Friday, August 13, 2010

Knives Down, Hands Up: I Judge an Iron Chef-Style Competition at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in D.C.

Secret Ingredients ...

Lightning fast prep work ...

Judging hijinks ... (from left: Josh Gibson, me, and Oren Molovinsky)
Anyone who has ever fantasized about trading places with Padma Lakshmi (guilty) or Tom Colicchio will understand how excited I was when I was invited to be a judge at a live chef-to-chef competition at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian's Living Earth Festival.  My excitement, I must confess, was tempered with a touch of tummy rumbling nervousness, as speaking in front of people is far from my favorite thing to do.  You see, just a couple of weeks prior to the Smithsonian competition,  I  sat in as a judge for another food competition in Baltimore for an Urbanite article, and I was a bit unnerved to have to speak into a microphone and make pronouncements about the dishes - right in front of the chefs.  Gulp.

Luckily for me, the arrangement here was altogether different. My fellow judges - Oren Molovinsky, general manager of Harry's Tap Room, and Josh Gibson,  executive director of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington Education Foundation- and I were seated with our backs to the audience, which made me far less self-conscious than I would have been had we been facing the large crowd, and I didn't have to speak into a microphone except when I introduced myself. Whew! Here I am with emcee Scott Drewno, executive chef of the Source by Wolfgang Puck. When it wasn't attached to his head, that fanny pack microphone let off an ear-splitting squeal at the slightest touch, so I had to stand very still while speaking, which is unnatural for me:
Apparently, I just said something hilarious
But enough about me - you want to know about the competition! First, the cheftestants: Brian Patterson, instructor at the prestigious  French cooking school L'Academie de Cuisine would go head-to-head against Richard Hetzler, the executive chef at the museum's highly-regarded Mitsitam Cafe:
Patterson (L) & Hetzler (R)
Each chef would have 90 minutes to prepare two appetizers, three entrees, and one dessert each.  (To aid in this Herculean task they were allowed to have sous chefs help with the prep.) The secret ingredients, which were revealed to them at the start of the competition, were the peppers which appeared at the top of this post, along with roasted peppers:

Each dish - even dessert - had to include a pepper component. They could use as much or as little of the beautiful produce - all of which had been grown on Native lands -   as they wished:

They also had a dizzying array of proteins at their disposal, including bison that had been procured from a Native American co-op in the Midwest. Everything had been sourced ethically - the buffalo roamed, the pigs ran free, and the ducks had been able to stretch their wings. (An aside: Regular readers will probably be surprised to see me eating meat as part of this judging experience. It's true that, except for fish,  I have never featured it on this blog. But as part of my work and my culinary classes, I have made the decision to reintroduce ethically-sourced animal proteins into my diet, on a very limited basis. After a lot of soul-searching I decided that I couldn't do my job properly or fairly if I wasn't willing to eat meat sometimes. And I do want to do my job well. Eating ... is complicated.)

Once emcee Scott gave the go-ahead, the cooking commenced in a frenzy of chopping, plating, and prepping:

Poppa Trix ran around like a maniac taking all of the photos in this post, as I was planted firmly at the judges' table. Scott - who said he had never emceed before - seemed perfectly at ease. He took audience questions, cracked jokes, described what the chefs were doing, and discussed the tools of the trade, like this Japanese fish knife:

After being tormented by the smells and  sizzling sounds of cooking, at long last it was time to taste. We would be judging the dishes on flavor, originality, and visual appeal. Flavor could receive a maximum of 10 points; originality and visual appeal 5 each, for a total of 20 possible points per dish.  First up, the appetizers. Chef Heltzler presented a pork roulade with green chili chimichurri and  a green chili roasted clam:
I was impressed that he counted this as one dish, as this easily could have passed as two apps. I had to resist giving a 10 on flavor on the very first dish I tasted - it was that good. Both morsels had a serious heat that didn't obscure the flavors of the proteins, and even though green chili figured so prominently in both dishes, they each had a unique flavor. Chef Hetzler's other offering was polenta with duck confit and duck crackling:
Don't ask me how he managed to make duck confit in 90 minutes, but he did. The chili sauce here was mild and almost sweet, which was a good foil for the salty duck cracklings. I do wish we could have tasted this before the other appetizer, as the spice in the first one made it a little challenging to fully appreciate this milder dish.

