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Calloway and his Hilltop crew were cocky. When asked before the competition how they thought they were going to do against Team Bonanno, they had no doubts: "Oh, we're gonna win, no question." The judges, however, had plenty of questions. After all, Bonanno had been here before. He knew the drill. He'd opened a serious can of whoop-ass on Eric Roeder from Bistro Vendome on his last turn through Kitchen Stadium, effortlessly putting out stellar course after course while Roeder struggled with the unfamiliar setup and time constraints. And Bonanno expected nothing less this time around.
There was a slight complication, however. That afternoon, Bonanno's wife, Jacqueline, had gone into labor. It wasn't serious -- yet. And the Bonannos had decided that Frank would come to the event, do his thing, stick around just long enough to collect his trophy, then speed off to the hospital with his wife and become a daddy for the second time.
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Was he distracted? Probably. Did it show? Not at all. Frank is a kitchen guy, a lifer. And when they're in the zone, nothing distracts a kitchen guy. Bonanno's secret -- the thing that has given him the advantage in every contest thus far -- was that he always came straight from the line at one of his restaurants. He'd cook through the first rush of dinner service, pack up his knife kit and secret ingredients, then get in his car and haul ass over to the venue in time to jump up on stage and get back to cooking. That's how he stayed focused, he said. That's why he always won.
Working from the mystery basket of ingredients supplied by Johnson & Wales (which included a Cornish game hen, half a rattlesnake, a pork chop and shrimp), Bonanno put out six courses in about fifty minutes -- and all of them were excellent. He did rattlesnake tacos, which impressed the hell out of us judges, even though the soft-shells were a little rubbery; subtle shrimp wontons in a butter-heavy coconut beurre blanc; sweet pork kicked up with chile flakes over shrimp-studded sticky rice; a simple seared pork chop with wild mushrooms, floored with a mellow, powerful demi-glace thrown together in record time; and handmade pappardelle in a muscular meat broth, finished with silky foie gras and topped with pieces of boneless Cornish game hen. Bonanno did good. He did everything with the same level of skill and passion with which he attacks every plate, every night. He wasn't off his game, didn't choke, didn't blow it in the clutch. Frank cooked as well as Frank always cooks.
Only this time, it wasn't quite good enough. Calloway had game, and the kid brangit. He did things up on the stage and in front of an audience that most cooks couldn't have done in the comfort of their home kitchens with a dozen hands to help them. And he did them like a pro -- like it was the easiest thing in the world. He started off with a mixed-greens salad topped with crispy slices of game-hen breast and tiny shards of walnut brittle, all set on a single foie gras wonton with the delicate liver inside undamaged by the heat. Following that was a pork chop, sliced off the bone, pan-seared crisp, mounted atop polenta that could've used maybe one more minute's cooking time and a little salt, then topped with a rustic sweet-corn-and-butternut-squash relish over soft, mild fennel dressed with sage oil. It was the only plate he did that was less than a masterpiece, and even it was still worthy of a spot on any menu in town.
But it was Calloway's dessert course that cinched the win. A simple bananas Foster crepe, drenched in warm caramel, crowned with a scoop of melting mascarpone and cardamom ice cream that he'd whipped up on the fly, right there on stage, doing the fairly impossible -- which was making a cheese-flavored ice cream that didn't suck. It was beautiful. It was plain. Excepting the ice cream, it was a dish that's in the standard repertoire of every cook in the world -- a flashy throwaway that you use to round out a weak dessert menu and use up all that leftover banana liqueur behind the bar -- and Calloway turned it into something divine.
His offerings ended with a rattlesnake cream soup pooled around a single seared shrimp. I loved it. Cream and butter and more cream and more butter all worked to carry the gamey tang of the rattlesnake base, and I got just a hint of the harsh, earthy flavor at the back of my throat when I swallowed. It was the perfect way to end a nine-course night, even if I did have to slurp the soup through Mr. Nixon's food hole.
So Calloway, the underdog, took it. No one expected it. No one saw it coming. He unseated the champ by a narrow margin in the best Steel Chef competition yet, climbed the steps to the stage and proudly accepted his trophy. The crowd went wild.
Then, with my judging duties finished, I went outside to watch another victory that no one expected. Sitting in the second-tier stands under the stadium lights, I watched Aaron Boone -- a mid-season defensive replacement for the Yankees, and probably the last guy the Sox saw coming -- slug a Tim Wakefield knuckleball out of the park to clinch an eleventh-inning victory for the home team and a place for himself in the Yanks' history books.
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