Bravo's motto seems to be that you can never have too much of a good thing so this season started off with two extra "audition" episodes. They started off with 29 chefs and had this odd bracketed elimination to narrow them down to the usual 16. I found this to be somewhat unfair...each of the three groups had different challenges and the judges handed out the chef coats as they went so the odds just seemed really stacked against the chefs in the last group. They also put a number of chefs "on the bubble" and put them through an additional challenge to fill the last few spots. I personally found these episodes to be pretty boring. Just too many chefs, too many dishes, and not a lot of reason to root for one chef over the other.
Once we got into the "real" competition, it did feel very much like just classic Top Chef, but I don't think anyone has really distinguished themselves yet. One new interesting thing that I do like though, is this "secret" side web competition called Last Chance Kitchen. Each chef eliminated from the main competition goes head-to-head against the winner of the previous week's installment and supposedly the last one standing will get to return and compete in the actual finale. Tom Colicchio himself hosts and judges. I'm not sure how this will affect the outcome of the season, if at all, but it's a fun little extra nugget.
The Next Iron Chef:
I very much like the format changes they made. Each episode now starts with the regular "Chairman's Challenge" (the most ridiculous thing about this show is how everyone from Alton Brown to the judges and competitors all defer to the Chairman who's really just a hilariously over-the-top actor...) which have themes such as improvisation, storytelling, risk, etc. and then the bottom two in that challenge have to complete in the "Secret Ingredient Showdown" which is basically a mini Iron Chef challenge--30 minutes to make one dish with the secret ingredient. I'm definitely a fan of this two-stage elimination, especially since the chefs are all so strong.
There are four chefs left standing: Michael Chiarello, Geoffrey Zakarian, Elizabeth Falkner, and Alex Guarnaschelli. I think either Zakarian or Falkner would make the best Iron Chefs...they're both super creative and can really execute. Chiarello was surprisingly kind of a beast on Top Chef Masters but I don't think Iron Chef needs another Italian specialist and honestly I find Guarnaschelli to just be kind of annoying.
Actually Top Chef Masters is probably a better show to compare to this one just based on the caliber of the chefs -- and Next Iron Chef definitely wins out. Masters was somehow really boring, maybe because the stakes just weren't as high? That was just a title, whereas this is, well, another job and probably growing recognition?