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|Written by Will Parker|
|Tuesday, 25 November 2008 19:00|
Do you ever find yourself getting so wrapped up in an episode of Iron Chef America that you are literally sitting at the edge of your seat when the robotic voice starts its countdown and Masaharu Morimoto is still applying the spritz of foamed lobster to his Mediterranean bisque? Does the running commentary in your brain play out something like the following: Is he going to finish? He looks so calm and collected! He only has four seconds left and he hasn’t even applied his hot pepper garnish to the crispy duck rolls! I bet the taste is going to be compromised due to the time. He’ll certainly lose marks for plating. How does one foam a lobster exactly?
I suspect I’m not alone in admitting that Iron Chef causes me to turn into that annoying friend you have who questions every plot twist in the movie you regret having invited her to see. But I can’t help it! I have a love/hate relationship with Iron Chef. I am truly awed by the level of culinary prowess these kitchen idols display over the span of an hour – whipping up numerous dishes that I couldn’t hope to master even with years of dedicated training and practice. At the same time, if I had a dozen sous-chefs, endless ingredients and every kitchen implement ever invented at my disposal, I too might be a kitchen idol. I love the imagination and ideas these chefs share – always challenging foodies to try something new. But it’s hard not to be annoyed when Bobby Flay marinades another prime cut of Kobe beef in black truffle shavings, fois gras and gold dust. It all raises the question – do you have to raise your own organic wild boar, tout 67-step recipes and own a Le Creuset tagine to be an idol yourself?
I believe the answer is a resounding No. In fact, some of the best chefs out there, some true culinary masters, understand that simple techniques and ingredients result in some of the best food you’ve ever tasted. Take Ina Garten (The Barefoot Contessa), for example. She may be famous for adding four pounds of butter to everything she makes, but it’s her understanding of quality ingredients and simple preparations that make her a true idol. She focuses on bringing out the flavour in whatever it is she is serving – adding a splash of coffee to chocolate, a sprig of thyme to mushrooms, or a squeeze of lemon juice to fresh fish. She avoids getting caught up in the new food trends, and wasting her time with the flavour of the week. For Ina, tried and true classics are always sure winners.
I recently tried her mustard-roasted potatoes. I have to be careful not to salivate onto my keyboard as I type this sentence. Mustard-roasted potatoes Barefoot style are composed of (surprisingly enough), grainy mustard and potatoes. She adds some onion, salt and pepper for a bit of kick, but the focus is on the two main quality ingredients, and it’s an unbelievable result. Not once does she take out a fancy kitchen implement, or try to use impossible ingredients only available at Dean & Deluca. She just focuses on the best ingredients and the most practical way to prepare them to make a fantastic meal.
Other chefs should take note. Martha Stewart’s simple 43-step recipe for whipped cream or Nigella Lawson’s breakfast omelette which might as well call for a dragon’s egg could definitely be improved with some Barefoot simplification. Which goes to show that in order to be a culinary idol, all of the fancy bells and whistles aren’t the be-all-and-end-all of fine dining. It’s possible to have a pretty simple style without compromising taste.
Of course, there are a few things you should keep in mind, regardless of your own affinity for all things complicated or easy-does-it. If you are starting down the road to becoming your own kitchen idol, remember that you generally get what you pay for. The $25 filet of wild Atlantic salmon is probably going to taste a lot better than the $12 farm-raised Pacific. Similarly, the $100 Wusthof chef’s knife is going to get the job done a lot easier than your $4 Ikea one. But it’s all a matter of what’s best for each individual chef. I personally love my microplane, organic raspberries and real Madagascar vanilla, but I also love my $1 plastic cutting board, Heinz ketchup and Hershey’s chocolate chips. And remember – as with wine, cost isn’t everything. What is most important is that you take the time to figure out the things you enjoy, and that you work at making them the best they can possibly be.
In the end, it’s all a matter of taste – and you certainly don’t have to be an Iron Chef to have lots of that. Take a page from Ina Garten and take it easy! There’s no need for a whole bunch of fancy stuff to be your own kitchen idol. (Although that Le Creuset tagine sure is nice…)