Five cute, smart, straight guys who like a good dinner party? All living in one place?
Welcome to “Iron Chef II,” a cook-off held on a recent evening in a brick two-story Carroll Gardens house whose occupants are the aforementioned five- some. Modeled on the cult Japanese TV show, in which two world-class chefs no one has ever heard of compete by cooking meals centered on secret ingredients like swallow’s nest or electric eel, “Iron Chef II” had its Brooklyn beginnings with five men in their late 20’s and early 30’s who found themselves living in a house with two kitchens and had a generational fondness for almost painfully self-conscious irony.
As the two “chefs”-friends of the roommates-labored in the upstairs and downstairs kitchens, the evening’s main host, a Columbia University Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature named Matt, balanced on a small metal chair on the cement terrace. He said that he often went out of his way to throw the perfect dinner party, then grasped his face with both hands, slumped and said: “I can’t believe that I just used the phrase ‘the perfect dinner party’! I sound like my mother, if she were the type of woman who threw dinner parties-which she is not .”
Matt looked like he could be Conan O’Brien’s cuter cousin: 6-foot-4, with bright red curly hair and a handsome mug. The street was decorated with American flags and frog lawn ornaments. The F train rumbled overground in the distance. As the 40-odd corduroy-clad partygoers wandered in, Matt welcomed them with a wave of his huge arm.
This was the second time the men had done the “Iron Chef” thing-at the first one, the secret ingredient had been artichokes. According to Jerry, a blond financial journalist with a toothy grin, some of the judges-friends selected on the basis of whether they really liked food-were “over- served .”
“Given that it was later in the night and some alcohol had been drunk, cheesy potatoes are just tasty ,” said Jerry. The night had ended in a tie.
This year, the secret ingredient was revealed early on. The guests recognized the intended humor, but didn’t seem too happy about it.
“It’s a débâcle ,” said Matt. “The ingredient is grapes.”
A third roommate-Ben, a slim, dark-haired Ph.D. candidate in philosophy-was wearing a blue shirt, khakis and flip-flops and smoking an all-natural cigarette, which he continuously dropped into a soup can, fished out and resumed smoking.
“I will admit,” he said, “when the first little dish towel came off to reveal two little things of red globe grapes, I was shocked, dismayed and negatively whelmed .”
“The choice of ingredient this year reflects an interest in a kind of clever approach to concept rather than content, ” added Matt.
Meanwhile, the man who had chosen the no-longer-secret ingredient-Scott, a sinewy bike-riding vegan-was lighting tea candles in the upstairs living room. He sported a small tattoo of an anchor on one bicep. “I’m a vegetarian,” he said, explaining why he’d chosen the grapes.
In the kitchen, Iron Chef “Newton, Massachusetts,” a childhood friend of Matt’s, intently stuffed a chicken full of grapes. His sous chef and girlfriend, a slim woman with corkscrew curls, diligently sliced green grapes. As the crowd of messy-haired young guests began to gather, the ease with which Newton socialized made Matt nervous. He was pulling for Newton to win; shouldn’t he have been devoting his time to cooking?
“If you can pull off that nice guy, easygoing thing, that would be epic ,” said Matt.
“It would be like a Beowulf thing,” said Ben.
” Very Beowulf,” said Matt.
Matt and Ben became distracted by the latest addition to their aquarium, a little gray elephant-nosed fish.
“My God,” Matt said, “it looks like a tiny dolphin !”
“No way,” said Ben. “It’s the waterbound twin of the goddamn humming -bird.”
Downstairs (which one partygoer described as “like my parents’ house”), Iron Chef “India”-who, though Indian by heritage, was born in Connecticut-was chopping, stirring and basting. In the next room, Jerry was deconstructing Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” for a blond investment banker who had just told him she was ashamed of her profession. “Eminem’s refusal to rap on beat shows his impotent rage,” said Jerry, as he played the song on a laptop computer.
As the minute hand ticked closer to the 9 p.m. deadline, the room got a little sweaty and somebody choked on a piece of pita bread.
The six judges, who were dressed in costumes that represented nothing in particular (a long blue dress, curtains, a bejeweled hat), took their seats at the front of the room, and the crowd cheered. Matt suddenly felt optimistic about the grapes. “Progression,” he said. “You gotta move a thing forward. You have a good thing and you think it’s a good thing, and you don’t risk and it stagnates. And you lose faith in life, in everything-and certainly in the event. So, we’re looking forward. Progress!”
The tasting began. Iron Chef Newton, Massachusetts and Iron Chef India had whipped up stuffed chickens full of grapes, bruschetta topped with grapes, poached pears and grapes. After each presentation, the crowd screamed and cheered. Jerry played suspenseful music on his laptop.
Iron Chef Newton, Massachusetts won. It might have been the grape ravioli, which tasted a lot like pasta stuffed with grape Jolly Rancher.
“That’s a function of the ingredient, not of the chef’s skill level,” said Matt as he chewed his ravioli. “This is something that simply ought not to exist .”
And the future?
“‘Iron Chef III’ will be in the spring,” said Matt. “We’re looking to have at least one female iron chef, so that’s important … maybe girl-on-girl action-we’re very progressive .”
-Justine van der Leun