We each have something to say about the university Iron Chef competition, but we broke it up into two posts: He Said and She Said.
It’s a day after Battle Rice, and I’m still bummed. I very sincerely feel that we deserved better scores than we received. Overall we came in third place (second in taste). We received no feedback from the judges beyond numbered scores, so it’s hard to tell what they didn’t like. My best guess is that the shrimp curry was too different and spicy for their tastebuds. We knew our menu was risky since the judges were administrators and students, not food experts. But we weren’t going to dumb down the flavors we knew the food should have.
We went with Indian-style dishes because we’re most comfortable with those ingredients and tastes. We wanted to give the judges something different, something that would hit every note on the palate.
- Vegetable and Brown Basmati Fritter with Three Sauces: Curry-Lime Yogurt, Coconut-Mango Chutney and Chili-Garlic Tomato Paste
- Gulf Shrimp in Coconut-Tamarind Curry Sauce with Red Himalayan Rice Pilaf and Cucumber Raita
The inspiration for this dish came from Smitten Kitchen’s Indian-Spiced Vegetable Fritters. I swapped potatoes for brown basmati rice and made some other adjustments to get a perfect deep fried patty. I use her curry-lime yogurt idea, but upped the lime content a lot. Atop the yogurt was a coconut-mango chutney with fresh cilantro. I made two versions this weekend and it was so good I ate it with tortilla chips. In my excitement during the competition I used one mango, but doubled proportions of other ingredients. I also added wayyy too much salt. This was the first time I made anything so terrible. Luckily with a little more sugar, more coconut and some squeezes of lime, it was edible. Combined with the fritter and other sauces, it was actually good. The third sauce for the fritter was Michael’s idea: a chili paste made with dried cayenne peppers, ginger,
garlic and onions, cooked and mixed with tomato paste. All three of these sweet, sour and spicy sauces worked together with the salty fritter. With every bite you tasted something new. People came up and told us it was the best dish of the night.
We knew we wanted to do some sort of curry, and shrimp seemed the easiest to cook under time constraints. I’ve had a lot of curries, and I know how well coconut milk works with seafood. I thought of the Indian restaurant in New York, Tamarind, where I’ve had fantastic lobster masala and dishes including the sour fruit, tamarind. I knew tamarind and coconut would be killer with shrimp, so after a little googling, I found a recipe from Madhur Jaffrey who has won a James Beard Award so I took it on good faith. The curry was so different than people expect from curry. The tamarind is such a unique sour element that creates a balance with the sweet coconut. We made this sauce two days before the competition and it was just fine. Somehow it ended up a lot more spicy at Iron Chef. We scrambled at the end to tone it down with more coconut milk, tamarind and a little lime. It was still spicier than I wanted to give the judges, but it wasn’t overwhelmingly hot, especially with the rice and side of cool cucumber yogurt puree, raita.
In the end, I think it was our downfall, but I am very proud of what our team did. The dishes were bold and sophisticated. I think we had a strong grasp of how every ingredient worked with the others. The menu was creative and had clean presentation. Also, we managed our time perfectly. I don’t think any of us was stressed, and we worked together well.
I still hold that if Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi were judging, we would have won easily. Instead the judges were two school administrators and two students, none with any special knowledge about food. I also would have liked to introduce my own food, rather than have the emcee read the description. I felt as though there was a big barrier between chefs and judges. We didn’t talk to them, and they didn’t talk to us. They whispered as they ate instead of giving us feedback.
Oh well, what can you do? I would still serve our dishes in a restaurant with no changes but for adding more mango to the chutney. I would even leave the spiciness of the curry. The flavor was perfect.