Pressure Cookers

Iron Fork's contestants and judges gear up for a heated competition

When he was a judge in New York City for an American Idol-themed cooking competition, Melting Pot owner Seth Bromberg witnessed some pretty unfortunate events. "The risotto was scorched and overcooked," he recalls vividly. "The chicken was severely undercooked, and the meringue was completely burnt. It was hilarious!"

Truth is, everybody loves a good train wreck. On the road of life, we're all rubberneckers waiting for the next big calamity. We like it when things go well, but we love it when they go, as Bromberg puts it, "terribly, terribly awry."

Not that anything will go wrong for the culinary pros competing Thursday in the Iron Fork battle at Scene's 2010 Tasteful Affair, mind you.

This year's crop of talent includes Daniel Kittelson, executive chef of Uptown Grille; Lanny Chin, executive chef of the newly minted Naya Bistro; Micah Maughan, executive chef of La Strada; and reigning champ Jeff Fisher, who will be defending his crown against three competition virgins. Judges include Bromberg, Marigold Catering's Joan Rosenthal, Fat Cats' Ricardo Sandoval, and restaurant critic Ralph McGreevy.

The rules for battle are simple. Like the Food Network program that we are so subtly ripping off, Iron Fork chefs get one hour to craft at least two dishes to present for evaluation. Items will be assessed on taste, presentation, and originality. Complicating matters is the fact that contestants won't learn the identity of the secret ingredient — which must be a focal point of each dish — until just before the clock starts. Oh, and they must work in a makeshift kitchen that lacks any of the high-tech conveniences they routinely rely on.

"I'm looking forward to the rush you get from having to make fast decisions," says Chin. "It's just like making last-minute dinner specials at the restaurant. I think I do some of my best work under pressure." As chef of the multi-ethnic Naya Bistro, Chin creates flavorful dishes that transcend culinary borders. His popular baked gnocchi entrée with blue-cheese sauce and house-made chorizo sausage is a perfect example. "I focus on bringing together flavors, not necessarily cuisines," he explains. "If it works, it works — I don't care where the ingredients come from."

Chefs like Chin — those with varied culinary backgrounds — have an advantage in challenges like this, where main ingredients and pantry items like vegetables, spices, and sauces remain a mystery.

Dan Kittelson hopes his gastronomic backstory provides the necessary ammo to ace this taste test. As chef at Uptown Grille near the Case campus, Kittelson prepares Moroccan specialties like Casablanca chicken, Tangier paella, and chicken tagine. Previous stints in Southern Low Country and Italian kitchens round out his experience.

"I've always wanted to do a competition like this but never had the opportunity," says Kittelson. "I'm hoping to learn from the experience."

Having recently taken over as top toque at East Fourth Street's La Strada restaurant, Micah Maughan says his main motivation is exposure. "Since I came on as chef in February, we have made a lot of changes to the menu," he explains. "I'm hoping to represent the restaurant well to people who may not be familiar with me or La Strada."

On paper, Maughan's credentials are tough to top. Eschewing culinary school for the school of busted knuckles, the chef methodically worked his way up from unpaid dishwasher to potato peeler to line cook to chef. He has worked for two of the finest culinary professionals in the business — Gray Kunz and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, serving as the latter's executive sous chef at New York's Spice Market.

Maughan looks forward to the challenge of the unknown. "It's exciting," he says. "You have the opportunity to either click with the ingredients or struggle through them. My approach is to cook in my own style and hope the judges respond well."

As a 10-year restaurant critic for The Plain Dealer, Iron Fork judge Ralph McGreevy has done his fair share of culinary analysis — and he rarely minces words. He once described a chef's roast duckling as "dry and institutional" and topped with a "sophomoric orange sauce." Snap!

"For me, it's the old saying: You feed the eye first," says McGreevy. "As you watch a chef compose a plate, you can tell if they've got it together or not. If it looks good, there's a good chance it's going to taste good."

As defending champ of last year's Iron Fork battle, Jeff Fisher is the odds-on favorite. Having competed twice, the Taverne of Richfield chef knows what it's like to cook for judges under a time constraint — while perched up on a stage and using rudimentary equipment.

"It feels like cooking as a guillotine is coming down on your head."

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Douglas Trattner

For 20 years, Douglas Trattner has worked as a full-time freelance writer, editor and author. His work on Michael Symon's "Carnivore," "5 in 5" and “Fix it With Food” have earned him three New York Times Best-Selling Author honors, while his longstanding role as Scene dining editor garnered the award of “Best...
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