by Lisa Sorg
When challenger Ashley Christensen, the culinary wunderkind behind Poole's Diner in Raleigh, selected Iron Chef Bobby Flay as her foil in Iron Chef America Sunday night, the Twittersphere immediately responded with the hashtag #slayflay.
When the secret ingredient, chum salmon, was unveiled lying in state among ice sculptures of—dancing? leaping? swimming?—fish, #filetflay never caught on, but Christensen and her sous chefs set to work with a zen-like focus to concoct five courses made from a less fatty—and thus trickier to cook—variety of the popular fish. No drama, just methodical cooking.
Meanwhile, the swaggering Flay, who I've disliked since he exuberantly stomped on his cutting board in an early episode of Iron Chef (very un-chef-like), barked orders at his team, which, among other made-for-TV crises, lost a bottle of Pinot. No worries, they always carry a spare.
As expected, Christensen deftly melded French and Southern cooking in her adventurous dishes: salmon tartare with Carolina shrimp, chum salmon chile relleno (you could almost smell the poblanos roasting), chum salmon carpaccio, brown butter-roasted chum salmon topped with a frog leg that resembled a recently unearthed pterodactyl fossil, and an elegant salmon skin beignet.
Flay's dishes felt less adventurous: slow-roasted chum salmon (how slow can it roast in less than 45 minutes?), fried green tomato with smoked chum salmon, grilled black bean sauce with chum salmon, Cuban-style whole-roasted chum salmon, and a chum salmon chowder with dungeness crab. (Tweet of the evening was posted by Fullsteam Brewery: "Well done...for Red Lobster, Chef Flay!!!") Ho-hum chum.
As the hour ended—notably interrupted by a commercial featuring a Lays potato chip chef, as if such a person really exists—I thought Christensen's artistic plating and originality would supersede any chumminess between the judges and Flay.
Judges Ben Sargent, host of Catch It, Cook It and Eat It, actress Cady Huffman and Vogue food critic Jeffrey Steingarten praised the carpaccio—Sargent noted the salmon had benefited from a good pounding—and the beignet. Yet they criticized the other three dishes as not being salmony enough.
Except for the whole-roasted salmon, whose Cuban spicing, including plantains, were better suited for pork, Flay's dishes were met with sycophantic praise (not that I'm bitter).
Score: Flay, 45; Christensen, 35.
As Laura Leslie posted, "@poolesdiner got robbed."