In just a couple weeks, two brave culinary gladiators will be taking the stage for the first ever Seattle Weekly Chef Showdown, taking place during the Voracious Tasting & Seattle Weekly Food Awards event on April 14 at the Paramount Theatre. Seth Caswell of Emmer & Rye will be battling it out, mano a mano and pan-on-pan, with Jason Stratton from Spinasse, doing their Iron Chef best in a food fight of epic proportions. This is going to be straight-up Thunderdome shit, kids: Two men enter, one man leaves...
This is the only picture I could find of Caswell where he's wearing clothes...
And in anticipation of the upcoming contest, I decided it would be smart to have a few words with the competitors, see how they're holding up under the mounting pressure and try to get inside their heads a little. Caswell was the first one to return my call, so he gets the first pre-event interview.
"Never cooked competitively? Never cooked in front of a crowd?"
"No. Well, I mean, I've done some market demos." And he's also done a little TV cookin' in front of a studio audience, but as for slinging pans in front of a thousand drunk and bloodthirsty fans?
"You know, my first question when I was asked to do this was what time is it all happening?" Caswell was wondering whether or not he'd have time to sample some of the forty-restaurants-worth of grub down on the main floor. More importantly, he wanted to know if he'd have time to pour a few cocktails down his neck before he had to take the stage.
"So you're planning on getting drunk before the contest?" I asked.
"Well, maybe not drunk, but--"
"No! That's good." I insisted. "That's a wise decision."
After finding out that he was going to be given a student chef to act as his sous for the duration of the contest, his first question to me was whether or not he could use his backup as a lackey to fetch him drinks on stage. I assured Caswell that this was allowed under the rules, and after that, he seemed to calm down considerably.
I asked him how he was training for the event, and he told me that he's been watching marathons of Chopped on the Food Network and occasionally having his cooks at Emmer & Rye blindfold him and send him into the walk-in. Whatever he comes out with? That's what he has to make a dish from. Which explains the unusual specials I've been seeing on the Emmer & Rye menu lately. I mean, I'm as avant garde as the next guy, but Fricasse of Styrofoam Packing Insert with Seckle Pear, Nutella and Dishwasher's Secret Weed Stash in a Degreaser Jus? That's just weird...
"Okay, Seth. Now I'm going to give you some potential secret ingredients for the contest, and I want you to tell me what you'd make out of them. Got it?"
"First thing that comes to mind, right?"
"I'd go back to the roots by pureeing them and making a newer, stronger, better Chicken McNugget."
"So you'd use Chicken McNuggets to make...Chicken McNuggets?"
"Yeah, but better."
"So, like 6 Million Dollar Man McNuggets?"
"Exactly. Or maybe ice cream."
"That's awesome. Now what if I were to tell you that the secret ingredient was...Cotton candy!"
"Well, I'd... I'd probably go..."
"Tick tock tick tock."
"I'd probably pair it with geoduck, and maybe a good olive oil. Maybe olive dust, so you'd have sweet and salty and a little tang of the sea. So cotton candy over geoduck crudo with olive dust."
"Dude, you way over-thought that. The correct answer to all those questions was soup. Turtle soup, Chicken McNugget soup, cotton candy soup. Or maybe everything a la king."
"So you'd have to go all Grant-Achatz-at-Alinea then."
"Right. An empty bowl. I'd say, 'I'm serving to you the memory of cotton candy...'"
"You would totally win with that dish."
After that, we kinda got off on a Grant Achatz riff for a little bit, laughing and making jokes about cotton candy airs and McNugget foams, but I eventually steered us back to the interview, asking Caswell if he had any special, secret weapons he was planning on bringing to the competition.
"I'm actually thinking about walking in naked," he told me. "Nekkid, actually." Because when you spell it with K's it means you're not only unclothed, but up to something.
"That would totally freak out the competition," I told him. "Totally naked. Just boots and a chef's hat? That would certainly get the crowd in your corner."
Finally, I asked if he had any words for his esteemed opponent, Jason Stratton of Spinasse. Threats, promises, declarations of forbidden love.
"Yes," Caswell said, like he'd been practicing them for weeks. "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."