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The American who beat the Iron Chef
By CHRIS SHERMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 8, 2000
San Francisco chef Ron Siegel, the only American challenger to defeat an Iron Chef on the Food Network's popular cook-off, came to Sarasota last week.
He was a featured guest of the Culinary Classic, a food and wine festival sponsored by Epicurean Life, owner of Morton's Market, Fred's restaurant and other businesses. For four years Siegel has been the chef of Charles Nob Hill, an elegant San Francisco restaurant of 50 seats known for its blend of classic French cuisine and fresh American ingredients.
After demonstrating how to make tempura soft-shell crabs and fixing a lunch of lobster soup with truffles, asparagus and morel salad and squab breast over fava bean ravioli, he talked with the St. Petersburg Times about cooking, television and Japan.
Question: There are a lot of competitions in the United States, from mystery-bag cookoffs to culinary olympics. Did you participate in a lot of those before Iron Chef?
Question: What was the hardest part?
Question: Are you normally a taskmaster and hard-driving boss in the kitchen?
Question: The mystery ingredient you drew for your battle with Hiroyuki Sakai was lobster. You chose to go with a theme of richness, lobster bisque, lobster with truffles, caviar and so on. Was that an advantage?
Question: You made four elaborate dishes with lobster where most home cooks or diners are happy with a plain lobster. Anything else ordinary cooks can do with lobster?
Question: Could you have done as well with other candidates for the mystery ingredients?
Question: Americans get a rather skewed view of Japan from Iron Chef. What's it really like?
"The food over there is amazing. And the culture of chefs. They work very hard. They start out at 6 or 7 in the morning at Tsukiji market and work until midnight.
"The fish market is amazing. The fish is live. You tell them you want it and they hit it on the head. It's moving in the paper when they give it to you."
"Everything is so fresh over there."
Question: Your panel of judges included a photographer, an actress, a musician and a fortune teller. What about the judging on Iron Chef?
"The people of Japan eat some amazing food. People say, "What can an athlete know about judging?' That athlete has probably been eating out every night in restaurants, sampling the best food."
Question: Do you have favorite foods in Japan?
"Have you ever had shabu-shabu? They bring you slices of Kobe beef and a pot of broth to cook it in. You put some in and then dip it in ponzu sauce. The most incredible taste. It's so fatty, so good."
Question: How did you get started?
"I think it (butchering) is very educational, running a knife along the muscles and sinews. It teaches you amazing knife skills. Otherwise, you wouldn't have any hands left."
"I would be doing my job and this guy next to me would be breaking down whole cows. Not many people (in kitchens) can say they've done that.
"All this stuff about the Internet may be great. You're still going to need someone to break down beef."
Question: Are there any overlooked items in the kitchen that home cooks could use to make their food better?
"And salt is the ultimate seasoning. (He prefers kosher salt and sea salt to iodized). It makes everything taste better. When you think you've added enough, add some more.
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.