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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?
Answer: "No. I'd never done this kind of thing. It's not what I do. I'd never watched the show. The way it happened, the show's producer came to San Francisco and someone sent him to Charles and he decided I was the one."

Question: What was the hardest part?
Answer: "It was all in Japanese. I had two assistants but they didn't speak English. I had to do a lot of "Like this! Like this!' (jabbing his finger at an imaginary plate, kitchen sign language for "follow my example') And there was a lot of cursing . . . When I asked how much time was left, they'd tell me in Japanese. "

Question: Are you normally a taskmaster and hard-driving boss in the kitchen?
Answer: "No. I just try to be there with them. I don't scream at my crew. I'm in the kitchen all day for preparation. I don't just show up for service."

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?
Answer: "It could have been lobster, salmon, chestnuts, artichokes, or foie gras, so you can kind of get prepared. Lobster was easy for me. It's a no-brainer. That's the same style of food we do every day in the resaturant."

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?
Answer: "Yeah, everybody likes lobster and butter. I think lobster salad is a great thing you can do at home. With avocado. You have some wonderful citrus here, some sliced oranges. You add some acid (to set off the richness of the avocado and lobster). My salad had tomatoes . . . I don't know if you can do a lobster custard or ravioli at home."

Question: Could you have done as well with other candidates for the mystery ingredients?
Answer: "Chestnuts would have been hard. You know how chestnuts grow? In a hard porcupine shell, not like what you see in the store here, already peeled. In Japan it comes in the porcupine shell. Imagine having to work with that. "

Question: Americans get a rather skewed view of Japan from Iron Chef. What's it really like?
Answer: "I love it. I've been there a lot. And we have people from Tokyo come to the restaurant all the time.

"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?
Answer: "They usually pick somebody popular, an athlete, sometimes a poet.

"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?
Answer: "I love tempura. What could be simpler than ice water and flour? You meet all these people (in the United States) who have this special recipe for tempura. But the guy in Tokyo who's been making tempura for years and years (with just those ingredients), I think his recipe's just as good.

"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?
Answer: "I was born in New York and grew up in the (San Francisco) bay area. When I was 16, I worked in a meat department; it took off from there.

"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?
Answer: "Salt and fresh pepper. Someone once said if you can't tell the difference between fresh ground pepper and store-bought, you shouldn't be cooking.

"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.

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