The defending champion of Tucson Iron Chef is Albert Hall, chef and owner of Acacia at St. Philip's.
His challenger is Michael Brown, corporate chef for Metro Restaurants.
Each chef has two sous chefs to work with, five minutes to plan their menus once the secret ingredient is announced, and 60 minutes to make three dishes that incorporate the secret ingredient, and one that incorporates Beck's beer, one of the event's sponsors.
At the end of the hour, the dishes will be tasted by a panel of three judges who will determine the winner. However, the real winner is the organization benefiting from the competition: Café 54, a downtown bistro that provides on-the-job training in a variety of restaurant jobs for adults recovering from mental illness.
5:30 p.m.: Albert Hall is overheard at pre-competition VIP party as saying that he was going to try to get one of the judges drunk.
6:45 p.m.: The chefs are introduced with much fanfare. Albert Hall emerges to the tune of Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing," while Brown opts for Link Wray's "Rumble."
6:51 p.m.: You can feel the tension in the room. The secret ingredient is ... white asparagus!? WTF? The crowd is underwhelmed. While the chefs caucus with their sous chefs and plan their courses, the commentators--Jonathan Landeen of Jonathan's Cork, who was beaten by Hall in last year's competition, and Marty Bishop of KMXZ FM 94.9, aka Mix FM--fill us in on the details of white asparagus (they're covered with dirt to block out the production of chlorophyll) and give us a tour of the ingredients via the two giant video screens. They're pretty.
6:58 p.m.: The planning is over. Allez cuisine! Let the battle begin!
7:02 p.m.: Hall doesn't seem too stressed. The cooking has begun, and he just wandered over to Brown's side of the stage to toss out Acacia baseball caps. Grace under pressure, or hubris?
7:04 p.m.: The commentators keep talking over each other. Between that and the confusing culinary humor--did Brown actually just cut himself, or is it merely beet juice?--it's a bit difficult for the audience to figure out exactly what's going on. I have newfound respect for the Food Network production now. The giant video screens here are helping, but we could use Alton Brown right about now.
7:09 p.m.: Michael Brown has just admitted that he only cooks with asparagus when it's cheap, and has rarely worked with white asparagus. Don't show your cards this early, Brownie! Hall decides it's best not to discuss his strategy in too much detail and keeps his pie-hole shut. Judge Ramon Delgado, executive chef at Desert Diamond Casino, tells us that white asparagus is difficult to work with, while judge Erin Christiansen of KGUN Channel 9 confesses that she's never tasted white asparagus.
7:15 p.m.: Brownie is stressed. Hall is not.
7:17 p.m.: Landeen claims you can substitute beer for water in any recipe. Huh? For real? In that case, from now on, it's Beck's in the Brita pitcher, 24/7!
7:19 p.m.: Brownie's sous chef Jon Wirtis is making spinach pasta from scratch and sweating up a storm. Oh, yum: He's going to make a giant tortellini with the white asparagus as filling. Things are slowly starting to come together.
7:21 p.m.: The commentators are focusing too much on sponsor shout-outs, when they should be telling us what the hell is going on. Landeen is quite the Chatty Cathy.
7:24 p.m.: Hall is apparently working on a roulade with chicken and asparagus. Finally, some information we can use! Oh, hell, someone just mentioned football, and Landeen seems excited to babble about that. Food, people, food!
7:28 p.m.: Interestingly, each chef seems to have his own devotees. Each time one of their names is mentioned (not often enough), cheers erupt.
7:29 p.m.: Battle White Asparagus is half over!
7:31 p.m.: Hall is working with poached beet chips, while Brownie is working on ... well, we can't tell what it is. We're sure it will be delicious.
7:33 p.m.: Oh, lord, now they're discussing meteorology with Christiansen. Food, people, not how you represent clouds with computer graphics! Landeen is subtly ripping on Christiansen for not knowing how to cook, though he generously compliments her on her figure. Meanwhile, Hall is working on a beef tenderloin with a red-wine reduction--and asparagus, of course.
7:35 p.m.: Landeen tells us that the competition is tougher this year, as the chefs have to prepare plates for not only the three judges, but also for eight audience members who have won auctions.
