It was Italian vs. Cajun. East Coast vs. West Coast. Hot spices vs. fresh herbs.
Dean for Graduate Students Isaac M. "Ike" Colbert squared off with Executive Vice President John R. Curry in an Iron Chefs Cookoff last Friday evening, sponsored by TechLink and the Graduate Student Council (GSC) as part of HackLink 2K1, a social event for prospective students and others.
Chef Colbert, who hails from Maryland, said, "We had a blast." So did the 650 at Walker Memorial who had a taste of haute cuisine a la MIT. Said Chef Curry, a transplanted Californian, "Ike and I are already thinking about how to do this better next time, especially how to get more audience participation in the event -- and in the consumption."
The chefs extraordinaire started with three simple ingredients: bell peppers (red, green and yellow), garlic and tomatoes. Despite balky equipment, an hour later the results were elegant and mouth-watering. A tie, ruled the judges.
"I voted for Dean Colbert for the 'presentation' and the 'use of garlic' criteria while I voted for Executive Vice President Curry for the 'diversity' and 'dealing with adversity' criteria," said GSC President Soulamane Kachani, one of three judges. "The two meals were d'un gout exquis [of great taste]." The other judges, Vice President and Dean for Research J. Dave Litster and Vice President Kathryn A. Willmore, both attired in academic robes, concurred in the tie vote.
Wearing the toque blanque (white chef's hat) at a jaunty angle, Chef Colbert prepared Cajun shrimp with three peppers and sweet Italian sausage in the classic Southern cooking style. After mixing a pepper, onion and celery base with spices and herbs, he deglazed with a pre-cooked shrimp stock. A mix of a dozen herbs and spices (including black, red and white pepper) gave the dish a variety of layered and complex flavors. Served with parsley rice, the dish was colorful and tasty.
Chef Curry made an Italian dish with sautï¿½ed bell peppers, sautï¿½ed chicken tenders and fresh herbs. He used white wine to deglaze and served the meal over linguine tossed in the wine sauce. The flavors were fresh and herbal, and the wine sauce complemented the chicken and pasta perfectly.
"Both chefs were extraordinary explicators of their culinary arts as well as darn good cooks," said Judge Willmore. "Ike may have had the edge on presentation, but John clearly excelled in subtlety and dealing with adversity. Ike was the best dancer. Actually, he was the only dancer. As for the wines, I leave that to David."
Chef Colbert suggested a peppery 1998 Cline Cellars Old Vines Zinfandel from California's Carneros District for its rich berry aromas and flavors to complement the spiciness of the shrimp dish. A contrasting wine possibility was a fruity and acidic 1998 Alsace Trimbach Gewurztraminer, which emphasized the tomato base.
With the Italian dish, Chef Curry suggested a fruity 1997 Grgich Hills Cellar Fume Blanc from Rutherford in the Napa Valley to complement and enhance the fresh herbs and tomatoes. The alternative was a 1997 Sandford Pinot Noir from Santa Barbara, whose wonderful aroma and balanced flavor worked well with the tomatoes and the spices. This wine is more expensive (about $40) than the other choices ($18-$25).
"John had the better wines, but Ike's Zinfandel was the perfect accompaniment to his dish," said Judge Litster.
Both contestants complimented master of ceremonies Ryan Kershner, vice president of the GSC, on his spirited orchestration of the evening's festivities. "He's a natural game show host with a voice to match," said Chef Colbert. "If Ryan's dissertation doesn't work, then he might have a bright future announcing Sunday afternoon demolition derby matches."
The Iron Chef was a hit Japanese television series whose host dressed in sequins and a flowing cape. Each guest was challenged to create a three-course meal featuring eggplant in 90 minutes. The show ran for six years, giving birth to a US version in 1999 on the Food Network. It has been the highest-rated show on the network, at one point attracting an audience of 1.5 million.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 14, 2001.