Now that Top Chef is over, I've got another professional chef showdown to discuss: Iron Chef. I'm a huge fan of not only the American version, but also the Japanese version that started it all. Recently, I had an opportunity to catch up with America's very first Kitchen Stadium winner, chef Ron Siegel, now the executive chef at The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco.
On a sunny morning I met with the chef in his kitchen, which recently launched a small bites and half bottles menu. I was taken by his humility — "I'm not doing a great service here," he told me, "I'm just cooking" — and his candidness. To see what else he had to say,
YS: How did winning Iron Chef change your life?
RS: When you're younger, you're not necessarily open-minded. I was younger, and set in my ways of cooking. Going to Japan introduced me to a lot of other influences. I don't watch TV. I haven't even seen Iron Chef in 10, 11 years. But I'm sure there are some great chefs; there are great chefs everywhere.
YS: How would you describe your style of cooking?
RS: It's very simple — everything is made based on what's available. The menu changes every day, and the farmers market sets the tone. The preparation is similar, but the garnishes may change. [Points to fruit he's cutting.] These are pineapple guavas from my neighbor — I gave his kids a ride, so he told me to take them. I don't know what I'm going to do with them, but they have a great smell.
YS: Who are your culinary influences?
RS: Thomas Keller, George Morrone, and Daniel Boulud. When I worked for Thomas Keller as his opening sous chef [at The French Laundry], it was crazy, long hours. But I've learned a lot; I've learned about perfection. And Julia Child. She wasn't some hottie; she just knew how to make great food. But she probably couldn't get a show now.
YS: How has food changed since you first started cooking?
RS: In the '70s, everyone was smoking and drinking. People are definitely lighter these days. They don't want something that's going to make them feel bad at the end of the day. Also, people want to be who they are — they don't want to have to put on a suit to go out for a good meal.
YS: What's your advice for the home cook?
RS: Work on your knife skills! It's all about practicing until you get better at it. Going to the farmers market is a great way to understand seasonality and introduce yourself to things. If you go every week for two years, you're going to know what's in season and what's not. Don't rush cooking food. It's a labor of love, like what I'm doing now [running chicken stock until it comes out clear]. Home cooks can bring that same passion to their food. It's a lot of time, and a lot of work. I'm not sure how I feel about those 30-minute meals.