Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Iron Chef

Birmingham chef Chris Hastings on “Iron Chef America” this Sunday
"Iron Chef America" featuring Birmingham chef Chris Hastings against Iron Chef Bobby Flay will air Sunday, Feb. 26 at 9 p.m. on the Food Network

From the article “Stepping into the spotlight” by Teri Greene in The Montgomery Advertiser:

Sunday, for the first time, the state of Alabama will be represented on one of Food Network's most widely-watched competition shows: "Iron Chef America."Chris Hastings, owner and executive chef at Birming¬ham's renowned Hot and Hot Fish Club will throw down with Bobby Flay, one of the win¬ningest chefs in the show's his¬tory, in the arena-sized Kitchen Stadium. For Hastings, the match air¬ing Sunday is one more step on the ladder of foodie fame. Tuesday, he was named as a semifinalist for the James Beard "Best Chef in the South" award. Teaming up with Hastings as sous chefs are Rob McDaniel, executive chef at the Lake Martin restaurant Springhouse and former chef de cuisine at Hot and Hot, and Sedesh Boo¬dram, another former Hot and Hot chef de cuisine. McDaniel opened Spring¬house in April 2009 and credits Hastings with helping launch his career as an executive chef. It has been a whirlwind: get¬ting the invite from the show -- which debuted in 2005 as a spinoff of the original Japanese series -- preparing for the challenge and the mind-blow¬ing, pressure-cooker experi¬ence of competing.

So how did the state's first-ever Iron Chef challenger get a chance to step foot in Kitchen Stadium? "They asked if we would be interested in getting on a long list," said Hastings, who had been touring with his wife, Idie, to promote their cook¬book, "Hot and Hot Fish Club Cookbook: A Celebration of Food, Family, and Traditions," written with Katherine Cobbs. Hot and Hot has a longstand¬ing good reputation in the res¬ta rant world. But the book tour, which had Hastings ap¬pearing as guest chef at food events throughout the U.S., cer¬tainly didn't hurt, he said. The interview for the show was great, Hastings said. He tried to convince the producers that his team would be up for the challenge. They said he'd hear from them in two weeks. He didn't. Then, last June, "They sent the email saying, 'Hey, you're up.'"

"That was a really swallow-hard moment, because I had talked to some of my chef buddies, and I began to realize it is a really big deal," he said. "'Iron Chef America' is the Food Network's iconic, serious food competition -- you have professional chefs, my peers that I respect, and vice-versa. "When you're asked to par¬ticipate it raises your thought process to an entirely different level because you know you cannot fail in front of millions of people who are watching and, more importantly, your contemporaries." And he has seen it happen -- chefs almost losing their fin¬gers while chopping, others just beginning to plate their food when the final buzzer sounds. Five dishes, 60 min¬utes, countless viewers, endless re-runs and Internet replays. Pressure like that sometimes leads chefs to over think everything.

"That puts you on a very dangerous path and takes you away from your roots, the way you cook every day, your fun¬damental way that has worked brilliantly for a long time," Hastings said. "When chefs get away from that, that's when you see them fail. You don't want to be that person." Nor did he want either of his sous chefs melting on the kitchen floor. Hastings called McDaniel about the July 4 taping in New York. "He asked me what I was doing July Fourth," said McDa¬niel, who'd worked with Has¬tings for more than three years. "I said, 'Well it's the lake, so I'm going to be busy.' He said, 'Well, do you want to be on 'Iron Chef?" We got to work the next Monday."

"Iron Chef America" unveils its central "secret ingredient" at the top of the show. And competitors do not know ahead of time what that item will be. "They are offered a range of possibilities, but there is abso¬lutely an element of surprise," Hastings said. However, the judges' crite¬ria is well known: 10 points for taste, 5 for plating/presentation and 5 for originality, and the in¬gredient often has little to do with the type of food a chef is accustomed to preparing. "I think it's less about who you are as a restaurateur and more about showing that you're capable," Hastings said, "What¬ever ingredient you're given, you should be able to deal with it. If at that point you don't know what to do, you haven't done your homework."
Hastings, McDaniel and Boo¬dram set up lots of scenarios, working four mornings a week for six weeks, setting up the Hot and Hot kitchen so that each would have to sprint a dis¬tance just to fetch an ingredi¬ent or piece of equipment. There was an informal audi¬ence, and Idie Hastings ob-served, worked a stopwatch and threw questions and com¬ments at them as they worked, in the style of host Alton Brown and floor reporter Ke¬vin Brauch. Though chefs are convivial and tend to support one anoth¬er, a certain reputation has stuck, McDaniel said. "All chefs are quarterbacks, and they all want the ball." It was important that mem¬bers of team Hastings consider each other equals and become brutally honest. After weeks of preparation and organization each chef was part of a well-oiled machine.

"We didn't have to speak a lot because we knew what the other person was supposed to be doing," McDaniel said. "If you ever talk to chefs or kitch¬en people, they talk about, 'a perfect night is a dance.' No¬body talks. It's just a dance, and I think that's what we did. You don't have to communi¬cate, because you know the next move of the person." The network had advised Hastings to assemble a team that did not require him. Yes, someone had to be in charge, but no one had to be the alpha male. "You need people that you instinctively trust to be there to do their job," Hastings said. "Going back to the dance thing, go with the people you've danced well with, knowing the moment is not too big for them. "That allowed us more confi¬dence and a way of sticking true to the philosophy of the brand. Ultimately, I think it made for better TV. We didn't lose our minds in the moment. We were calm when the bombs started going off."
In fact, the judges panel and the production team said the Hot and Hot team was one of the smoothest they had ever seen. "That was kind of huge to us," McDaniel said. The chefs are not allowed to reveal the outcome of their bout. McDaniel's wife doesn't even know. Idie Hastings knows, but only because she was there for the taping in July. The Hastings' kids don't know. When it comes down to it, the result takes a second seat to the overall experience and exposure, Hastings said. "We put our brand out there to millions of people every time it airs, and we hope we represented ourselves well. So that was more important to us -- that we represented our¬selves, our brand, our cities and our state."

Still, there is a lot of suspense surrounding the Sunday night broadcast. Until recently, the chefs weren't even allowed to reveal that Flay was their competitor until the Food Network re¬leased the info. Hastings' strat¬egy for choosing Flay was sim¬ple. The team would face the chef who, at the time of taping, had the top winning percentage of the show. Why? "You want to go down as ei¬ther losing to the top guy or, if you win, beating the top guy."

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