Monday, January 04, 2010

Making The First Lady Proud: White House Chef Comerford, Bobby Flay Win Iron Chef America

The dish on the winning dishes. Can a TV show change America's relationship to food? This one might.
The White House edition of Iron Chef America was a history maker from every angle. First Lady Michelle Obama is the only American first lady to ever appear on a food competition television show, as are the two White House chefs who competed in the Kitchen Stadium.* The fact that the show also encouraged viewers to grow and eat local, sustainable and heritage foods--with White House endorsement--is also entirely historic. It was excellent fun, combined with terrific food, farm, and health messaging as the chefs competed to see who could produce five "ultimate American" dishes that highlighted vegetables that had been grown in Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden. In the end, White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford and teammate Bobby Flay bested chefs Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse in a well-fought battle. (Above: Flay and Comerford at the judges' table with Alton Brown, Nigella Lawson and Jane Seymour)

The Kitchen Garden and the effort to introduce Americans to different ideas about food sourcing were equal stars of the show, because it was low on both drama and Obama. The First Lady had less than three minutes of actual screen time as she revealed the secret ingredient for the cooking challenge. If you'd seen the show's ad campaign or Youtube trailer, you'd pretty much seen the entirety of Mrs. Obama's appearance. Many viewers, if Internet chatter is any indication, were under the impression that Mrs. Obama was actually going to be a judge--or show up in the Kitchen Stadium. No; as she stood in front of the South Portico of the White House, in a cameo filmed in October, Mrs. Obama welcomed the guest chefs and show host Alton Brown, then graciously pointed them in the direction of the bottom of the South Lawn. (Above: Mrs. Obama with from L Comerford, Flay, Brown, Batali and Lagasse)

"There is an abundance of wonderful seasonal vegetables and fruits in the garden," Mrs. Obama told the chefs. "Take as much of it as you need."

The First Lady's cameo was repeated throughout the two-hour episode, at the start of each segment following commercial breaks. Still, even a few minutes of Mrs. Obama on the show was a terrific advocacy for the values of local, sustainable sourcing and the benefits of eating seasonal fresh vegetables, particularly because there was much footage of the chefs harvesting in her garden, which looked lush and fabulous--or as Mrs. Obama has referred to it previously, "busting and blooming." Mrs. Obama also made no overtly political statements about food or policy during her cameo; the presence of an edible garden on the White House lawn is perhaps political enough, and needs little further comment. Show host Brown, however, made up for anything Mrs. Obama didn't say. During the show, he constantly reminded viewers about the wonders of fresh, local and sustainable foods for health, while explaining their origins and uses.

"I think we need to keep in mind Mrs. Obama's reason for planting a garden," Brown said, more than once. "Mrs. Obama said she did it to change America's relationship to eating by emphasizing freshness and locality."

And it really was, gloriously, all about "locality." In addition to the Kitchen Garden produce, while in the Kitchen Stadium, the chefs were allowed to choose from a wide variety of local and sustainably produced ingredients, including Blue Point Oysters, Bay Scallops, clams, lobster, heritage turkey and quail, pork, artisanal cheeses and fresh dairy. Jars of honey from the White House Beehive were also on hand for all to use. The Kitchen Stadium set is located in Manhattan, and during his commentary Brown noted repeatedly that all ingredients had come from within 100 miles, with the exception of the White House vegetables. Local sourcing is something that both the White House and USDA are very interested in as a way of boosting community economies as well as for creating better food access and food security for Americans, and for dramatically improving school lunch programs--think Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, and the White House Farmers Market. (Above: Bay Scallops with icicle radish and fennel salad, created by Batali and Lagasse--and yes, they're burned, and part of the reason the team lost)

Each of the chefs chatted up the local angle during their own mid-competition interviews, and managed to get the message across about the values of gardening and sourcing from local farms, even if they couldn't clearly articulate exactly why local was better.

"There's an indescribable level of deliciousness," Batali said, when queried about locally sourced ingredients.

"There's something about how when you harvest your own vegetables, you're closer to them," Flay enthused.

