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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Serious chefs square off 'Iron' style on Big Island

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

WAIKOLOA, Big Island — In the food world, the TV Food Network's "Iron Chef" is to Food & Wine Magazine's Best New Chefs group as WWE wrestling is to Greco-Roman wrestling events at the Olympics.

One is about drama and kitsch and fun. The other is serious, inner-directed and restained.

So it was an odd pairing indeed when Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto was the featured guest Sunday at a finale event for the Big Island Festival, first giving his own rollicking cooking demonstration, and then hosting a "Big Island Cook-off" between six of the Best New Chefs group and six chefs from the Islands.

Morimoto wore his trademark slicked-back ponytail and fashionable eyeglasses, talked to himself incessantly in a sort of "Janglish," shook a shaka at the Hilton Waikoloa Village audience and just generally acted the fool even as he whipped up a fresh fish dish.

The Food & Wine Chefs, in contrast, looked like what you'd get if you ordered a matched set of chefs from Armani or Hermes: all trim, all young, all (even the women) sporting stylish short coifs, all quietly charming and all very intellectual about food.

As Morimoto hammed it up on stage, a pair of food and wine writers from California, known for their reasoned and thoughtful restaurant reviews, asked me, very solemnly, "Do you understand what this is about?" (The two have probably been to every one of the Best New Chefs' restaurants, but don't watch TV.)

"Not anything culinary," I responded.

Which is not to say that Morimoto can't cook; his Morimoto's restaurant in Philadelphia, which opened last October, is tough to get into and widely praised. He's opening another in New York. Watching him wield an immense and frighteningly sharp knife to skin, clean and fillet a fish, you can't fault his skill.

But in cooking demonstrations, the Best New Chefs and their colleagues continuously instruct, bent studiously over their work. Morimoto mugs and postures and goes for laughs and tells you very little about what he's doing.

Both end up in the same place: with dishes that we amateurs can only shake our heads at, and hope to get a taste and perhaps re-create in some small way. But people who never go near the kitchen save their Friday nights for "Iron Chef," while few who aren't serious about culinary matters read Food & Wine or pay attention to the names on the Best New Chefs list each year.

I had been thinking of the "Iron Chef" morning at the Big Island Festival only as an assignment I couldn't get out of. But I have to admit that it was a lot of fun.

Planners of the Big Island Festival — a new five-day event meant to promote resorts, hotels, golf courses, spas, attractions and excursion guides along the Kona Kohala Coast and elsewhere on the Big Island — really got into "Iron Chef" mode. The chefs in the competition were introduced and appeared dramatically from a lei-draped staircase high above the heads of the audience of about 200. The "secret ingredients" were draped in gold cloth, which Morimoto dramatically whisked away with a torrent of Japanese.

Two civilian assistants selected to assist the Iron Chef were sent scurrying for sugar, water, rice wine vinegar as Morimoto grumbled, "Where are ingredients? Otherwise, I can only make the sashimi!" The wind blew viciously through the semi-outdoor venue — a spacious amphitheater — so that it took all three and an audience volunteer to get a couple of lengths of plastic wrap properly spread out. "Oi, oi, oi, oi," Morimoto chided as the gas stove repeatedly blew out. "The next chefs not going to compete with each other, they compete with the wind!"

But he succeeded in preparing what he called "Hawaiian Local Crispy Fish Chip": fresh hamachi sliced into medallions, spread out on plastic wrap, lightly sprinkled with cornstarch, salt and pepper, covered with more wrap and pounded thin, deep-fried and then arranged atop fresh greens and dressed with a spicy vinaigrette.

As a finale, he answered what he said was the most-asked question about "Iron Chef": The show is edited, and competing chefs — who often can't make the deadline because of a lack of practice, he said — may be given additional time, but he never is.

Morimoto was a delightful bit of leavening to the rather long and sometimes slow-moving competition that followed: three heats of four chefs each, two Food and Wine and two Hawai'i chefs. Each team got six mystery ingredients and were to prepare as many courses as they wished in just 20 minutes.

The organizers didn't go easy. For example, Susan Tracht (Jar, Los Angeles) and Laurent Gras (Fifth Floor, San Francisco), and Willie Pirngruber (Hilton Waikoloa Village) and Miles Tokigawa (Outrigger Waikoloa Resort) had to contend with a whole raw octopus, Kona coffee beans, warabi (pohole, or fern shoots), Hilo plantains and Kamuela Pride beef.

When the Food & Wine team of Deborah Knight (Mosaic, Scottsdale) and Thomas John (Mantra, Boston) got raw taro in their ingredient basket, locals watched closely, buzzing, hoping they knew that taro has to be cooked before it's eaten. (They did.)

All in all, the Hawai'i chefs, with a built-in fan base periodically breaking into cheers, seemed to have more fun, and they won two of three heats, with the other declared a draw.

DK Kodama and Russell Siu, having watched the previous two heats, determined to get as much bang for their publicity buck as possible. The high point came when Kodama shouted "Kampai!" toasted the audience with a flourish, and and took a huge swig of what turned out to be vinegar, not white wine. "AAAAaaaaaaaagh," he yelled. "They tricked us!" Or maybe the high point was when the crab — which was entirely too fresh — pinched Kodama. "Hey, that guy's alive! He's fighting." Then the two tried to set the hotel on fire by leaving the flame high under a giant, gas-fired wok, but chef Steve Tabor of the Hilton Waikoloa was on it, tossing flour onto the flames while Kodama and Siu worked on, unfazed.

Serious food instruction? No. But fun? Oh, yeah!