You are late to the Second Annual Intercollegiate Iron Chef Competition at wintry UMass Amherst, so when you saunter into the welcoming reception, the eyes of those already arrived follow you hungrily.
And they keep watching, even after hands are shaken and welcomes exchanged. You remember, in particular, the gaze of a French Canadian. His name might have been Etienne. His thick arms are crossed behind his head, and he wears half a scowl on his chiseled jaw.
Before ushering you out of the waiting room and into the commons for dinner, the UMass culinary director explains the many buffet stations on offer: the pizza station, the pasta station, the grill station, the soup and salad station, the yogurt bar, and all the way over there we have the — he hesitates — street food section, you know, Asian food, like Southeast Asian and lo mein. You opt for turkey dinner instead.
You line up with the hoodied and sweatpantsed UMass students already queuing for food. Of course, you aren’t in sweatpants. Nor are you in the right colors (maroon?). And the only other people of your skin color are behind the counters: there is a row of four Asian students working at the bastardized, American “sushi” station.
Back in the briefing room after dinner, student dining hall workers sweep in and replace your now empty plastic plates with printouts of the competition guidelines. As the culinary director at the front of the room reads the rules aloud, you notice that all the participants in the auxiliary brownie competition (120 portions of an original brownie recipe, to be judged by the masses) are women.
You could have spent the remainder of your evening at the UPub. The tab was on the event organizers, as were the microwaved chicken tenders and the pizza, from Famous Famiglia Pizzeria. There was a pool table, but it was being hogged by a rather odd double date (they all looked like they met in biology lab, not on Tinder.) But the clinical fluorescent lights were too bright and the space too well-tiled. So instead, you head downtown for poutine with a friend of a friend, a brother of a sister, and a rockstar.
The next morning filters through gauze curtains at UMass’s on-campus hotel. Over continental breakfast, you walk through your plan of action with your coach. Two dishes, an appetizer and an entree, to be prepared and plated in an hour and a half. The operation was tight. Written out, play by play, player by player. 2:30 p.m.: clean, prep, and smoke fish. 2:40: pickle shallots in whipping canister. 2:50: start dashi. And so on and so forth.
Because all culinary directors at northeast colleges are friends with each other, one can imagine that they occasionally gather to talk about dried herbs, synergy and labor laws. Perhaps they also plan events that are — to a degree — self-indulgent, over-reaching and absurd, but nevertheless a whole lot of fun. Thus, the Intercollegiate Iron Chef Competition: six teams of undergraduates from the US and Canada, vying for “a trophy and bragging rights for one year.”
The competition schedule is staggered to accommodate judging, so you must wait three hours after the 11 a.m. start to begin cooking. And so there’s time to consider the rather strange situation in which you’ve found yourself. When did cooking become a sport? How did this come about? Given that you had only been roped into this a week ago, questions remain. Why are you here? What are you doing? How is Etienne?
He stands beside you, with his arms crossed in front of his chest. The two of you are watching the students from the University of New Hampshire. Though their coach describes their culinary program as the “red-headed stepchild of the school,” they’re making perfect batons out of apples. They could be deboning chickens with their bare hands. You don’t know how to do that. This seems unfair: aren’t students from culinary programs technically barred from competing?
But then the clock strikes 2:15, and you have other things to worry about. You set up your cutting board, prep your cold smoker, polish your knives.
You’re up and the clock starts ticking. Over an hour and a half, you poach flounder filets in butter, you reduce veal jus, you avoid the camera, you nick your finger slicing shallots, you muck up and clarify a shiitake broth, your hands begin to shake, you get told off by your coach, you plate the food, and finally you sit waiting for your hands to stop shaking.
In the end, even though you forget to garnish some of your appetizers and your tenderloin begins to bleed into your mashed potatoes, the results don’t taste half-bad. You win. Perhaps you’re the only one who knows the depth of your own illegitimacies.
And Etienne, who’s sliced open his thumb too — he gives you a pat on the back.