Batali did get an important point exactly right, however: "You can grow these vegetables, even if it's just in little plots in backyards, anywhere in the country," he said.

The low drama element didn't mar the show a bit, either, and has perhaps re-set the bar far higher for food competition TV in general. Due to the White House presence, there was little of the requisite competition swearing from the chefs (though Batali did get bleeped a few times). There were no signature Kitchen Stadium rages, no dropping of pans or throwing of food, as the chefs raced to finish their dishes in a single hour. Instead, there was focused dashing around the set, and an elevated level of politeness. Brows were speckled with beads of sweat, but exchanges were conversational; no voices were raised, even during brief moments of emergency (Batali and Lagasse burned their heritage turkey, in addition to the radishes in their scallop dish. They tried to save it by braising the meat, but the judges weren't impressed). Taken as a whole, the entire show was as gracious as Mrs. Obama's brief onscreen welcome to the White House, the goofiness of the Iron Chef "Chairman" character notwithstanding (he was on the show only via Jumbotron).

Whatever they lacked in verbal articulation about local foods, the chefs more than made up for in culinary prowess. It made sense that Olympic swimming champ Natalie Coughlin was one of the guest judges, because the chefs pulled off Olympic-caliber feats of culinary artistry. All of the dishes were fairly complicated, extravagant in their melding of ingredients, and relied on things like pressure cookers and blast freezers and salamander broilers. And if you don't know what those are, you're not alone. They're the tools of high-level chefs, not home cooks. But one of the dishes that pleased the judges the most from Team White House, Cauliflower Gratin, relied on no extreme culi-tek, and the White House has released it. (Above: The Cauliflower Gratin)

Judge Coughlin provided a moment of reality checking as she watched the two teams at work. "I consider myself a good cook, but this is ridiculous," she said, in awe. Home cooks could glean new ideas from the ingredient blends, however, even if they're not in possession of, say, a salamander broiler.

Comerford and Flay were cool as cucumbers during their winning sprint. They had a bit of a leg up, it should be noted, because Comerford's own Executive Sous Chef, Tommy Kurpradit, served as the sous chef for Team White House. Kurpradit has been at the White House for twelve years, and moved into his current position when Comerford became Exec Chef in 2005. They're a well-oiled machine, and are used to creating extraordinary dishes under extreme time pressure. For comparison's sake: The November State Dinner at the White House had a forty-five minute window for the entire dinner service, and that window was a moving target. Service had to begin when President Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had finished their toasts, but starting their toasts was dependent on guests being seated and Dinner Crashers sneaking back out, among other things. Hot dishes had to be sprinted from the kitchen across the South Lawn and were then held in warmers in a special satellite kitchen attached to the outdoor dinner tent before being delivered to the get the idea. Comerford and Kurpradit have cooked thousands of meals each year for heads of state, Kings, Queens, celebs, and other guests who might turn even a professional cook's nerves to Jell-O, and at this point they can finish each others' sentences. Granted, they usually don't have shoulder-mounted cameras and microphones in their faces, and a live studio audience, and this is perhaps where the playing field was leveled. As TV chefs, Batali and Lagasse are used to all that. They also mentioned that they've been cooking together for fifteen years--although never in competition. (Above: Comerford and Flay at work)

The winning dishes
Team White House came up with five dishes that were quite spectacular, and which utilized an amazing variety of crops from the Kitchen Garden...which has grown an amazing variety of produce. That's part of the whole garden project, too: To expand the idea of what's possible in home and community gardens, as well as in the American palate. Who needs seven varieties of carrots, eight kinds of beans, five kinds of radishes? Everyone, really, when you think about it. Because variety and deliciousness are some of the key ways to get people to eat more healthfully. For a world that's used to artificial, chemically boosted flavors, vegetable varieties are important for changing eating patterns and habits. The words "magnificent" and "fabulous" were used more than once by the judges for dishes by both teams. In addition to Coughlin, the other judges were British actress Jane Seymour and British cookbook author Nigella Lawson. Seymour, we discovered, has an "insane" organic kitchen garden at her home, which was inspired by her own children's school garden project. Coughlin, we were told, is accomplished at home cooking. Lawson is also a TV chef, known in part for publishing a fast-food version of her own cookbook.

