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Iron Chef Part 1

The first in a three post series about the bizarre experience of being on Iron Chef America. This morning: the beginning! (the next post will go up late this afternoon – and the Iron Chef episode airs this Sunday, August 29 @ 10pm on the Food Network)

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The strangest thing about being on Iron Chef is that it happened so long ago – I actually filmed my segment almost exactly a year ago today. About five months ago I just started assuming that my episode was so bad it would never air. But now it’s airing and the thing that’s going to be weirdest is the time warp of watching myself a year ago on TV. I’m a completely different chef now, and I can’t look back at the food I was making when Dirt Candy opened without a list in my head of all the things I’d do differently. The strongest urge I’m going to have while watching the episode is to yell at my past self, “You call that cooking? Come on, step up your game, Past Me!”

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Past Me practicing plating for Iron Chef.

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When I first got the call to be on Iron Chef America, Dirt Candy had been open for less than a year. I’d been cooking with electricity for almost six months, and had finally gotten the gas hooked up about three months before. I was in the middle of service and Michael Colameco was shooting a segment for his show in the dining room so we were in total chaos. The phone rang, and someone on the other end said, “Hi, we’re calling from the Food Network. Is Amanda there?” They told me they were the producers of Iron Chef America and they were inviting me to compete on an episode.

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“I don’t think so,” I said.

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They wanted to talk the next day, and I said “fine” but I was 100% determined not to be on their show. They were looking for chumps to throw into the shark tank with their big time Iron Chefs and I didn’t want to be savaged and mauled on national TV. But for the rest of service, my head was full of the possibilities. A million scenarios spun through my tiny mind but what they all boiled down to was the same thought that keeps people putting one more quarter in the slot machine, that gets people buying one more lotto ticket: what if I won?

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The next morning I told Danielle and Jesus that I was going to be talking to the Iron Chef people and there was a good chance I’d agree to be on the show because I couldn’t say no to a chance to get Dirt Candy in front of an audience this big. Also, what if I won? Then, like a cold-hearted boss, I told Danielle that there was a good chance I wouldn’t be taking her on the show. She’d only been out of cooking school for four months at that point, and if I actually went on the show I wanted a team with serious skills. To her credit, she told me she’d go along with whatever I decided. Jesus, exhibiting what would become his trademark attitude throughout the Iron Chef experience, was psyched. “We can do this. We’ll win. It’ll be easy.” Followed, half an hour later, by him taking me aside and telling me, “We can’t do this. It’s too much. We’re going to fail.”

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The phone call came and I told the producers I was on the fence but I really didn’t want to be humiliated. I’ve seen vegetarians on reality TV and they don’t do well: they’re usually made to look like kooks, then thrown off the show before the first commercial break. The producers told me that they wanted it to be a fair battle and started going over the rules. And somewhere in there I said yes. I figured that I’d be crazy not to do it and we seemed to have enough time to practice and get our act together before the taping.

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Practicing and getting our act together

before the taping.


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But, more importantly, I thought that if someone was going to be the first vegetarian chef on Iron Chef America, if someone was going to go out there representing vegetarian food, I’d rather it be me than anyone else. Part of that is, of course, my giant ego, but part of it is also the fact that vegetarian food has been chained to the animal rights movement and the health food movement for years, which has let the food mainstream dismiss it. There’s nothing wrong with animal rights or health food, but Dirt Candy is just about food, and it’s about vegetarian food as nothing more than cooking vegetables – no politics, no health claims or virtuous living, just giving vegetables a chance to be treated as seriously as chefs treat pork. It’s a point of view that isn’t seen very often, especially on the Food Network and I wanted my chance to put a different face on vegetarian food.
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This is the face I want

to put on vegetarian food. It is the

face of a girl who trying very hard not to

throw up from stress.

