Sunday, January 21, 2007

Geeks in Kitchen Stadium

Spoiler Alert! You may want to skip this article for the moment if you have not yet seen the Morimoto vs. Cantu episode of Iron Chef America.

I have been seeing the commercials for this match all week, and I still think there is no way they could ever have prepared me for this. Chef Homaro Cantu was touted in the commercials as bringing science to kitchen stadium. The headset that he sported seemed to indicate that he was quite the geek indeed. What I was not prepared for was the level of geekdom that he employed. In fact, I don't think that even Alton Brown, hero to geek cooks everywhere, was quite prepared for this battle.

As the camera panned over the challenger's side, it looked more like a science lab than a kitchen, and was referred to similarly by Brown and the judges. The man had a class 4 laser, for crying out loud! If using a laser to caramelize sugars wasn't enough, liquid nitrogen was in play for one of the dishes, as Cantu used balloons to sculpt frozen bulbs of beet puree.

Not to be outdone, Morimoto used sodium albinate (sp?) to make beet juice look like fish roe. Aside from that, the Iron Chef side seemed relatively traditional, with soups and sushi and dipping sauces, though he did venture into the world of liquid nitrogen as well.

Plating was equally surprising to me. For a man so impressive in his cooking techniques and equipment, Cantu's presentation was deceptively minimalist. Yet, as he explained his dishes to the judges, it was revealed that each was interactive, encouraging the diner to play with, rather than work for their food. What truly surprised me were the reactions from one of Iron Chef America's most famous and picky judges, Jeffry Steingarten. Apparently the flavors and textures were dead-on, and Steingarten seemed far more impressed with the challenger's offering than I'd ever seen it.

Morimoto's dishes were amazing as usual, but they seem diminished when compared to Cantu's. The native Japanese judge seemed the most impressed with Morimoto. Steingarten immediately went back to his grouchy, critical self. The sushi looked good enough for me to eat, and I'm not one who likes sushi (I like the raw fish, but I don't care much for vinegared rice). Plating was very neo-Japanese and beautiful, as always.

Since such... unusual... techniques usually rate low in Kitchen Stadium, I was a little surprised when Cantu's geekdom beat out Morimoto's neo-classic style by one point. It would seem that the rise of the cooking geek is at hand. Cantu had science and style that it seems that people like me only dream of. It was an episode that I will be taping as soon as it airs again, and one that I will be studying over and over, much to my wife's chagrin, I'm sure. If you get a chance, make sure you catch a rerun of it. If you aren't amazed, then I daresay you either work for NASA, or just weren't paying attention.

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