Family is a funny thing, isn’t it? You know what each person brings to the table. You know the way your brother elbows you with every mouthful of food, not because there isn’t enough room at the table, but because he holds his fork like a shovel. You know the way your father pushes his plate away from him when he’s done eating almost knocking over his glass in the process. You know the way your mother shifts to the edge of her seat before taking her first sip of coffee. You’ve cooked, eaten and argued with these people your whole life. The table is at once a scene of comfort and strife. Take the simple potluck: you bring strawberry shortcake and cousin Sue brings panna cotta. A subtle competition emerges. You don’t mean for it to happen; but before you know it, there you are smack dab at the intersection of food, family and competition.
For my family and me, those three aspects of the old dynamics came to a head while we were watching an episode of the Food Network’s Iron Chef America. A shiny, white, gelatinous mound loomed large on the television screen. It jiggled on a plate as if thrilled to have garnered the highest score in kitchen stadium that day. One of the judges scooped a bit of it onto a small spoon, then slurped it into her mouth. I frowned. Marg, my sister, caught my reaction. “You could do better, I suppose?” she asked. My cousin Don waved his hand in the general direction of the TV. “Hey,” he said. “Maybe we can do our own Iron Chef competition.” My jaw dropped. “Don, that’s an awesome idea!” I told him. Liz, Don’s sister, sprang up from the couch. “I’ll get paper and pens so we can come up with the secret ingredients!” she called, racing down the hallway. We hammered out the details that night over a fast-depleting bottle of wine. Five of us — myself, Marg, Don, Liz and Joanne (another cousin) — would try to best each other in the ultimate cooking challenge.
Two weeks later, I found myself standing before the expansive wall of windows in Marg’s eighth-floor apartment looking down at the swirling waters of Lake Ontario. My name had been drawn last week for tonight’s challenge against Liz, which left Marg, Don and Joanne to judge our efforts. Shrimp was the chosen secret ingredient. Would it prove to be my downfall? I sure hoped not. Pure yet spectacular flavour was my goal. No foamed shellfish or chocolate-dipped shrimp for me. I wanted to appeal directly to the judges’ base instinct for comfort. I had tested and re-tested my dish three times over the last week, even pulling out my pencil crayons and sketching out the plate presentation. This felt so personal.
Six o’clock, time to start. I jogged over to the kitchen and laid my palms flat on the countertop as if that immovable structure could steady my nerves. The judges sat stone-faced. Don raised his arms above his head. “Allez Cuisine!” he called.
My fingers fumbled through the drawers searching for the can opener. Liz seemed to be having similar frustrations just a few feet behind me. The minutes ticked by at warp speed. I slid my ingredients into an ordered line with a flick of the wrist. Plastic containers scraping across the counter added an extra layer of sound to Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing playing on the speakers. Liz must have found what she’d been looking for because the staccato beat of the knife hitting the cutting board echoed through the apartment. I stretched around her and grabbed the frying pan. The sound of sizzling shrimp soon filled the room. That was punctuated by soft rapping on the front door. Aromas of cumin, mint, onions and garlic wafting through open windows and the spaces beneath the doors had attracted the neighbours. Joanne acted the bouncer, sending them on their way with a few words. For 45 minutes, we measured out the space of the small kitchen with harried steps and quick hand movements. I was cooking fast. Yet the world seemed to have slowed its rotation.
Speed is paramount in the Iron Chef TV show. But, in our own pseudo–kitchen stadium and outside of it, a different reality takes hold. Life starts to shift a little, and the changes make themselves permanent. Now, we take more time at the market than we ever did before, inviting cooking tips from the butcher and fruit seller, and poring over ingredients we’ve never tried before. We’re explorers searching out something different that we can use. It’s our own Marco Polo spice adventure.
In the end, Liz’s sautéed shrimp and avocado sandwiched between two mini potato rösti and topped off with a dollop of crème fraîche fell to my appetizer of spinach soup with sautéed wild ocean shrimp and toasted coconut. I was off to the semifinals to challenge the winner of the next matchup. For someone who had a very picky palate, I was really surprised to see Liz imagine and execute such an elaborate dish. Like all families, we had grown accustomed to the way each of us approaches cooking. The chefs’ challenge broke through those layers of familiarity, testing and exploding our preconceived notions of each other. The five of us continue to invest in the pleasure and camaraderie of cooking to this day. And sometimes we still argue.
Host your own
Setting up your own Iron Chef Challenge is a lot of fun and will really get your creative and competitive juices flowing. Take some time to invent rules that everyone can agree to. Here are the guidelines we used:
Everyone should have a chance to battle everyone else in the first round. Winners move on to the next round.
The final battle is the most difficult. Challengers must create three dishes. They can choose one sous-chef from among those who were eliminated in the earlier rounds. Other family and friends should be brought in to act as judges.
Decide on a budget and on one or two places to shop for ingredients.
Everyone should write two ingredient ideas on slips of paper. These are secret; so don’t share! Fold the slips of paper and place them in a jar. After each competition, one of the judges will pull out a slip of paper and hand it to the next pair of challengers.
No one is allowed to consult any cookbooks at any time.
Split the kitchen, stove and fridge in half (figuratively, of course). Challengers must use the plates and utensils provided by the host.
The finished dishes are judged based on four categories (maximum 10 points each) — taste, texture, originality and presentation.
Offer a prize, like a good-quality chef’s knife.
Chilled spinach soup with shrimp and toasted coconut