Chef Patterson first presented us with a chilled avocado soup topped with a grilled shrimp and a corn-pepper salsa:
I liked the very subtle cilantro note  in this dish, but I did find the lemon to be a bit disconcerting. (Apparently there were no limes available.) His other dish was a classic moules frites with a chili aioli:
The peppers were used in the diced veggies on top of the mussels and in the chili aioli.  While I would have been happy to get this in a restaurant - the mussels were tender and juicy, the fries, while not as crispy as I would have liked, had a great flavor - I couldn't taste any of the chili in the dish, either sweet or spicy. Advantage after the appetizer round: Hetzler.

Next up, a salmon entree from both chefs. Chef Hetzler prepared his salmon poached in a green chili broth, while Chef Patterson grilled the salmon and served it atop a vegetable caponata:
Chef Hetzler's poached salmon

Chef Patterson's salmon
I preferred Chef Hetzler's dish once again. The spicy broth worked to enhance, rather than overpower, the salmon, which was incredibly moist and tender. Chef Patterson's, on the other hand, was a tad on the dry side and the caponata suffered from an overwhelming balsamic vinegar flavor.

I really wanted to be able to finish Chef Hetzler's dish, but I wasn't able to, and the salmon was whisked away and, I assume, thrown away. I think that's really a tragic waste of food, particularly when something died to make it. That seems to be a common problem in food competitions, and I'm not sure what the solution is - perhaps making smaller portions, or letting the tasters take home whatever they can't eat. (I vote for the second option.)

On to the next course. From Chef Hetzler, we sampled tenderloin of beef with a green tomato chutney and cardamom potatoes:
The chutney packed a serious sweet/sour/hot punch, and all of the flavors in this dish worked together harmoniously.  I really wish I could have gobbled up all of the potatoes before the dish was taken away.

Chef Patterson presented us with a salt, pepper, and chili rubbed bison with peaches, roasted corn, and peppers:
It's easy to overcook bison and make it tough, but this was incredibly tender. My only complaint with this dish was that the peaches overwhelmed the flavor of the meat - it was much more balanced when I got a bite of bison with just the peach juice.

For the final entree,  Chef Hetzler made "inside out enchiladas," with roasted peppers acting as the tortilla, which were then wrapped around chicken farce, or mince. This was served with a green chili and saffron sauce, a chili salad, and a roasted corn and wild rice salad. The enchiladas were garnished with toasted strips of corn tortilla:
This dish was off. the. hook.  So many flavors and textures were happening on the plate, but they all worked: the soft smoky pepper and the sweet crunchy tortilla strips, the subtle saffron perfume in the sauce that brought out the mild, but very present, chicken; the bright crunch of the hot chilies in the salad offset by the sweet burst of corn ... this was a fantastic dish.  Luckily, this time I managed to nearly clean my plate!

Chef Patterson's final entree was, in my opinion, his best dish: duck with a chili rub and a blackberry gastrique, served with sweet potatoes and arugula sauteed a'la minute.
Given the serious heat of Chef Helzler's dish, this was a very fortunate choice on Chef Patterson's part, given that the sweetness of the gastrique and the sweet potatoes cut through the potentially palate-numbing effects of the chilies. The very garlicky arugula served as a pleasant counterpoint on the plate.

