Cafe Society

Westword DISH Menu Affair: Jason Sheehan's view

Lori already wrote the official wrap of the Whatever-the Annual Westword Menu Affair earlier this morning, but I had a few thoughts of my own that I wanted to share.

First, kudos to the two competitors -- Jay Spickelmier and Sergio Romero. It ain't easy being up there under those lights. It ain't easy cooking for an hour in full view of several thousand half-cocked fans. It ain't easy cooking with Keegan Gerhard strutting around with a microphone and cameramen poking lenses into your pans, and it certainly ain't easy doing it all while me and the panel of "esteemed" judges sit there swilling down the grape juice (or, in my case, a wine glass full of iced Jameson whiskey) and laughing our damn fool asses off like the jaded and over-fed hyenas we are.

Nothing about doing the Iron Steel Chef competition is easy. You're up there, working on short supplies, with a sous chef you met five minutes earlier (two excellent sous chefs this year, by the way, both ass-kicking name-takers supplied by Colorado Mountain College culinary school), in an unfamiliar environment with nothing but borrowed gear and a couple butane burners to your credit. Frankly, it's a wonder that anything ever gets cooked at all.

Further, Jay and Sergio have a unique point of pride that they both can carry forward with them. They're both the first chefs in the history of the Iron Steel Chef event who have managed to actually get the job done in sixty minutes. At least the only ones that I can remember. Most years, we give the guys a few extra minutes at the end to wrap up final dishes and last details. I recall one year where they were given an extra half-hour. But these two? Sixty minutes and pans down, baby. They didn't go over by a second. Not only that, but each of them managed to do four courses in sixty minutes -- both over-reaching the required three plates and doing it with style.

No, not everything that hit our judges table was excellent. I hated the lamb schnitzel with a passion and (though I don't believe a camera was on me at the time) actually spit the greens back out into my hand rather than swallowing them. Wasn't crazy for the lamb tartare, either, even though most of my fellows were. But then, I don't think that any of the other judges enjoyed the lamb gyoza done by Spickelmier as much as I did--which is why I ate all of theirs. In that picture over there? That's half a gyoza up top. And that's Tyler's hand reaching in for the last bite of the lamb roulade with duxelle just before I stabbed him with a fork because I thought he was going for that last bite of gyoza. Still, both of the chefs performed admirably. Both of them seemed to honestly enjoy themselves (even if maybe not quite so much as we did at the judges table). They each put out some grub that they should be proud of (in particular, Spickelmier's Tuscan white bean soup with lamb which was, seriously, one of the best things I've ever tasted at one of these events). And I even got word earlier today from Robert Thompson, owner of Argyll Gastropub (which employs Romero), who said that the two guys got along famously and were thinking of working out some sort of exchange program where they would each do a turn through the other's kitchen, just for kicks.

All of which is to say that last night's competition was a remarkable success across the board when, considering the circumstances, a smart man (like me) should've bet heavy on it going the other way. Two rookie contenders, backed up by rookie sous chefs, a record crowd and all the usual pressure of working under fire and before witnesses? It's a wonder they didn't simply burn the Fillmore to the ground. God knows that's probably what would've happened had it been me up there trying to make lamb tacos from scratch. It's probably what would've happened had I been up there trying to boil water.

Which, now that I think about it, might be fun for next year's competition...