Photo: Kelsey McNeal / Bravo
We have to admit: It's more than a little hard to keep all the renowned chefs of America and their various TV appearances straight. It's getting to the point where, if you're lucky enough to be able to dine in a big city, you're liable to be greeted by the same person who you saw whipping up calamari with Kathie Lee & Hoda in the morning, getting eliminated from a rerun of The Next Iron Chef in the afternoon, and cruelly critiquing young upstarts on Top Chef D.C. in the evening.
Such is the case with Maria Hines of Seattle's renowned Tilth. Okay, so we didn't get to dine at Tilth Sunday night, and it's been a while since she graced the airwaves on Top Chef Masters. But we've missed her bold, distinctly northwestern (not to mention organic and local) flavor profiles, unpretentious plating, and utterly cool, laid-back demeanor. In just a couple short episodes, she became our number-one summer chef crush.
So while we were eagerly awaiting her face-off with Chef Morimoto on Iron Chef America this weekend, we did so with a lump in our throats: Really, does anyone other than the reigning Iron Chef win? Sure, there are a few token wins to reassure us that the whole thing isn't rigged, but surely, pairing up Hines with seafood whiz Morimoto was a "better luck next time" kind of move on the part of the producers.
Not so fast. While Alton Brown took every opportunity to gush over Morimoto's acrobatic techniques with the evening's secret ingredient, Pacific Cod, we know Hines to be a sly competitor, one to pull a rabbit out of her proverbial hat at just the right moment.
And so it was this week. Morimoto worked his usual pan-Asian pyrotechnics: Grinding cod into a paste and then turning it into fish noodles -- served up in a cod broth, no less. Then there was his pièce de résistance, a cod sashimi of sorts, ever so lightly smoked in an "ice smoker," a contraption that, if memory serves, was last seen in the Narnia trilogy: a giant block of ice with multiple chambers that allow burning wood to infuse, ever so slightly, cuts of cod that sit above.
It was all in the name of keeping the fish from getting "mushy," which is why this particular cod doesn't generally make good sashimi, Morimoto explained. According to the judges, it still didn't. The criticisms didn't end there: The master's fish and chips -- cod batter-dipped in Morimoto-brand ale, served atop a bread bowl of chowder with Morimoto's initials burned into it, next to a cod "chip" presented atop a wire chair -- was seen as "gimmicky." It also provided guest judge Julie White with the night's best line: "What's up with the Barbie chair?!"
Meanwhile, as Brown dissed Hines for waiting until the last minute to prepare her cod, she was plotting a stealthy counterattack. Her presentations were nowhere near as elaborate as Morimoto's, to be sure. Her paprika smoked cod, served cool next to some flageolets, was praised as the kind of dish you dream of finding behind a deli counter but never do.
A sous-vide cod on top of a lone fried green tomato, adorned with heirloom puree and tomato broth with tapioca pearls, looked as vivid as we imagined it tasting. Her other two presentations of the fish -- one with the skin on, one bathed in balsamic and cooked on alder wood -- were the kinds of deceptively simple dishes that need an expert's hand to guide them to greatness.
Greatness, it seems is what Hines achieved. When all the scores were in, she aced Morimoto handily on the most important count, taste, and walked away with the trophy, stunned. Praising her unique palate, her culinary sleight of hand, her "confidence" above all, the judges were met with a response that was pure, unassuming Hines: "I felt like i wanted to throw up the entire time."