Last night’s finale of “The Next Iron Chef” on Food Network featured a battle in Kitchen Stadium akin to the real Iron Chef show…and that’s really how it should have been. It was also very close between chefs Garces and Mehta…and while each has a distinct cooking style, the judges had the difficult choice of crowning one of them the season’s champ, one to join the ranks of Flay, Batali, Cora, Morimoto, and Symon on the popular show.

The chairman began as he does every Iron Chef disclosing the secret ingredient–ribs and racks…both pork and beef. Their task was to use that ingredient to create five dishes that represented America as a melting pot of cultures. It was also a daunting task because of the time usually required to break down rib meat, as they would have just 60 minutes.

The judges were the regulars–Anya Fernald, Jeffrey Steingarten and Donatella Arpaia, with input from Iron Chefs Bobby Flay, Michael Symon and Masaharu Morimoto…as well as host Alton Brown and the chairman.

Mehta’s goal was to fuse different cultures, and his dishes were: smothered dumplings, which Steingarten especially loved….a pork burger with chipotle mayo, which drew criticism from the judges for not being cooked quite enough… Indian spare rib with saffron rice, showing his roots….a buffalo steak with chocolate wine sauce, and while the judges applauded the multitude of flavors going on, some of them thought it was a bit too sweet….and finally, chef Mehta finished with a buffalo tartare topped with avocado sorbet, a dish one of the judges referred to as “outstanding,” while another said that chef Mehta “nailed it.”

Chef Garces themed everything after Chicago, where he was born, while showing off the general melting pot theme: he started with a buffalo tartare with Kobe beef sirloin, and the judges thought it was very flavorful and showed Garces’ control of the secret ingredient….a carnitas taco, which unfortunately had some large pieces of cartilage, and which some judges (ahem, Flay) thought it lacked heat…..a pork loin crusted with mustard and herbs, which one judge called “succulent”……a beef short rib pizza with bacon marmalade, which was said to be bold but “perplexing” with its blend of flavors…..and Garces finished with baby back ribs and spicy barbecue sauce, something the judges liked with its nice balance. However, Donatella claimed that she thought this dish to be safe, while Michael Symon disagreed with her.

The judges agreed that many of the dishes were similar, but that the approaches were quite different. Chef Mehta generally tries harder to present his dishes well, while Chef Garces goes more for technique and flavor. The judging points would be taste, originality and presentation.
Well, we figured Garces would win in taste and Mehta in presentation, and originality was probably ultimately a draw.

So as Donatella alluded to, the final choice was going to be who they thought would be the best Iron Chef to carry on the franchise in future Kitchen Stadium battles. That person, as the chairman announced at the end of the episode, was…..Jose Garces! I personally was having trouble seeing Mehta as an Iron Chef, and I think in the end the judges thought the same thing.

Chef Garces believed he would win, and probably believed that since Day 1. But this was a heck of a battle, and Chef Mehta has nothing to be ashamed of.

Okay, so chef Garces will now take his place alongside the other five Iron Chefs and begin battles that aren’t as critical to anything but his own reputation. And I think he does the franchise proud. We’ll have a chance to talk to Chef Garces on a conference call later today and will share those with you soon. Thanks for reading this season!