Tournament of Champions: Was the bracket upset really unexpected?

Competitor Alex Guarnaschelli, as seen on Tournament of Champions, Season 1. photo provided by Food Network
Competitor Alex Guarnaschelli, as seen on Tournament of Champions, Season 1. photo provided by Food Network /

Tournament of Champions premiered on Food Network with some of the country’s best and well-known chefs going into culinary battle. Was anyone prepared for the unexpected result?

Foodies love their Food Network culinary competitions. Tournament of Champions, hosted by Guy Fieri, has been one of the highly anticipated new Spring shows. Bringing together some of the biggest chefs to compete in a bracket style competition, the predictions for ran the gamut. While everyone knew that the dishes would impress, the final outcome was uncertain. But just like March Madness, a perfect bracket is almost unthinkable.

After the chefs were seeded into their bracket positions (some not thrilled with their rankings), only a few of the first round battles aired on the premiere episode. While it is a culinary competition, there was more back story and chef reactions than actual cooking. Unlike the original Iron Chef where foodies watched the meticulous preparation, the cooking was more of a summary.

The biggest challenge for the chefs wasn’t their opponent; it was the unpredictable randomizer. After spinning the wheels, the chefs learned their protein, produce, equipment, style and time. Although all the options were never revealed, the combinations could be brutal.

In the first battle Antonia LoFaso (a number one seed) took on Marcel Vigneron. The battle of the former Top Chef contestants had more than bragging rights on the line. It was clear that Antonia did not want to lose to Marcel.

The chefs had to cook cod with avocado in a sweet preparation and use a microwave. Unless you want to cook a quick cake, most chefs would prefer to avoid the microwave. Like most Food Network competitions, it is about making smart choices.

Still, it was good that neither chef had a mistake. They each presented beautiful dishes that captured the challenge.

One of the keys to this competition is that the three judges rate the dishes blindly. With Simon Majumdar and Justin Warner offering insight on the dish’s ingredients, how it was made and answering any other questions, there seems to be no favoritism in the judging. Still, if the judges know who is competing, they might be able to guess a chef’s dish.

Judging this episode was Curtis Stone, Nancy Silverton and Marcus Samuelsson. Given that these chefs are all very different, it was nice to have a wide range to offer insight on the dishes.

In the Antonia versus Marcel challenge, the judges were impressed with both dishes. The cod was cooked well. The balance was sweetness was lovely. Even the uses of avocado was appreciated.

Still, only one chef could move into the next round. The judges choose Antonia. To say that she was relieved that she survived round one was an understatement.

In the second battle, Jet Tila took on Eric Greenspan. Both chefs have very, very different approaches. Jet focuses on Asian cuisine while Alan is more classic (or grilled cheese, which he will never lose that designation).

For their randomizer, they got steak sirloin, mushrooms, smoke, and juicer. Looking at this list, the smoke was the hardest part. Trying to infuse smoke flavor in just 35 minutes was almost impossible.

The two dishes were quite different. As expected, Jet went with an Asian inspired dish. While the judges were torn with his beef, the “smoked” rice powder was a highlight. Although toasted rice in a cast iron pan might not be “smoked,” it did have a little bit of that “burning” flavor.

Eric went in an unlikely direction, meatballs. While this idea helped to keep the beef tender, the meatball had the unexpected ingredient of sweetbreads. Even the judges had never thought to put ground sweetbreads in a meatball.

Giving the meatball a luscious texture and a slightly different flavor, Eric was applauded for the creativity. But, his smoke flavor did not come through in the dish.

In the end, Jet edged Eric in the competition. He moves on to the next round of Tournament of Champions.

For the final battle of the night, it was a big one. All episode long, everyone was talking about Alex Guarnaschelli having a target on her back. The Iron Chef was the one to beat and she would be taking on a rookie. Given the build it, anyone could have guess that an upset was in the making.

While some people might not instantly recognize Darnell, he has done well in Food Network competitions. Alex even praised him as he won Ultimate Thanksgiving Challenge. He wasn’t going down with out a fight.

For their randomizer, the ingredients were pork tenderloin, peas, waffle iron and glazed. To say that Alex was bitter about the waffle iron was an understatement. It definitely through her off her game.

Unlike other Iron Chef competitions, Alex seemed off from the beginning. It looked like she was having a hard time trying to find the right balance in her dish. If the dish didn’t have to deal with the waffle iron, she could have knocked it out of the park.

Putting a quesadilla with her French-influenced pork was strange. It was a food mash-up that no one needs and it cost her.

Truthfully, lots of food can be cooked on a waffle iron. There are whole sites devoted to “waffle it.” Darnell used cooked mushrooms in his waffle iron. There are many options that were totally overlooked.

While Alex’s flavors were good, the small mistakes were not overlooked by the judges. Darnell wasn’t perfect but he was impressive.

In the end, Darnell edged out the Iron Chef and took down the number one seed from the East. While it would have been nice to see Alex win, this outcome will have people watching next week. Just like March Madness, everyone likes that big upset. It makes the event more exciting.

Next week’s Tournament of Champions episode will feature three more battles. Whether or not there is another upset in the making remains to be seen.

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What did you think of Tournament of Champions? Do you think that Food Network has a winner with this new culinary competition?