7:39 p.m.: Landeen mentions tequila, and the crowd goes wild. He was going on and on about shiraz earlier. And don't forget the whole beer-for-water thing. Hmm.
7:41 p.m.: Brownie is making a ceviche with white asparagus. He seems vexed whenever the commentators try to talk to him. Meanwhile, Hall is working on some kind of risotto. Landeen asks the crowd how the TV screens are working. They kinda suck; thanks for asking. There have been many long shots of empty cutting boards while the teams are running madly around. The audience is so starved for information about what's going on that the sound of a sizzling skillet elicits cheers.
7:47 p.m.: Hall finally seems to be a bit stressed. On Brownie's side, the tortellini looks awesome. He's also sautéing chicken cubes with white asparagus speared through the center. Hall chugs some Beck's beer, then dramatically throws the rest of the bottle in a pan. The crowd loves it, though they have no idea what he is making. Something with Belgian endive?
7:50 p.m.: The Beck's recipes are revealed: It went in the mushroom-and-shrimp dish on Hall's side, while Brown used it in his ceviche. In other news, we probably shouldn't be bitching about the production values too much; Landeen just informed us that there weren't any video screens last year.
7:53 p.m.: Six minutes to go. Plating has begun in earnest!
7:58 p.m.: One minute to go! The sous chefs are literally running across the stage, working on their finishing touches. Brownie's fans are chanting, "MCB! MCB!" in a cultish manner.
7:59 p.m.: Time's up! Brownie tips back a Beck's.
8 p.m.: Hall gets booed when he announces he will be adding some drizzles on his dishes when they are placed before the judges. Is it legal or not? Ah, the gray area.
The judging begins! Brown will be presenting his dishes first.
Dish 1: Clam ceviche with asparagus poached in clam broth, cilantro, onion, peppers and Beck's. It's plated on what looks like a giant glass ashtray. Judge Paul Aragon, of Wild Oats, proclaims it to be cooked perfectly. (Since when is ceviche cooked?)
Dish 2: White asparagus trio: white asparagus vichyssoise, white asparagus risotto and white asparagus mousse served in a spoon. The judges liked this one, too.
Dish 3: The giant tortellini! In addition to the filling, there is a stalk of asparagus stuck in the middle, and it has a tomato coulis.
Dish 4: Pan-seared filet of beef with poached asparagus.
The judges don't have one negative thing to say about any of the dishes. Either Brownie is untouchable, or this is going to be a very difficult thing to judge.
Marty Bishop slips up and accidentally thanks Casino del Sol. Once the crowd boos him, he realizes the error and changes it to Desert Diamond Casino. As a diversion tactic, he informs us that the New York Giants have just beaten the Packers.
8:20 p.m.: Hall's dishes are up!
Dish 1: Salad of butter lettuce, poached beets, Belgian endive and poached white asparagus with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar reduction.
Christiansen says this dish is the only time she has ever enjoyed beets. Delgado deems it "perfect."
We learn white asparagus is crazy expensive--$15 a pound wholesale.
Dish 2: Roulade of chicken filled with roasted red pepper, spinach and white asparagus.
Hall says he is unhappy about the appearance of his second dish, and mentions it is cooler than it should be. No! Always defend the dish, Hall! The judges say the cooler temperature actually improves the dish. Where are the catty judges? Jeffrey Steingarten, I'm looking at you!
Dish 3: Country Italian-style pan-seared tenderloin served over white asparagus risotto. It looks amazing.
Dish 4: Hall's take on spicy Cajun shrimp: shrimp sautéed in Beck's with mushroom, onion and white asparagus spiked with Cholula hot sauce. The dish is deemed "genius" by low-talking judge Aragon.
8:35 p.m.: The camera finally gives us a clear look at all of the dishes while the judges tabulate their scores. They all really do look beautiful.
8:45 p.m.: The winner, for the second year in a row, is ... Acacia's Albert Hall! Aww, Brownie looks bummed. (You did a heckuva job, Brownie!)
It's difficult to know why the scale tipped in Hall's direction, since the judges didn't offer any criticism. Did Brownie blunder with his bouillon? Get carried away with his carrots? Rush his risotto? We'll never know ...
Congratulations, Chef Hall!