We are in the countdown phase right now: just days away from the first ever Seattle Weekly Chef Showdown taking place at the Voracious Tasting and Seattle Weekly Food Awards this Wednesday at the Paramount Theatre. If you haven't got your tickets yet, what can I say? You're an idiot. $25 for all you can eat (from forty-odd different restaurants) and all you can drink (from several bars and ten of Seattle's top cocktail slingers), and getting to see these two titans battle it out on stage in front of a thousand crazed and bloodthirsty foodistas? That's the best deal of the year, kids. And since ticket prices go up to $35 if you buy 'em at the door, unless you've got unbreakable plans or are currently under lockdown in some sort of maximum security facility, buying your tickets right now is probably a really good idea. I'm just sayin'...
But enough of that. Last week, I interviewed contestant #1: Seth Caswell from Emmer & Rye--trying to get inside his head a little just to see what makes him tick and to see whether or not he had any secret plans to swing the competition in his direction. The answer? Yes he did. It involved turtle soup and nudity. But Caswell is going to have to really bring his A game on Wednesday night because he's going to be going up against Jason Stratton of Spinasse, who's coming off a serious ego-high after just being named one of the ten best young chefs in the nation by Food & Wine magazine.
I know. That's Big Time, right? And my very first question for Stratton was whether or not he's going to be riding that wave straight onto the stage at the Paramount by showing up to the fight in, like, a crown and ermine robes or something. Or perhaps some sort of chef's jacket made completely out of the glossy F&W covers with his smiling mug on it.
"Probably not," Stratton told me. "But I've got some red leather hi-top sneakers. Maybe I'll be rocking those."
Cool as a pair of red leather kicks might be, that's obviously not the same thing at all, but I tried to keep the disappointment out of my voice as we continued.
I asked Stratton if he'd ever done anything like this before--cooking in front of a crowd, under the gun, with everyone just waiting for him to fuck up and humiliate himself. And this is where he was able to one-up Caswell (who admitted to not really having any experience that would prepare him for out little culinary Thunderdome). See, Stratton just finished shooting an episode of "Chefs vs. City" for the Food Network--that food scavenger hunt show which drops hosts Aaron Sanchez and Chris Cosentino into a strange city (in this case, our strange city) and has them battling it out with two local chefs (in this case, Stratton and his sous Carrie Mashaney) to find...I don't know. The hottest chili or the biggest clam or something like that. I had to admit that I'd never seen the show, but that experience did have Stratton running around like an idiot with a camera following him and working under extreme time pressure--both of which will be good training for the Chef Showdown.
And not only did he just wrap that, but he's also got plenty of event cooking under his belt. "Feeding 800 people in front of a crowd," he mused, knocking out the grub while having to talk about his dish and pose for pictures and all that. "That's kind of the same thing, right? Cooking in front of bloodthirsty, hungry people?"
I asked him if he's been doing anything to train for his upcoming battle, and he said no. Nothing at all. Where Caswell has been boning up (heh...boning) on his technique, watching marathons of Food Network cooking competition shows and having his crew send him blindfolded into the walk-in like some kind of food Jedi to pick out ingredients for nightly specials, Stratton has been so busy with his regular job (cooking at Spinasse) and his other commitments (being on TV, flying out to New York for the Food & Wine coronation ceremony), that he has had no time to prepare.
"It's been so crazy," he told me. "I've been getting like three hours of sleep a night." He said that, even now, days away from the competition, he's been suffering from massive sleep deprivation. His only hope? "I'm thinking that maybe the delirium will help me be inspired."
Well, that and the two tabs of blotter he'll be dropping before the start of competition. Since Caswell already said he plans on refusing to take the stage until his sous for the night brings him many cocktails from the bar, Stratton had better be planning on some sort of chemical stimulus to the old gray matter. Otherwise, I'm worried he's going to fall asleep in his brulee.
We moved on to the lightning round after that: a quick-fire list of possible secret ingredients and what Stratton would do with them. The first: Cheez Whiz.
"Oh, man..." said Stratton, a little sluggish off the blocks. "See, this is where the sleep deprivation isn't helping."
After a bit of hemming and hawing, though, the chef did come up with an interesting idea: Cheez Whiz brittle.
And by "interesting" I mean totally gross. I'll eat a lot of things. I'm like that kid on the playground in third grade who'd eat anything for a dollar. But Whiz brittle? I don't think anyone would be taking home the prize with that.
Still, Stratton rallied as we moved forward. When offered Pop Rocks as a secret ingredient, he came up with something right away: a chocolate truffle rolled in lemon Pop Rocks just like one he'd eaten while touring through Spain. "I might just straight rip that one off," he told me, and I said YES! That's exactly what we're looking for in our chef-testants--a total lack of morals and ethics. You have to be cutthroat when it comes to a competition like this. Lying, stealing, cheating (so long as you don't get caught) ought to be the watchwords of any future competitor taking the stage.
And then, when presented with Soylent Green as a potential secret ingredient, Stratton just rolled with it, pushed the boundaries one step further and went right to cannibalism. His idea? "The Gaucho"--a carne cruda of chopped raw people in a Soylent Green bouillon. That right there is a winning dish, and evidence of the kind of quick-thinking necessary to surviving in the Seattle Weekly's kitchen stadium.
Soylent Green is people!
When asked if there was any special, secret weapon or tactic he would be employing to delight the crowds and shock the palates of the judges, Stratton (wisely) said, "I don't know if I want to give those away. They're supposed to be secret, right?"
And then he went on to tell me precisely what he'd be doing anyway, talking of immersion blenders and ice cream makers, agar agar and prized, personal ingredients he wanted added to the pantry. When I told him about chef Caswell's plan to show up naked--in nothing but clogs and a chef's toque, Stratton dissolved into laughter. "I'm a chef, man. I've seen a lot of stuff. I don't think that would throw me."
Finally, I asked if he wanted to talk any smack about Caswell in advance of their showdown, reminding him that Caswell had already laid down the gauntlet.
"Did you read the first interview?" I asked.
"Did you see what Seth [Caswell] had to say?"
"Well I'm going to read it again anyway. He said: 'Jason had better take a look at a map of Seattle. He may be at the top of Capitol Hill, but I'm at the top of Queen Anne Hill and we're a lot higher.' How's that make you feel, Jason?"
"I don't know... Queen Anne versus Cap Hill? Seth better watch out. I'm born and bred here. I'm gonna have the crowd behind me. And you know, it's like West Side Story. If it comes down to it, we'll just have a dance-off. Seth doesn't have a chance."
Dance-off, eh? I think we just found our competition for next year...