-sauce caramel. I must have this.
The rival chefs were next taken to the San Diego County Fair, where Brown told them they unfortunately weren't there to ride the Gravitron or bungee jump -- probably a good thing after chef Maneet Chauhan's lemon-and-ranch-mousse disaster from earlier in the episode. Rather, it was time for the Chairman's Challenge. Each chef had to express the theme of transformation in three dishes -- one grilled, one on a stick, one fried -- using only ingredients they could buy from vendors at the fairground in 30 minutes.
Shockingly, no one set out to make pot brownies, because, you know, carny folk. Tio got a five-minute head start as her reward from the earlier challenge.
Canora said he was going to make healthy food and was surprised when he couldn't get any scallions. Chef Duskie Estes went out looking for raw ingredients. Chauhan was hoping to find fresh produce. I think these people were missing the point of the fair.
The chefs had 60 minutes to prepare their dishes, plus the 27-ton Outlaw Grill to cook on. Forgione came up with a tasty-sounding trio of deep-fried root-beer float on a stick; grilled Buffalo "chicken wings," which were actually frog legs*; and a deep-fried bacon cheeseburger, for which the patty was made of chicken-fried bacon.
*Due to Doc Hopper from The Muppet Movie, I've never had frog legs. But I love buffalo wings. Color me conflicted!
The judges put Forgione near the top of the pack, along with Canora and chef Bryan Caswell. Canora did manage to make his healthier stuff -- including tomato salad on a stick with cucumber, basil and pickled onion; and a grilled-zucchini-corn-and-shrimp taco -- look pretty good. While Caswell's charred-corn-and-cilantro snow cone got mixed reviews, I'm all for his shrimp-and-sausage corn dog.
In the end, Tio went two for two. She won the Chairman's Challenge with a grilled-fish taco on a crepe made out of tortilla chips (she couldn't find corn meal), spicy popcorn shrimp on a stick with picked shrimp, and deep-fried funnel-cake moon pie with banana-lemon marshmallow fluff and butterscotch sauce. Of the latter, judge Simon Majumdar said it was a "mouth-sized bite of joy." Big praise from a guy who said his only experience with funnel cake was "actively nasty."
The boot went to Estes, who made a grilled calimari salad pita, which judge Donatella Arpaia called "clunky," a caramel apple on a stick fail, and a deep-fried strawberry-and-chocolate pie with some troublesome dough.
At the top of the hour, Tio said, "Every great chef has a bad day, and I do not want to have a bad day while I'm here." Announcing her victory, Brown said, "A sleeper awoke."
Tio has some momentum now -- let's all hope it carries through to next week. Episode 5 of The Next Iron Chef airs at 8 p.m. Sunday, October 31.
[Image courtesy of Food Network]