For their first dish, Team White House created a Fennel and Apple Salad with Blue Point Oysters. Comerford and Flay diced and shaved the fennel for the salad, and also braised some of it with apples in a reduction of apple cider, so there was a combination of raw and cooked when plated. The oysters were wrapped in potatoes, then flash fried. These were topped with a dollop of crème fraiche and American Paddlefish caviar, in keeping with the sustainability requirement. The apples were Granny Smiths, and although there are no apples growing at the White House, we were assured that the apples were local. As a side note, it's odd that the White House doesn't have an apple tree, because bowls of apples are everywhere; if you check out White House photos, there's always a loaded apple bowl in President Obama's office, and his personal photog, Pete Souza, has frequently captured the President with an apple in hand. Seymour pronounced the dish "brilliant."

Dish #2 was Crispy Lobster and Squid with Eggplant and Carrot Salad with White House Honey. The Japanese eggplant was soaked in the honey, and then braised with the carrots in carrot juice. The salad also included star anise, mint, and Habanero chili, all of which grew in the White House Kitchen Garden, as well as pine nuts and currants. Lawson described the combination as "a surprise," and all of the judges liked it.

Comerford called dish #3 "our fresh modern take on Manhattan Clam Chowder." The base was broccoli and broccoli raab, with local clams and crab mixed with fingerling potatoes. As a nod to Comerford's homeland, Chorizo and lemongrass, garlic and ginger were incorporated into the dish. Flay told the judges that he had encouraged Comerford to "not be afraid to use her Filipino (sic) heritage" when creating the dish, because "that's who she is." The Chorizo and spices are a nod to this. Seymour judged the dish "Clever, but not my favorite," citing undercooked potatoes as a particular offense. Lawson and Coughlin disagreed, and praised the dish for being hearty but entirely lacking in cream. "A healthy chowder is a happy chowder," Lawson sang. Host Brown felt compelled to toss in the comment that "there's nothing wrong with cream."

Dish #4 came from Flay's personal arsenal as grill meister: BBQ pork accompanied by vegetables. "We wanted to do BBQ because it's the quintessential American dish and you can't help but think of that when you're at the White House," Flay told the judges. But he added that "the pork was the least important part of the dish, because the vegetables should be the superstars."

Team White House used seven different kinds of vegetables, in an array of small bites when plated. Pork butt was marinated in a pressure cooker in a sauce made of heirloom tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, red wine vinegar, mango and chili paste. When plated, it was topped with fresh greens, and accompanied by the Cauliflower Gratin mentioned above--but for the competition, the gratin was was topped with shaved white truffles. There were also watermelon radish and cucumber pickles, a tamale stuffed with collard greens and topped with tomatillos, and a carrot slaw with orange. Chili oil was lightly sprinkled across the dish. Coughlin and Seymour loved the combination, but Lawson was stumped. She liked the Cauliflower Gratin, but said there were too many flavors in general. (Above: The pork and greens in bowl, and the tamale)

"I have a psychic problem with it," Lawson said. "It didn't come together for me." Seymour dubbed the gratin better than noodles, which elicited a bit of scoffing from host Brown, who urged her to not get carried away.

Dish #5, dessert, revolved around a favorite Obama root vegetable.

"We would be remiss if we did not use the sweet potato as our coup de grâce," Comerford told the judges,"because it's one of the First Lady's favorite vegetables." Yes, that's a bit of an odd usage of the phrase, but English is the chef's second language; she arrived in America at age 23 when her family emigrated.

The First Lady herself had advised the chefs that sweet potatoes are one of the President's favorite vegetables when welcoming them to the White House. Thus dessert was a sweet potato tart made of custard in a sweet shell, topped with meringue. A side of ginger ice cream, made with milk, ginger and pineapple thyme, and candied cranberries and pecans accompanied. A drizzle of caramel, made with bourbon and White House honey, finished the dish.