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The rule package arrived, which was about six inches thick, and we all signed off on the multiple copies of the contracts that essentially said we’d be killed in our sleep if we violated the rules or gave away any secrets. I was also thinking about who was going to go into Kitchen Stadium with me. I wanted to hire¬†Glory, a fellow chef and friend, to be on my team – you’re allowed two people – but then I realized that Danielle had to come. Me, Danielle and Jesus are my kitchen, they’re my team, they’re who I work with every day. I didn’t want to hire a ringer and then have to come in the next day and work with Danielle who hadn’t been a part of this experience. What kind of fun would that be? Dirt Candy is the three of us, come hell or high water, and I was sticking with Jesus and Danielle no matter what. The three of us would win or lose together. Most likely lose.

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Dirt Candy on a Tuesday morning while

prepping for Iron Chef.

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The only way to deal with Iron Chef is to go big or go home. You either take it really seriously, or you shouldn’t do it at all. So I started closing the restaurant every Tuesday for four weeks so we could practice, knocking out menu after menu in 60 minutes. And doing this taught us lots of lessons:
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Lesson #1: I’m a mess. I cannot keep my station clean when I cook. I am the dirty little pig of chefs.

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How my station looked after a

Tuesday practice. Yes, I am scum.

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Lesson #2: Danielle cannot plate food on the fly. It leads to tragedy.

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Danielle’s plated dessert. This is

a national tragedy.

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Lesson #3: Jesus has a hard time remembering details. He’s the rock on this team, but every now and then he’d just space out and be on another planet.

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Jesus and I running drills. Right

this minute, Jesus has no idea who he is

or what he is doing.

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Every Tuesday when we practiced, anyone walking by and looking in the window would have thought we were insane. Dirt Candy was a battle ground. At first we thought we could wash the dishes ourselves while we cooked but we’re too small and we were using every pot and pan we had two or even three times each Tuesday. We brought in Antonio to do the dishes after the first Tuesday and he couldn’t even keep up. On Tuesdays, the restaurant became a tornado of food and by the time we were done the place was a wreck and the floor looked like a swamp.

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Tuesdays at Dirt Candy.

We will soon reduce these vegetables

to garbage and horror.

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Towards the end of our practice sessions, we had it down. We were knocking our menus out in under an hour, and we were tight.  I was feeling good. Jesus was panicking less. Danielle was getting way better. And then came the last day. We did a final practice, then we all went home. And I spent all night crying. Because the next day I was going to be the first vegetarian on Iron Chef America, representing vegetarian food, and I knew that somehow I was going to screw it all up.

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As it turned out, things were going to be much worse than I expected..

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Antonio contemplates just how

long he’s going to have to spend

cleaning up after us. He is appalled.

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menu


Menu

Snack

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Jalapeno Hush Puppies $6
served with maple butter
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Appetizers

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Mushroom $13
portobello mousse, truffled toast
pear & fennel compote

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Cucumber $12
roasted cucumber hot and sour soup,
black sesame, garlic chili oil, wood ear
mushroom, cucumber jelly

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Tomato $13
tomato cake with smoked feta,
yellow tomato leather, herb puree

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Potato $12
warm potato salad, crispy Japanese
yams, grilled sweet potato, olives,
bitter greens, apples

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Entrees

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Beets $20
salt-roasted beets, thai green curry,
beet gnocchi, whipped coconut galangal cream

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Pepper $18
fennel & pepper tofu,
parsley spaetzle, grilled
yellow pepper broth,
mustard crumbs

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Broccoli $21
smoked broccoli dogs,
broccoli kraut, salt &
vinegar broccoli rabe

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Corn $19
stone ground grits, corn cream,
pickled shiitakes, huitlacoche,
tempura poached egg

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- everything on the menu can be made vegan on request.

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Dessert

Rosemary Eggplant Tiramisu $12
grilled eggplant, rosemary cotton
candy, mascarpone

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Ice Cream Nanaimo Bar$11
sweet pea, mint, chocolate

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Popcorn Pudding$11
salted caramel corn

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Celery Cheesecake Roll$10
celeriac ice cream, peanut filling,

& candied grapes

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- vegan dessert selection changes regularly, please ask your server.

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Our wine list (and other beverages)

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Gift Certificates

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