excitement in the [iron chef] kitchen

On Valentine’s Day, it’s hard not to think about the people you can’t help loving. The double-negatives are a roundabout way of saying I really love Andrew. He makes my life ever-exciting, and recently he initiated quite the foodie opportunity for his little wife.

It started with a temptation to dine out one indecisive Friday night. After typing “fun bistro nearby” into Google, we happened upon Open Kitchen in Falls Church. I was pretty much starry-eyed the minute I noted cooking class offerings beside the menu.

Before our entrée arrived, Andrew—who I considered an introvert until moments before—called over the Executive Chef, and later the owner, to mention I have a food blog and maybe they want my card? Envision those Valentine-red paper hearts and you’re coming close to the color of my cheeks. The conversation, with Andrew the Agent across the table, soon led to an invitation for me to judge Open Kitchen’s upcoming Iron Chef competition.

 

later that week…

Co-Worker: I love Iron Chef!

Me: Iron Chef is just like Top Chef, right? I’ve seen Top Chef.

Co-Worker: No, Lindsey.

Might I remind you that 364 days of the year, I’m just a second-grade special education instructor and grad student who gets really excited about cooking dinner in our apartment.

I just happened, one more interesting day, to participate on an incredible panel of Distinguished Food People to determine the originality of endless plates of food.

I predicted the most challenging aspect of judging a food competition might be the pressure of giving the grade. No. It’s trying to keep four dishes from each of five teams straight. Which team had the slightly better squid pasta? Was this rice the one on the tray or the one presented with red peppers?

In a relatively small space (compared to, say, Kitchen Stadium), imagine over twenty cooks running about with baking sheets and food processor bowls, “ONE MINUTE REMAAAAINING!!” plating for the judges and garnishing their creations with cilantro. Cilantro, eh? Clearly they knew I was coming.

From the televised food competitions I’ve seen, the judges respond to 80% of the dishes as though the chef served them a platter of squirrel entrails. A gorgeous gratin is described as “simply grotesque”, to which the other judges agree “inedible”.

Hardly my experience.

Judging the food in this competition—prepared by novice cooks—required grading between pretty decent and really spectacular flavors. Not all of the dishes overwhelmed me, but each was enjoyable to eat. In the end, a simple apple crisp wowed myself and the other two judges; it was nothing extravagant in appearance, but flawless in texture and taste. (In my book, the roasted garlic mashed potatoes were a truly close second).

The lesson here, as much for the competing cooks as myself, is that those with a smidge of cooking confidence and an armful of stellar ingredients can create memorable food. These competitors had one hour and forty-five minutes to create and complete a multi-course menu. You and I are hardly under such pressure in our home kitchens—no one stopping by later with a pink clipboard. Why do we hesitate with new menus? Try something new! See the joy for yourself! May I suggest walnut sauce?

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