Toronto's own Susur Lee takes on Bobby Flay in Iron Chef America's latest five-dish kitchen battle
Apr. 29, 2006. 01:00 AM
Chefs scurrying around like creatures in a human blender, trying to create and plate five dishes in just an hour, the cameras zooming in on knives chopping and pans sautéing and fryers seething . . . this is a school food fight blown up to the level of an adult culinary battleground.
Relaxing TV it is not.
The show is Iron Chef America, a North American knockoff of the Japanese shows that turned a kitchen into a stadium full of exotic (and at times to us, disgusting) ingredients, where noted cooks became almost gladiatorial, destroying all food challengers with their culinary prowess.
The contenders turning up the heat this time are Toronto's own Susur Lee, a master of Asian and French fusion, and Bobby Flay, who earned his burns on the outdoor grill. Susur is the second Canadian to go up against the Iron Chefs. Last year, Vancouver chef Rob Feenie was pitted against living legend and original Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto.
I recall dining in Feenie Lumiere Restaurant in Vancouver and being served 22 different tiny innovative dishes in one sitting. I was merely grazing but by the 13th course, I was stuffed to my gills. Sure, Feenie was showing off, but he is brilliant and always pushing the food envelope, so it did not surprise me when he beat out great master Morimoto.
Armchair critics who watch these shows have no idea of the intense stress felt inside. I was a celebrity sous chef on live television just once, and we only had one half-hour to prepare three sophisticated dishes. The TV lights are boiling hot, as are the stoves and fryers, it is a gruelling scramble from grabbing the ingredients on a back table to start the race, to trying to find spices, even simple prep things like fresh water. I recall trying to clean very sandy spinach at one event, and finally finding a bin full of water below the table. When I plunged the spinach in, I realized with a slimy feeling that it was water full of detergent, for washing dishes afterward. These gladiatorial contests are full of such faux pas.
And then there is coping with the cameras poking suddenly in your face, and inane questions being burbled at you by interviewers who do not have a clue as to what is happening, while intensely concentrating on staying five steps ahead of assembling and cooking ingredients. Now that's real fun.
It's much easier being a judge at these celebrity food competitions. I love criticizing others and dissecting others' creations. The three judges on this challenge add an element of enjoyment, in fact, even a touch of hilarity as one judge jokingly admits he has dangerously overdosed on the main secret ingredient.
Which I was told not, on penalty of being flayed alive, to reveal. It's kind of hard to talk about the grub when I cannot reveal the main ingredient behind the inspiration and preparation of each dish.
Lee and Flay each bring two of their own sous chefs and all work in a breakneck rhythm, honed to a balletic harmony back in their respective restaurant kitchens. Susur has a calm outward demeanour, but inside, his creativity is always churning madly. I knew him back in the days when he ran Lotus, long before he opened his posh Susur and its more pedestrian Lee next door.
Susur first words on this Iron Chef competition are: "There'll be no mercy today." It sets a tone and Susur, as always rises to the frenetic challenge. This is a man who has reversed the order of normal dining, going from heavy to light in the course of an evening. And he also can decide, at 8:30 in the evening, when everything has been prepped for 10 hours, to utterly change the course of the menu, throwing his staff into blind panic as they bravely try to keep up with the creative juices that are aboil in Susur.
Intriguing preparations in this show include Susur's saffron pineapple sauce, his salt pork wrapped scallops, stuffed leg quarters of quail and his edible orchids. And I was delighted that Susur used maple syrup in one dish as a tribute to Canada. But I can't reveal the rest, as it would show the secret ingredient both chefs had to use to fuel their creations.
Flay surprised me with his prowess. I recall him as a sort of bland grill chef, but his raw jalapeno broth, his custard filled sea urchins, and his deconstructed angel hair carbonara got my attention.
Plating of the five dishes begins with just 9 minutes to go in the hour allotment, and I had to put my pacemaker on overdrive to control the suspense. And no, I cannot reveal the winner. You'll just have to endure it all like I did, being pulled around by hand-held cameras like some Blair Witch Food Project, and feeling frustration because I could not smell or taste what is going on.
Which is the downfall of all food TV.
Nothing new here, is there?
Wednesday at 9 p.m. on The Food Network, encore on Sunday, May 7 at 9 p.m.