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Wellesley's Ming Tsai sets pace on 'Iron Chef'

Posted by Sarah Thomas  October 7, 2010 08:55 AM

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"There's nine of us, and then there's him."

"He's the veteran. He deserves to win."

"Until he's gone, he's everyone's biggest competition."

In a cooking competition that attracts the apex predators of the American food world, you'd expect that kind of praise to go to a French-trained master in one of the great kitchens of New York City. But no. The chefs competing on The Next Iron Chef, one of the Food Network's most popular shows, had those words to say about a public television icon from Wellesley.

Food Network
Chef Ming Tsai.

Chef Ming Tsai, executive chef at Blue Ginger and winner of the first episode of this season's competition, is one of two Boston-area chefs competing this year. He is joined by Mary Dumont, executive chef at Harvest in Cambridge.

That makes Boston the second most represented city on the show, behind New York. And it coincides with what some are calling a national reassessment of Boston cuisine, as the palates of the rest of America catch up with what gourmets in the Hub have known for years.

"It's not the chefs that are changing. Boston chefs and Boston restaurants have long been at the ability level of any other city. It's the culture that's evolving," said Dumont. "There's more of a promotion, more of an organization. We're taking our place on the national stage."

Part of any ascendance in modern food must be a mastery in the realm of televised cooking, which can be as tricky as handling a well-honed santoku. With the proliferation of networks mostly or solely dedicated to food programming — three available in Boston-area cable packages alone — haute cuisine is making its way into America's hearts via their television screens.

And few chefs have been able to master the medium better than Tsai. One of the Food Network's inaugural talents, he is currently the host of Simply Ming on WGBH.

"I think that I was more comfortable with being in front of the camera from working on Simply Ming for the last eight seasons," Tsai said. "I also believe that my age and the fact that I have been cooking longer than most of the other finalists on The Next Iron Chef definitely improved my chances for success."

Iron Chef is the granddaddy of all cooking championships, and the American version of the show has been a huge hit for the Food Network since its 2004 premiere. The Next Iron Chef, a spin-off reality series, pits 10 successful chefs against each other in cooking challenges, eliminating them one by one. The format can be grueling, particularly for chefs used to setting their own hours and being the boss of their own kitchen.

Food Network
Chef Mary Dumont.

"My philosophy is to use locally sourced ingredients, and I've been a proponent of farm-to-table cuisine since long before it was a trend," Dumont said. "In the show, I don't have the ability to source my own ingredients, I just have to use what's there and still try to tell people who I am as a chef."

"The difficult part was releasing control over my schedule," Tsai said. "I think the last time someone else controlled my days was college."

In the premiere episode of the show, which aired Sunday on the Food Network, both Tsai and Dumont advanced to the second round. Tsai won the first episode's challenge, which involved cooking with tropical ingredients on a beachside grill. Tsai cooked a pork and clam alentejana, with a salad on the side.

"I thought it was a bold dish to make right out of the gate," said one of the judges, Michael Symon, in the competition. It also, perhaps inadvertently, honored the multiethnic food culture of Boston, where Portuguese and Brazilian restaurants serving traditional alentejanas are a common sight in neighborhoods like Inman and Union Squares in Somerville.

In an earlier part of the episode, Dumont also paid tribute to her New England heritage with a fried oyster sandwich on corn bread.

"Though Chef Tsai and I have very different cooking styles, we're both huge proponents of the food of the Boston area," Dumont said. "We really support what happens in New England.

"And of course, we're both huge Celtics fans."

Aside from a reverence for local ingredients, which both chefs mentioned, there are few similarities between the cuisine served at Harvest and Blue Ginger. And that's okay, at least according to Honor Lydon. Lydon is the executive editor of bostonchefs.com, a promotional organization that hosts Boston's annual Restaurant Week.

"It's hard to tease out a modern definition of what Boston food is," Lydon said. "Everyone's doing their own thing. But everyone knows it's not about beans and brown bread anymore, though occassionally a chef will give a nod to that. It's about regular Bostonians getting more and more experimental, and more appreciative of what local chefs are doing."

The next episode of The Next Iron Chef will air Sunday night at 9 p.m.

Sarah Thomas can be reached at sarah.m.thomas@gmail.com.

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