And now it was time for dessert. Chef Hetzler came up with an insane creation he called "The Elvis:" a fried sandwich of brioche, hazlenut butter, and banana marshmallow with a green chili chocolate ganache, figs, and a spicy fruit puree, topped with a garnish of chocolate dipped bacon:
Do I need to tell you how good this was? I didn't think so. This innocent dessert, however, was the cause of a bit of controversy! It seems that some members of the audience were under the impression that they were going to get to taste all of the food - although how the chefs could have cooked enough for a large crowd of indeterminate number, I have no idea. By the time dessert rolled around, some people were getting a little grumbly. After he took this photo, my poor hardworking Poppa Trix gestured to me that he would love a taste of the Elvis, so naturally I held it out for him to take a bite. The crowd nearly rioted! I apologized and laughed it off: "He would divorce me if I didn't share!" but it was scary. I have never had a crowd turn on me!

Order restored, there was just one more dessert left after this kerfuffle: Chef Patterson's chocolate chili shortbread:
Ironically, as my fellow judge Josh pointed out, this was the dish where you could most taste the chilies. I really liked it, especially as it wasn't too sweet or cloying, a characteristic I don't really care for in chocolate dishes like this.

Next, the judges conferred (actually this was shot as we were tasting the first dish, but it's the only one where I'm conferring with another judge in which my mouth is closed and my eyes are open  ... so use your imagination):
Now it was time to tally the scores. I felt that ultimately Chef Patterson's excellent French cooking techniques may have held him back a bit, as he seemed a bit too timid with the secret ingredient, whereas Chef Heltzler incorporated it into each dish in a creative and tasty way. Even though I scored higher than the other judges - apparently I am too nice! - we all had about the same point spread in favor of Chef Hetzler. It broke down like this:

Me: 96 to 89
Josh: 85 to 76
Oren: 93 to 85

 It felt lousy to be responsible for someone losing, especially when the skill level was so high, but the fact that it was unanimous made me feel confident that we had made the right decision. In any case, Chef Patterson graciously congratulated the winner:
Despite my initial nervousness, I loved doing this and I hope the Smithsonian asks me again next year. I'll only do one thing differently: I'll bring my own doggy bag.


  1. How lucky you were to taste these fascinating dishes and be part of such a great event! Love it that all the produce was grown on Native lands, and I'm a big fan of bison - a great choice if you're reintroducing ethically produced meat into your diet. I had the opportunity to visit the Vista Grand Bison Ranch here in Ohio back in May (and blogged about) and learned even more about the health benefits of the meat from these animals and how they are raised. No wonder they were revered by so many Native American tribes, and a shame that the bison population was nearly wiped out in this country, but glad to see it coming back, thanks to some committed small ranchers and an eating public who supports them. Thanks for your most interesting post!

  2. The event looks like a lot of fun. Lucky you had the opportunity to be part of it.

    P.S. I like the green dress and the red lipstick:-)

  3. What an incredible experience! I can't believe that such a sophisticated and creative meal was made in such a limited amount of time. I would have loved to have tried the Elvis sandwich and of course the inside out enchiladas.

  4. Wow, what a terrific event and how cool that you got to be one of the judges! Awesome!

  5. A very engaging read - glad you didn't ACTUALLY cause a riot because you shared the Elvis sandwich *YIKES*

    Well, the secret ingredient just happens to be one of my very favourite things in the whole world! I love the avocado soup and the inside-out-enchiladas!

    Would have relished the chance to have been there - thanks for sharing :)

  6. What a great honor! It's nice to know that people value your opinion so much that you can make the final decision on winners. Pretty sweet!

  7. How exciting to be a food competition judge! Not only you get to try all the wonderful food but you get to enjoy seeing other people nervous...haha. You must be having the thrill of your life. Congrats!

  8. You lucky girl you! Next time take me with you and tell them I am your mother and that I taught you everything you know about food :--)

    You look beautiful in those photos.

  9. I know that judge! I know that judge! *wink wink* Babe, you look every inch the diva with that fan! LOL. What a great read, what fab pics. Please do tell Poppa Trix he did really awesome too!

    PS: Bring another doggy bag for me.

  10. Enjoyed reading both this and Master Chef judging. Agreed not so easy telling a chef that theirs was not the best.

  11. What a fun experience! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post - lots of fun. And, by the way, your avatar photo does not do you justice. Have Poppa Trix take a new one - he did a great job with the photos in this post.

