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Reality Bites


SF's Traci Des Jardins is the first to go.

I’m pretty sure San Francisco collectively gasped at the end to the first of the Next Iron Chef series, where as you might know by now, Jardinière chef Traci Des Jardins was the first to go. I will admit that I gasped extra hard—no, more like shuddered—because Traci is a good friend of mine, so it felt personal. (I also happen to know two of the other contestants, NYC’s Aaron Sanchez and SF’s Chris Cosentino.) Afterward, I found myself stomping around the house, muttering profanities about the demise of humanity. (Admittedly, I’m prone to being dramatic.) But shouldn’t watching people be humiliated on national television be a pastime that we’re over? Thus far, the Next Iron Chef is set up a bit like America’s Next Top Model meets Iron Chef America meets pretty much every other reality show out there: People are put into ridiculous situations and then voted off the island if they don’t come through.

Last night, the chefs were asked to test their mettle in different competitions, but none of them were a true test of their skills as chefs—and that, as Jessica here likes to say, is the rub. For episode one, they were asked to debone, filet, shuck and crack as many things as possible within a 15 minute time period (envision a mass of hacked up animals piled up on tables), as if they worked for fast food joints, not starred restaurants. From there, they moved on to the “challenge” of making desserts without butter and sugar with ingredients such as catfish, beef shoulder, tripe (which, of course, Cosentino picked) and salmon roe (which Traci selected). To top it off, everything had to be done in a kitchen that was so hot that nothing would set and rivulets of sweat were dripping into their sabayon. I’m surprised no one was asked to cook with live worms—for extra points, of course.Yes, I realize that Traci, and the rest of the chefs, signed up for this—as all reality contestants take a chance when they submit themselves—but unlike shows such as Top Chef, the contestants in the Next Iron Chef are all professionals, not people trying to get their foot in the door. I think Traci wasn’t the only one who thought the show might be able to pull off being both entertaining but still smart, without making the chefs out into trick ponies.

With all samurai-sword-slicing, MTV-esque editing, the three judges came off no better. They were given no real time to comment on things, even if there had been something to legitimately critique (insight came in the form of comments such as: “But does this [fill-in-the-blank-nasty-tripe/squid/roe dish] really taste like a dessert?”) So, in the end, their  decision to vote Traci off (it’s not really clear if it was because her olive oil cake was too simple or too dry or her salmon roe too salty or they just had to pick someone, and fast) holds no real power, especially when you learn that they declare John Besh the winner because he had the stomach-turning genius to wrap catfish in chocolate ganache. One of the judges is Michael Ruhlman, the respected co-author of The French Laundry Cookbook. As he said on his blog about the Food Network’s interest in having him be a judge:

“Honestly, when they told me the premise, I was sold—it was EXACTLY what I thought was needed in the reality show cooking: people who can cook. Only the Food Network had the clout to invite eight established chefs, chefs who have proven their talent in the kitchen and no less importantly their skills as restaurateurs. None of these people are fry cooks desperate for a way out of their kitchen and into a national spotlight. They are chefs who already HAVE a national spotlight. Every one of these chefs is the real deal.  Putting these men and women into competition on camera with all the craziness of reality television, this I wanted to see.”
His last sentence is exactly my point. What’s the urge?

As Frank Bruni wrote for the Times last Wednesday, “The most priceless moment comes near the episode’s beginning, when one aspirant, Traci Des Jardins, the executive chef of the restaurant Jardinière in San Francisco, confronts an array of basic tasks that include filleting a salmon and deboning a chicken. It’s a situation more firmly grounded in kitchen reality than a typical “Iron Chef” stunt, and what’s fascinating is the way Ms. Des Jardins responds to it. Looking nervous, she says with admirable candor that she can only hope the requisite skills are still in her command, because she doesn’t handle such chores often anymore.”

Traci captured Bruni’s attention because her response wasn’t fronted with the silly bravado that reality television calls for. It was simply real—something that reality television, including the Next Iron Chef, has never really cared much about.