Chef Kevin Naderi of Roost is the retired Iron Fork competition champion after having won four years in a row at the Houston Press Menu of Menus® Extravaganza. It’s not the only cooking competition he's won, but it’s an accomplishment of which he is especially proud.
“Doing it by myself against two chefs every year [a chef and a sous chef] has been pretty interesting. Randy Rucker [chef at Bramble and Naderi’s competitor last year] is the only one who went against me one-on-one. I think that’s a big accomplishment in and of itself. I’ve done several TV shows that I can’t comment on yet. Those have been great too, but winning in your hometown when your parents are there and it’s live is a lot more energetic," he said.
Obviously, he has a special talent when it comes to head-to-head cooking battles, and he agreed to share his tips on how chefs can best set themselves up for a win. This year, chefs Lyle Bento of Southern Goods and Jean-Philippe Gaston of Izakaya are the competitors, while Chris Shepherd of Underbelly will be the emcee. While some of these tips are specific to Iron Fork, many are applicable to any type of cooking competition, including on TV shows such as Food Network's Chopped.
Before Iron Fork, chefs are given a list of three or four ingredients that might be required. There are always secret ones thrown into the mix, though, and the chefs can’t prepare for those. “Always come in with a plan,” advises Naderi. “Don’t show up and say, ‘Oh, I’ve got this.’ Take every single ingredient they give you and make a menu. Make that the star of the dish. Don’t just put it on the dish and say, ‘Oh, I used it.’ You definitely have to make it the star of everything you do. That was always my main focus.”
Naderi also emphasized the importance of good time management. “That clock ticks really, really quickly, so don’t fumble. Do your basics first. Get your mise en place in order. Make sure your cutting board is there and your knives are all set. Five minutes before the competition, while everybody is talking, I was slowly putting my stuff where it needs to be. I cranked up the boiling water so if I have to blanch anything, I’m good to go. My pans are always hot,” he said.
At the Iron Fork competition, chefs are required to make three courses in a limited amount of time and there have to be three platings of each — one for each judge. Naderi said there has been a relationship between the secret ingredient and the main ingredients. “They’re not going to throw pineapple and foie gras at you or something crazy like that,” he said. “They always go hand-in-hand. It works well.”
There’s another wrench thrown into the competition: a distracting emcee. Naderi says, “[Bento and Gaston] will need to work around Chris talking to them. People will stop what they’re doing and start talking or get frustrated. If you get frustrated from someone trying to interact with you, you’ll start fumbling. I’ve seen certain competitors push the emcee out of the way and say, ‘Get away, I’m busy.’ You’ve got to be able to multitask and delegate. We’re not line cooks anymore. If you bring a sous chef, give them a plan. Keep your head in the game.”
Naderi also recommends ensuring that chefs make enough of each dish — but not too much — to provide a proper portion size to each judge. “It’s easy for us [chefs] to do mass quantities, but if you’re only cooking enough for three people, don’t take the whole ten pounds of pork sausage and start cooking it all. That makes no sense. It’s not going to be done in time.”
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Another key to winning competitions is to stick with what you know. “It’s cool to be creative, but don’t step out of the box too much,” advised Naderi. “[The judges] aren’t going to get it, you’re going to lose the secret ingredient and if it’s not your style, don’t mess with it. I don’t go in there doing foams and crazy stuff. I’m not making spheres out of this and that. Do what you know and put a fun twist on it, but don’t try to build a wedding cake in 20 minutes.”
As he’s gained age and experience, Naderi has steered away from pre-competition trash-talking. “When I was younger, during the first two years of Roost [Naderi's restaurant], I’d tell people, ‘Oh, I’m going to beat you,” and this and that. It’s scary if you lose because then you look like an idiot. Just be humble about it and try your hardest. Keep your cool.”
As a new Iron Fork judge, Naderi will be able to evaluate the competitors’ dishes from a chef’s perspective. “I’ll understand where they intended for the dish to go and where it ended up being.” He says he’ll also be looking at whether time was used wisely. “I’m going to be offended if someone just throws a salad together. As chefs, we’re better than that. Technique is a big thing. Flavor, too, obviously, and I want something that flows and makes sense.”
The 2016 Iron Fork competition will be held on April 5 from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Houston Press Menu of Menus Extravaganza at Silver Street Station, 1500 Silver Street. (VIP ticketholders will get into the event an hour early.)