  12. great read and really nice writing... glad you know how to play to the crowd... tell Poppz incredible photos

  13. Okay Trixie Girl, I feel I have a bit of Star Struck-ness now that you have all of this "stage" stuff going on and in FOOD no less!
    Don't forget us little people--especially the vegans! I am so happy for you, okay, and a bit jealous, too! What a very, uber cool thing--and the Smithsonian, too! I know that eating the "meat" stuff was a tough decision--I could hear that from reading your post on the matter. You have a big heart, and in the end, that is all that matters! Loved this post! Glad you weren't mob attacked--my goodness the East Coast can be dangerous!

  14. This is proper exciting stuff, T! It looks like you had such fun judging. Ahh, it was very brave of you to take the decision to introduce meat into your diet, and I totally understand your reasons- you're a brilliant judge and a very admirable writer :)

    P.S. Muchos respect to Poppa Trix for the top notch photos... What a pair you make! :D

  15. wow, congratulations on getting to judge a food challenge! that looked like a lot of fun. so glad you made it out of there ok! i also think that's weird the audience thought the chefs were there to cook for everyone; that doesn't even sound feasible. when you first announced your judging event, i was under the impression Native American tribes were going to be competing with traditional foods or something, but i'm glad to see their harvests were incorporated so well. i wish i was closer so i could go see all that's going on at the Smithsonian!

  16. Very impressive post Trix, I'm glad you had this experience and shared it so nicely with the rest of us! The photos are excellent of you and the food that the chefs prepared for the competition. It looks like they took it seriously and put forth some delicious highly creative dishes using the secret ingredients, lucky you the taster!

  17. Hey Trix, what a neat experience! Sounds fun. I don't like public speaking though-that would make my tummy nervously grumble too.
    Your photos are so beautiful and interesting too. Loved looking at them. I can tell you ate a lot of nice foods made by very talented folks;).
    p.s. I bet that salmon didn't get thrown away. Somebody probably wolfed it down (smile)!

  18. Oh how fantastic...I am not sure I could have ever chosen between these amazing contenders and the fantastic dishes. Let me just add that Poppa Trix took some exceptional photos. I am sure it was all a bit overwhelming but sounds like you had a wonderful time. Wonderful post :)

  19. What a great experience. Totally envious babe. Must be so hard to pick the winner.

  20. How utterly exciting and fun! I am not surprised they asked you and am sure you will be back (avec doggybag) again! A fascinating experience - so jealous of (especially) the inside out enchiladas!!!

    (PS: Go Poppa Trix!)

  21. Wow, that is too cool as an experience. Congrats on getting picked for this and really your so lucky. Love the fan in your hand ;-)

  22. Oh my gosh! How did I not hear about this event? How much fun. I think that is the only place to eat of the Smithsonians.

  23. You will be on the actual Iron Chef or Top Chef next Tracey, you are so lucky....but, maybe luck had nothing to do with just have a strong passion for food and now it shows!!!

  24. Very cool experience. Some awesome food. Looking good Trix, love the glasses look!

  25. Awesome. Reading this in Vienna and sad we missed you in DC, but happy we get to wake up in the morning and eat some more delicious stuff of our own. Great write up and great pics!

  26. That is so cool!!! I would love to do that. The pictures and the food all look great.Looks like you're having a lot of fun

  27. Trix, I would be the world's worst judge... I would hate giving bad marks to have someone lose! You seem to have done it with grace and aplomb... very impressive... you are having a lot of fun!!!

  28. How lucky are you?!?!? You look radiant in your photos! I bet it was so much fun!

  29. You radiate spice and heat, just like the food. I LOVED LOVED LOVED reading about your adventure.

  30. I can see why you picked chef Hetzler, he definitely has a more creative and adventurous style! Great photos, so vibrant, they make me feel I am right there!

  31. Wow, props to you! I think I would be too nervous, but I LOVE your fan! It is cute and I always think they are such an eloquent way to cool off!