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'The Next Iron Chef': Life is about to change for one cheftestant

November 21, 2009 |  8:02 am

Jehangir-&-Jose-3_Ep-8 For Chef Jose Garces, it was a curdled flan. For Chef Jehangir Mehta, it was the grape leaves.

The last two chefs standing in the battle to become "The Next Iron Chef" say they are haunted by such flops as they head into Sunday night's finale on the Food Network. The Season 2 winner will join an elite stable of champions including Masaharu Morimoto, Bobby Flay and Cat Cora. These culinary warriors are the ones to beat on the popular Food Network game show "Iron Chef America."

But the title goes beyond a TV game show. The winner gains immediate fame thanks to a singular standing on the Food Network platform, and fortune is not far behind.

That's a chief reason why many of the competitors -- all successful chefs in their own right -- gambled all to join the competition.

"It's a huge risk to go on the show and possibly be eliminated early ... or be displayed in a negative light," said Chef Garces. "But [if you win] it brings a lot of prestige, it's an honor and a privilege to be an 'Iron Chef.' ... It's very good for business as well, let's be honest. I have six restaurants, so having that title would be great."

The weeks of competition were grueling. Set in Los Angeles, before jetting off to Tokyo, the show issued such weekly challenges as contestants' ability to cook with dried grasshoppers and their ability to re-create dishes from taste alone. Always, the clock was ticking in the background.

And what you see on TV has a way of haunting the competitors long after the fact. Like that flan. In that infamous challenge, Battle Tamarind, Chef Garces was told to make a Latin-inspired meal, something that would seem to play to the stregnths of the chef and his Ecuadorean roots.

But when he delivered a flan to the judging panel ... it was curdled.

"I've relived that over and over again, 20 or 30 times," he said.

Worse, in a fit of panic, he told the judging panel that his mother's flan also turned out curdled once in a while. It was bad enough that he ruined a dessert he had made literally hundreds of times before -- but his remark did not sit well with his mother. "I was in trouble. She said, 'I can't believe you said that about my flan, that's untrue.'"

Chef Mehta initially came off like a villian when, early on, he was portrayed as hording all the grape leaves during one challenge and refusing to share -- even though a fellow competitor was making stuffed grape leaves. But Chef Mehta has a different story: He said he didn't hear the intial request to spare a few leaves. "I wish I had heard him the first time," Chef Mehta said, adding that as soon as host Alton Brown brought it to his attention, he handed the leaves over. But it wasn't fast enough for some. "This is something I have to live with. I still get hate mail. I have to deal with it. ... First impressions do last."

The Philadelphia-based Chef Garces said the most difficult part was being away from his wife and two children for so long. But on this point, Chef Mehta may have an advantage, sympathy-wise: His wife gave birth to twins while he was sequestered for the competition.

"My children were born, and I had not seen them. That was very harsh in some ways. It was something that was always a battle in my brain: 'Am I being very selfish, and am I doing this for the right reason?'" He'd known the competition would coincide with the birth. Beforehand, he'd made a pact with himself: He'd confer with his immediately family and friends, and if any one of them advised him to skip the competition to witness his children's birth, he'd take a pass. "I conferred with them all, but I was the only one saying, 'No, maybe I shouldn't go.' Everyone else said, 'Yes, do it,' even my wife."

Both men defended Chef Nate Appleman, who was portrayed during the competition as cutthroat and even willing to lie to the judges. The finalists blamed that on crafty editing and said Appleman actually should be praised for speaking his mind on what is, after all, a reality show.

"Now that I know Chef Appleman, I do not necessarily agree with the way he was portrayed," Chef Garces said. "He's a really nice guy and a very talented chef." Added Chef Mehta: "We see the whole side of a person, the very loving father. He is a very frank person. ... It takes guts and courage to be like that."

Both men were speaking during a media conference call, and were careful not to reveal anything about Sunday's finale. (It has already been shot.)

The last question of the interview went to the New York-based Chef Mehta: What is it with you and ice cream machines? (Mehta tried to make ice cream in his very first challenge, but the machine seemed to be faulty. The ice cream never set. But did that keep Chef Mehta from going back to it? No. He tried again and again, with mixed results.)

"I never like to give up very easily," he said, chalking it up to stubbornness. "I knew it was the machine that was giving me the problem, and I was determined to figure out a way to work around it."

We'll find out Sunday whether that stubbornness lands Mehta a job in Kitchen Stadium, or whether that honor will go to Garces.

-- Rene Lynch

Photo: Chef Jose Garces, left, and Chef Jehangir Mehta. Credit: Food Network.