There’s nothing more comforting for me than good shows about food. I marvel at the genius of individual chefs and their life stories (Chef’s Table); laugh and learn from an unexpected duo (The Chef Show); am soothed, transported and taught by the great Samin Nosrat (Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat); and feel at ease watching a British baking competition that does not feel like a competition at all (at least, not an American one). But not all food competition shows will bring comfort to me. I couldn't get past one episode of The Final Table on Netflix because the music alone stressed the hell out of me. I get tired of the gimmicks of Chopped (who will get to the ice cream machine first?!), and I can’t watch Bobby Flay use calabrian chilis anymore to best someone else’s specialty dish.
Top Chef was in many ways an ideal food show for me because it had the excitement of a competition, but for a reality show (on Bravo, no less), it was fairly low on manufactured drama. It was one of the shows that helped me become more confident in the kitchen and try new things when dining out; it gave me the idea to buy an immersion circulator (I make a mean duck, a ridiculous prime rib, and a perfectly cooked octopus with it), and it often inspired me to book reservations at particular restaurants when traveling. But at the end of watching Top Chef: Portland, a pretty great season filmed relatively early in the pandemic, I was left with a bad taste in my mouth–the season’s winner, a Mexican-American Chef from Austin, had been accused of harassing and retaliating against a female employee, and neither Top Chef nor Bravo sufficiently addressed the controversy. They acted as though Gabe Erales did not exist. When I found out that the next season would be in Houston, the city where I came of age and where some of my family still live, I was disappointed. Would I turn to Top Chef: Houston for hometown food comfort? Would it give me ideas on where to eat when I visit my family again?
When I started to see Top Chef: Houston show up in my feeds, I realized that bad taste had not gone away, and I could not make myself watch. But just a couple of weeks ago, I was able to scratch my Top Chef itch without the guilt. The new version of Iron Chef on Netflix–Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend–has some of the best elements of my old Bravo favorite and some new ones I am really enjoying. First, it is satisfying my thirst for some Top Chef talent, starting with its cohost, Kristen Kish (winner of Top Chef’s 10th season). She is a great counter to Alton Brown because while he nerds out on the science of ingredients or food preparation, she brings in her expertise as a chef and as a former food show competitor. She is someone who understands the pressure of a restaurant kitchen and the pressure of cooking under the many limits (time, ingredients, etc.) of a TV competition. And on a totally superficial note, I am loving her suits and looks in every episode! Other Top Chef favorites of mine featured in this new iteration of Iron Chef include Claudette Zepeda (who, along with Kish, has been one of the best in Top Chef’s Last Chance Kitchen), Mei Lin (winner of Top Chef’s 12th season and former personal chef to Oprah), and Gregory Gourdet (Top Chef finalist in the show’s 12th and 17th seasons).
But the show is worth watching beyond its Top Chef stars. If you are a consumer of food TV or subscribe to Food & Wine magazine, you will recognize judges like Nilou Motamed and Andrew Zimmern, and root for Iron Chefs like Curtis Stone and Gabriela Cámara. You will be amused by judges like Loni Love and Danny Trejo and charmed and impressed by Dominique Crenn while she is being so damn good at her job. I loved seeing so many women lead and be badasses at work on TV. I loved that the cooking teams of Esther Choi, Claudette Zepeda, and Gabriela Cámara were majorly representing women in the professional kitchen
If you’re anything like me, you will be impressed by the presentation of each of Chef Esther Choi’s dishes in the second episode; you will have fun watching Iron Chefs team up and challenge one another in the fourth; and you will get ideas on how to expand your use of chocolate and chili peppers from the fifth and sixth episodes. The penultimate episode, in which former Top Chef rivals, Lin and Gourdet, team up to battle Iron Chef Ming Tsai made me want to try sturgeon in all of its preparations and once again made me wonder if caviar is as good as they say it is (if Alton says so, it must be true!).
Speaking of Alton, one of the surprises for me was in Battle Chocolate, when he anticipated that Chef Claudette Zepeda would be making a dessert inspired by a favorite sweet of many Mexican children–Duvalín. Let’s just say I never found this under a busted piñata:
I soooooo wanted to taste this. But who am I kidding? I wanted to taste every single meal made for the judges on this show. Two of the judges got choked up while explaining how they felt about the food. One in particular really got me because I’ve been there. I’ve tasted a dish that helped me travel through space and time, a bite that made me see the face and feel the love of the person who cooked it for me.
I’ve yet to watch the last episode, but I think before I do, I want to do a rewatch. To take notes on Mexicana chefs who do wonders with chocolate and chiles. To dream of restaurants to visit on future travels. To remember my meal at Gabriela Cámara’s Contramar where I almost picked up bowls of ceviche and aguachile as if they were cups for me to drink, and to taste the memory of that fig tart I took back to my hotel because I had already eaten everything else on the menu.
I’ll finish and rewatch Iron Chef next time I need the comfort.