In a kitchen smaller than a typical seminar room, six event organizers, four reporters, three celebrity judges, two cameramen, and 16 chefs, sous-chefs, and student-assistants scuttled between hot burners, chopping blocks and tables piled high with food to crown New Haven’s next Iron Chef.
The second-annual Iron Chef–Elm City contest took place at Gateway Community College on Sunday afternoon, featuring a three-way battle between local chefs Arturo Franco-Camacho, Manuel Romero and Rafael Palomino, of Bespoke, Ibiza and Pacifico, respectively. In the Latin-themed cooking competition, returning champion Franco-Camacho walked away with his second title in two consecutive years.
Before an audience of about 60, the competing teams, comprised of one head chef, a sous chef and a student assistant from Gateway’s culinary institute, each toiled within a full-sized industrial kitchen during an allotted hour of cooking time. Their offerings — one appetizer, one entree and one dessert — were judged by a three-person panel on the basis of taste, originality and plating.
This year’s secret ingredient was apples, specifically those from Lyman Orchards of Middlefield, Conn., a sponsor of the event. As with the original “Iron Chef” television program and “Iron Chef America,” the secret ingredient was not actually secret: The chefs were given a list of five potential ingredients a week before the competition.
After quick conferences with their team at the outset, the head chefs each assigned one dish to their sous chefs and handled the other two themselves. The only sounds in the room were the sizzling of apples and the banter of WTNH meteorologist Matt Scott with the audience and competitors, who busily patted spices onto meats and drizzled sauces over nearly completed dishes. After the competition, Romero told of his disappointment when he saw that the tomatoes on the ingredients table were unappetizing and thus unservable.
At times one could only hear the sound of commentators’ voices as the chefs silently prepared their dishes. Scott was the master of ceremonies, and several local food critics were on hand to provide commentary. Sound technology was problematic, as microphones would cut in and out. It was often difficult to gauge how judges felt about any particular dish.
Martha Palomino, the wife of Pacifico chef Rafael Palomino, sat with her family in the front row. She told the News that her husband had stayed up late the previous night “getting a couple of ideas, looking at menus that involved the items.” Had he been nervous for the event? “Yes,” she confided.
On Friday, the event’s organizer, New Haven Convention & Visitors Bureau President Ginny Kozlowski, predicted that Sunday’s competition would be “fierce” in light of New Haven’s high-caliber culinary scene. The forecast came true. In the final moments of score calculation, contest judge and television personality Mar Jennings called the event “everyone’s game.”
Although Pacifico’s was the only team to turn its dishes in on time consistently, no team far and away outperformed any other, as each contestant won one of the three rounds. Pacifico took the appetizer round with a blend of seafoods suspended in essence of apples and banana; Bespoke’s pork tenderloin over caramelized onions and apples proved the judges’ favorite entree; and the warm apple tart from Ibiza topped the other two desserts. In regard to Bespoke’s pork, judge Richard Rosenthal called the dish’s bitterness “a little off-putting,” while Jennings urged chefs to remember that “less is more.”
Competition came down to the wire. The final tally of votes came down to just three votes out of the 90 points possible. In addition to bragging rights, the winner, Franco-Camacho, was presented with a bronze whisk-shaped trophy.
“I’m a complex person, so I think you saw that in the flavors,” Franco-Camacho said after winning.
Shortly before the cooking period ended, Nick Embriglio, a Gateway student working as an assistant on the Bespoke team, gasped that he felt “tired” before rushing off to wash a few last dishes. For him, the experience was “very fast-paced, very enjoyable, very fun.”
Several audience members agreed, more of whom, it seemed, had been drawn more by a love of the “Iron Chef” television program than of the restaurants themselves. Giant heaps of food were discarded without regard for the hungry onlookers, but event organizers would occasionally relinquish small bites to certain audience members. Although they were not able to taste any of the prepared dishes, Jess Kupka and her husband David Brensilver said they were immensely satisfied.
In last year’s competition, the head chef of Bespoke beat out competitors from Zinc and the Union League Café with his creative take on the secret ingredient, cheese.