"The bees are right in there!" said Seymour, and all judged the dessert a success. Completing the pastry crusts were some of the few minutes of real suspense during the cook-off; with just twelve minutes left on the clock, sous chef Kurpradit was still rolling out pastry dough. They managed to finish, though, obviously. (The recipe, in pie form, is here).

In an interview clip, Flay and Comerford both noted that they were there to win. "It's nice being nominated, but we want to bring home the trophy," Flay said. "I can't let her go back to the White House without it."

Comerford added that "We're not here to make friends, we're here to win."

Batali and Lagasse put up a good fight, and used as many vegetables as did Team White House. But they burned their heritage turkey, and scorched their radishes, and one of their dishes was dubbed "earthy" by Lawson. When considering the winning team, host Brown reminded the judges that they needed to chose the chefs who had best used garden vegetables.

"I think we need to keep in mind [Mrs. Obama's] reason for planting a garden," Brown said. "Her real passion for food and instigating the garden was for health and wellness."

"It was four staggering chefs," Lawson noted. "But it's quite right to be left thinking about the garden and the vegetables."

And so Team White House took home the gold. In addition to their win, a $25,000 donation in the chefs' names was made to City Meals on Wheels.

As the show closed, Brown looked directly into the camera and once again reminded viewers about Mrs. Obama's encouragement for "all Americans" to eat more healthfully and more locally, and include plenty of vegetables in their diets. It turns out that Mrs. Obama was actually in the Kitchen Stadium the entire time, because absolutely none of it would have been possible without her.

A partisan bloc in the audience

Team White House had their own cheering section in the Kitchen Stadium audience, made up of their fellow White House chefs, including Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass, Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses, and assistant pastry chef Susie Morrison. Kass was interviewed onscreen about the Kitchen Garden, and he cited the garden's massive poundage of produce, and noted the donations to DC social services agency Miriam's Kitchen. Yosses also had a minute of air time, and he mentioned that he makes good use of the Kitchen Garden for his desserts, doing things like using carrots for carrot cake, and berries and rhubarb for pies and tarts. Yosses also got in some messaging when he mentioned the White House Beehive, and said that thanks to its presence on the South Lawn, the White House has been "moving away from using refined sugar in the interest of healthier eating." Yosses has used honey for all kinds of White House desserts, large and small--including the White House Gingerbread House and 2,600 Halloween cookies for trick-or-treaters. His White House Honey Cupcake recipe features honey, too. (Above: Kass in a split screen during the show, with White House Executive Sous Chef Tommy Kurpradit)

Notes: As for White House chefs appearing on competition television shows: Comerford and Kass both appeared on NBC's The Biggest Loser, but neither were, obviously, competitors. The recipe for the salad they created with the show's cast, following a Kitchen Garden visit, is here. Stunt vegetables: Due to a time-lag between garden harvesting at the White House and shooting the competition in the Manhattan Kitchen Stadium, stand-in "stunt vegetables" were used for the actual filming of the competition part of the show, which wasn't mentioned on air, in the interest of "fictive continuity." The chefs' garden harvest was about a week before the Kitchen Stadium shoot, but the varieties of replica vegetables used for the dishes actually did grow in the Kitchen Garden, according to Food Network. Vegetables harvested from the Kitchen Garden were donated to a DC-area food bank.

Related: Chef Comerford blogs about her experience on Iron Chef America here. The recipes for Comerford/Team White House are: Sweet Potato Pie, the winning dessert; White House Kitchen Garden Herb Chicken with Braised Greens and Cauliflower Gratin are here. A video clip of the judging is here. The show was a ratings rocket for Food Network. UPDATE, Jan. 13: The issue of the use of stunt vegetables is rocking the Internet. UPDATE 2: Stunt vegetables turns into a huge issue on the internet, and makes it onto television: Here's a clip from Fox News, and Stephen Colbert does a send up of the nonsense here.

*Photos via Food Network.