Would-be Iron Chef Marc Forgione and his fellow contenders were tasked with transforming ingredients and dishes last night. Chef Forgione talks about how he fared at the San Diego County Fair.
First up, you had to transform a condiment. Is the danger of things like steak sauce/ketchup/bbq sauce the sugar content in them? Can they make something too cloying?
The hardest part about the condiment challenge was that condiments are used to make other things taste better, not really used on their own. We had to transform a condiment into something that was not only good to eat and flavorful, but the condiment had to be the star.
What condiment would you have preferred over what you were awarded?
I would have picked hot sauce. Hot sauce is versatile – a little bit goes a long way.
Don’t take this the wrong way, but none of these dishes seemed all that terrific. This felt more like a dare than a challenge! Is there anything that you or the others might have done that would have better served this challenge?
I think it was difficult to make delicious tasting food out of ketchup, barbeque sauce and mustard. It was hard to eat spoonfuls of mayonnaise and a mouthlful of yellow mustard, but believe it or not, some of the dishes actually tasted good. Chef Tio and Chef Tsai presented two of the strongest dishes. I think the whole day was different from the other challenges, because the task was “transformation” and chefs of a higher caliber are not really used to working with condiments. Fair food was particularly new, so it was a challenging day over all. The Chairman likes to play games….
The word transformative is in the air. What has been the most transformative moment/experience of your culinary career to date?
We opened Marc Forgione restaurant under the name of “Forge” in 2008. After a year of business, the restaurant was struggling to survive during the recession, and I felt that I had no choice but to sell. I found a buyer, had the papers in hand signed, and went to bed prepared to sell my restaurant the next day. Right when we were about to settle and sell, the Michelin Guide announced that we had received our first Michelin Star. I always say that the star “saved me” and I believe that was one of the most transformative moments of my culinary career. I was 29 at the time, and I am proud to be one of the youngest American born chefs and owners to receive the prestigious honor. We did it without a famous restaurateur or an experienced restaurateur in-house. We built this place from scratch, down to the menu-covers, to the chairs, to the table, to the lights that go in the kitchen, you name it.
At the State Fair CC, you’re the fish-out-of-water city kid, BUT, while we don’t have state fairs, we do have Coney Island. Did that inform any of your choices?
I have been to Coney Island, but trust me, the food that we saw at this fair had nothing to do with Coney Island. For example, there was chocolate covered pickles, deep fried Coca-Cola, Buffalo Frog Legs. My goal was to stay true to what I saw and that is where most of the ideas for my dishes came from.
How is it possible that you’d not had deep fried bacon until now?
I don’t know! I even said that on the show. I can’t believe that all these years spending my life working in kitchens, that I never took a piece of bacon and deep fried it. Because of this experience, I added deep fried bacon to some of the brunch dishes at my restaurant. Now when people want crispy bacon, we drop it in the fryer.
The shopping portion looked exhausting and frustrating, and you had to schlep all that stuff around. However, you seem pretty nimble. How was it, overall, to raid the vendor’s pantries? Did you come up empty on anything? Was there anything you took, thinking that you’re not sure what to do with it — but you figured it out later?
When you are used to shopping for fresh food at framers markets, shopping in the back of a fast-food, fair truck is definitely a new experience. I knew right away that the vendors would not have specific ingredients I wanted or things that I was used to cooking with. This was the challenge, so we had to be forward thinking and embrace it.
I was seriously searching for roasted turkey legs – a raw turkey leg to be specific. My idea was to de-bone it, stuff it and serve it. However, the only turkey available at the fair was pre-cooked. This idea ended up turning into the frog legs. I knew I wanted to do a spin on a float, so I was happy to have found the root beer, but I didn’t know where it was going to go or fit in with my grouping. One part of the challenge was to do something on a stick, and I figured that the best way to get “root beer on a stick” was to turn it into a batter.
You look like a kid in a candy store when you see the enormous Outlaw Grill! What is so enticing about open flame? And did you get
burned by it like some of the other chefs did?
Believe it or not, I didn’t really put too many components directly on the grill. I had more things in pans. I did that on purpose. I learned from the first challenge that I did not when to leave to “chance” figuring out a new grill. I used the grill as more of a heat source versus the main thing to cook on. The grill was way too hot and I watched one by one people losing their ingredients all over the place. After we complained that the heat was too low, it went from 0 to 60 within minutes. One challenge here too was that it was very windy, just like the beach the first day.
The flavor of your food is dissed (by Donatella!) while your creativity is lauded. Were you shocked by this?
I think that out of the three dishes we had to make, I was really going for transformation with my burger. Donatella in particular did not get it, but the other two judges did not seem to have an issue with it. It was stated by one of the judges the week before that I did not follow the rules of the challenge, so I made sure this time that it transformation was clear. Maybe that is where it went wrong in Donatella’s mind? I had a root beer float transformed, chicken transformed and a bacon cheeseburger transformed. I really made sure that I paid attention to that direction.
You’re on top — but not *the* top. You don’t look psyched, but you didn’t make any catty comments about Chef Tio’s food as Canora did. What’s your take away from this episode in terms of almost getting the W? And, were you surprised that Estes was sent packing?
I was very confident with my food and I knew it was anybody’s game to win. Chef Tio’s food looked good to me, but unfortunately we did not get to taste each other’s food during this round. From looking at Chef Estes’s plate, I knew she was in trouble. The apple did not come out as she intended and it was obvious from looking at the texture. Chef Estes shirt reads, “support local food”. She lives on a farm and I think in particular for her, she was having a really tough working with these ingredients. We are all competitive and in the challenges to win. I didn’t think that I messed up, but when they tell you that you are on top, but you don’t hear your name declared the winner…you can’t help but be disappointed.