On America's Best Cook, 16 home cooks have come from all across the country, each representing one of four regions, for a chance to win the title of best cook and $50,000 in prize money. They have been chosen because they are all great home cooks, but only one will come out on top as America's best cook.
The home cooks aren't doing it all on their own. Four mentors, each representing a region, will lead them through the challenges. Tyler Florence, Cat Cora, Michael Symon and Alex Guarnaschelli are revealed as the team leaders, representing the West, South, North and East, respectively. But what the home cooks soon find out is that each team has only two spots, for which they will be competing, and the mentors will be judging their dishes.
Marc, Stephanie, Ramzi and Lorin are excited to hear that Michael will be mentoring the team from the North, the region that they're from. "I admire Michael Symon so much," says Lorin. "[He] is my spirit animal." Michael isn't afraid to gloat that he has the "highest winning percentage in Iron Chef." For their first challenge, which will determine the final two, Michael has asked for a steak and potatoes dish.
Stephanie calls herself "a recovering vegetarian," and even though she hasn't cooked with meat in a long time, she's ready to take on Michael's challenge of cooking steak and potatoes. She makes a bone-in strip steak with red wine sauce and potato latkes. "This is really an opportunity for me to learn from the meat guy, like the meat emperor," she says about Michael.
"I have always wanted to prove to myself that I could be a chef," says Marc, so for him it's a dream come true competing here. He's preparing his steak with a simple mushroom sauce and a potato-and-parsnip puree. As he's cutting his potatoes he nicks his finger. While a medic bandages him up, he keeps on working with his uninjured hand, as Ted points out. "Ted, we're tough in the North," says Michael.
It's time for tasting and Michael goes in for Lorin's dish first. "I would have liked to have seen a little more fat left on the exterior," he tells her about the steak. Michael loves Marc's steak and is impressed by his puree. He finds Stephanie's steak has a bit too much char, but he says, "I would rather have it beyond than under." Even though Ramzi tested his steak with a thermometer, it's undercooked. Michael chooses Marc and Stephanie for his team.
Cat wants the home cooks to cook gulf shrimp. She tells them: "I want to see style, finesse, creativity, but, most importantly, taste." As they start to cook, Cat is impressed to see from the catwalk that "everybody's doing something completely different." Home cook Mandy isn't wasting any of the 30-minute limit; her goal is to prove "Southern cooking can be sophisticated."
"Gulf shrimp, it's really delicate, but since I grew up watching Cat," says Ben confidently, "I think I have a fighting chance." He's making shrimp stuffed with sage and wrapped in prosciutto, along with greens, broth and pickled parsnip. "What I love is he's using all of the shrimp," says Cat as she observes from the catwalk. "He's using the head to make a sauce."
Nikki is mashing plantains to go along with her grilled jerk shrimp with mango salsa. "When I had shrimp, I just instantly thought jerk shrimp," she says, "and I saw the plantains. It just turned out to be a perfect match for me." She hopes her made-from-scratch spice mixture will impress Iron Chef Cat.
Nikki's jerk shrimp is up first. Cat calls her seasoning "phenomenal," except that it's too heavy on the clove. On Ben's dish, Cat loves the creativity and the broth's flavor. Cat loves the glaze on Mandy's sweet chipotle shrimp but says the wilted tomato salad "falls flat." Ernie made pasta from scratch, but unfortunately it was overcooked, and Cat calls it "a big risk ... a big fall." She chooses Nikki and Ben for her team.
For their first challenge, Alex has the home cooks prepare duck breast and she's expecting high standards: "Make this duck dear to my heart," says Alex, "and you will be on my team." Myles might have made a misstep, making a sauce for his duck using various condiments and chile flakes. "I'm, like, that's a wrap," he says. "There's no way I'm coming out of this alive."
"I came here to show off my cooking talents because people really like what I make at home," says Hannah. She knows cooking duck breast will be a challenge, because "if you undercook duck, [it's] no good." She sears the duck breasts skin-side down to render the fat. She plans to serve it with glazed turnips and shallots, roasted grapes and an arugula salad.
"I've probably only eaten duck a couple of times," says Myles, "so this is brand-new to me." He's searing the breasts and adding boiled potatoes to the same pan as Alex gives him some pointers. Brenda has hoarded a number of ingredients to her station, which alarms Alex. "I didn't know what I needed," Brenda says, "so I got a little bit of everything" for her duck lettuce wraps with stir-fried vegetables.
Alex tastes the home cooks' dishes and first up is Hannah. "I like so many of the choices you made," Alex says, from the duck to the presentation. Alex calls Brenda's dish vibrant but thinks the fat made the dish greasy. As Alex slices into Myles' dish it's evident that the breast is undercooked. With Christina's dish, on the other hand, the duck is overcooked, but the grape sauce is good. Alex ends up choosing Hannah and Christina for her team.
Tyler is giving the home cooks organic Pacific salmon to work with. He not only wants it "gorgeous," but he's also looking to see "simple, clean technique." Both Phillip G. and Jennifer decide to simply sear their salmon, with Jennifer choosing to pair hers with vegetable succotash and potato puree.
Sheri is also making seared salmon, but with black bean salsa, which she thinks will be a success "because it's kind of tried and true, oldie but goodie." Phillip M. is trying something different by making a variation on pasta carbonara with poached salmon and fried salmon skin. As Tyler and Ted look on, Phillip M. adds a pinch of baking powder to his onions to caramelize them. "That's actually really smart," says Ted.
Phillip G. is smashing fingerling potatoes for his seared salmon dish, which will also include grilled asparagus and a white wine lemon butter sauce. With this dish, Phillip G. says, he wants to show Tyler that he "can create something beautiful" that also pairs ingredients and flavors very well.
Tyler goes in for a taste of Sheri's dish, and though he appreciates it, he finds the black bean salsa outdated. Tyler thinks Phillip G.'s dish has an "enormous amount of potential" but needs salt. Phillip M.'s dish also lacks salt and the parsley garnish had some stems. With Jennifer's plate, Tyler thinks it lacks acidity and freshness. He decides to go with Sheri and Phillip G. for his team.