Tournament of Champions Season 5 premiere: Big flavor wins over creativity

Tournament of Champions Season 5
Tournament of Champions Season 5 / Food Network

As 32 chefs enter the Food Network kitchen longing to raise the belt in victory, the Tournament of Champions Season 5 premiere included some curious wildcard ingredients. From the reigning champion to fan favorites, the battles had all the twists and turns that viewers wanted.  

The early rounds of Tournament of Champions can be unpredictable. Over the previous seasons, champions have lost to eight seeds. Just one point has sent a favorite chef home. It is far from easy sailing for the top seeds.  

In the first round, each battle is 30 minutes. That level playing field is important for the first round  

Additionally, each battle will have a wildcard ingredient. This component is key to see how the chefs not only handle the pressure, but also it showcases their creativity. At this level, the chefs should be able to handle most combinations, but the totally out of the box ingredient offers insight to their culinary talent. Not everyone will see canned sardines and jump for joy.  

In the firs battle, Jet Tila took on Brian Malarkey. While everyone expected some chaos in the kitchen, the fast and furious back and forth set the tone for the first episode. Even though the outcome might not have been unexpected, the dishes were over the top.  

For this battle, the requirements were calamari, eggplant, microwave, peppery, and canned sardines. While tin fish might be having a moment, Tournament of Champions is not the time to celebrate a cute little tapas dish. That wildcard ingredient needed to be showcased in a new way.  

Tila made a bibimbap. Overall, the dish was well balanced. It had spicy, sweet, and a little sour. Using the calamari in the microwave was smart and the eggplant came through well. Although, the rice was slightly overcooked, which was surprising.  

Malarkey made a crispy calamari with baba ganoush. The judges felt that the sardine oil was lost in the dish and it was not peppery enough. Even though he received points for high difficulty, the dish was a little too acid forward.  

In a close battle, Tila was able to snag a victory over Malarkey. He won 84 to 82.  

For the second battle, Jose Garces took on Marc Murphy, who has never won a Tournament of Champions round. The pair had to take on salmon, sweet onion, blender, charred and habanero. It seemed like a combination that played into Iron Chef Garces’ wheelhouse.  

Murphy made a crispy charred salmon with pommes lyonnaise. While the judges felt that the dish was a little clunky, they appreciated the flavor balance. Even if there could be a little more heat, the perfectly cooked salmon received rave reviews.  

Garces played to his strengths. The habanero was front and center, but the slightly overcooked salmon was not necessarily charred. In addition, the judges felt that the bridge between the sauce and the other ingredient was lacking.  

Earning his first Tournament of Champions win was Marc Murphy. It might be Murphy’s year to bring some upsets to Season 5.  

In the third battle, Britt Rescigno took on Jonathon Sawyer. Rescigno was last year’s Cinderella story. Whether or not she can make another epic run remains to be seen, but she knows how to play the randomizer well.  

For this battle, the chefs had to tackle ground beef, basil, panini press, silky, and graham crackers. While some people might see the graham crackers and cringe, the combination is quite approachable. If Food Network viewers instantly saw meatballs, they might watch too many culinary competitions.  

Rescigno made grandma’s meatball with silky corn polenta. They were “good balls,” but the dish was a little short on basil. Overall, the dish was visually compelling and was well-executed.  

Sawyer made a basil and leek paupiette. The judges appreciated the difficulty, but the ground beef fell a little flat. The graham cracker added crunch and the silky was clear.  

Unfortunately, Sawyer’s out of the box approach could not stand up to Rescigno’s balls. She moved onto the next round.  

In the final battle of the night, Mei Lin took on qualifier winner Michael Reed. After an impressive showing to earn that qualifying round, Reed was ready to take down the reigning Tournament of Champions winner.  

The final Randomizer offered pork shoulder, broccoli rabe, stand mixer, fried and canned carrots. Again, the combination was not horrible. Canned carrots might not be overly appetizing, but they can be transformed with a little thoughtfulness.  

Lin chose to make a schnitzel. It was a good use of the components, but the judges did not appreciate her plating choices. Looking like a simplistic approach to protein and two vegetable plate, the judges wanted more. But, her warm curry salad and broccoli rabe salad with a perfectly breaded and fried schnitzel was good.  

Reed pushed creativity with his dish. The carrot pasta with pork sausage was definitely out of the box and earned high praise. Unfortunately, there were a few missteps in the dish. The broccoli rabe was lost and it needed something more to bring the whole dish together.  

In the end, Lin’s dish edged out Reed’s creative approach. The top seed moved into the next round and the qualifier was sent home.  

While the Tournament of Champions premiere had lots of excitement, the outcomes were mostly expected. Even if Marc Murphy’s win was technically an upset, it did not feel like a shock.  

Could the next round see a big upset? Be sure to watch new episodes of Tournament of Champions Sunday nights on Food Network. Episodes can be streamed the next day on MAX.