If you think the contestants on TV’s MasterChef are under pressure, you want to attend the OTG ‘Iron Chef’ competition at the airport restaurateur’s annual Business Partner Trade Show (currently on in Nassau, the Bahamas, and to which I gave the keynote address at the day one conference).
Like the American television series of the same name, OTG’s twist on the Iron Chef theme involves a cook-off under time pressure. But whereas the TV version involves two chefs going head-to-head over one hour, this one was fought out between teams from OTG’s various airport restaurants, who had just 15 minutes to select their ingredients (including a secret component, pork loin, hidden from view till the last second), decide on their dish, cook it and present it plated to the four-person judging panel. Not only that, they also had to produce a world-class burger in the same time frame.
“No pressure then,” as OTG Founder & CEO Rick Blatstein told them.
[Gird your loins: As the chefs and guests look on, the ingredients are shown on the table with the secret component, pork loin, still hidden]
I was privileged to be one of the judges – surely the only foodie judge in the world expected to sample six culinary concoctions and six burgers in around five minutes frenzied assessment time who doesn’t have a stomach…
[Grab and go: 15 minutes and counting...]
“Eat slowly,” my doctors told me after my operation in 2010. For a few minutes in culinary wonderland I had to dispense with that advice, sampling each and every delight while judging them on criteria such as presentation, taste and creativity.
While all this cooking and tasting was going on, four OTG mixologists were shaking (and stirring) things up in the simultaneous ‘Iron Bartender’ competition, where once more they had to use a secret ingredient.
Once the chefs and mixologists were under starting orders, all hell broke loose, beginning with a rush to the ingredients (ranging from Yucca to Vermont chocolate for the dishes; agave to Bourbon for the cocktails) and then the beginning of the great creative process.
Watching the six cooking teams squeezed on to the stage, I remarked to Rick Blatstein that it must be difficult working in such space constraints. “No, this is the biggest kitchen space they’ll ever work in!” he replied, reminding me of the very real physical limits on cooking in most airport restaurants.
What followed was an exemplary example of team work. I got up real close and personal with all six teams, taking in the marvellous aromas, watching in wonder the skill and flair of a series of individuals who all worked in perfect, mostly silent, harmony, sometimes with the odd joke piercing the pressure bubble. “Five minutes to go Chefs!” barked the compere. This was pressure cooker stuff, made all the more intense by being watched in an open kitchen by a big crowd of enthralled guests.
The results were a thing of wonder. There’s a whole lot of creativity, class and commitment out there in the OTG network. Little wonder that the company has taken the airport foodie world by storm in recent years with its commitment to innovation, investment and new technology. Team McCormick from Washington DCA was judged the ultimate winner for a brilliantly presented, glorious tasting main dish and a burger that just melted in the mouth. But it was a close-run thing and any one of the offers would have graced any high-quality downtown restaurant.
I chose a light, jammy MacMurray Pinot Noir (owned by Gallo) from the Russian River Valley to accompany the dishes (perfect with the pork and a good Pinot always works with a rare to medium-rare burger). But just a sip or two into it, I was forced to change choice of tipple as four incredibly varied (one’s glass was presented in a sock) technicolour cocktails were presented to me. Another (pictured below) even came in a single steel container with a straw for each judge and an accompanying iPhone so that the judges could order another (OTG is the pioneer of using iPads in gate rooms to order meals for delivery).
The winning cocktail (below) from a young mixologist wunderkind called Theo Lieberman contained agave and grated cinnamon and rates as one of the best cocktails I have tried in years.
[Cooking up a storm: With the winning chefs]
Like a top-class cocktail, my working life as a travel retail Publisher has many elements. Yesterday here they all came together to perfection, leaving me stirred not shaken, alive to the magic power of possibility. In the evening I dined at the wonderfully named Poop Deck in Nassau, where I dined out on the balcony (tasted a bit woody, frankly) and ate the biggest, best-cooked snapper (reminds me of an joke about Hannibal Lector eating a photographer but let’s not go there) of my life, washed down with a glass or three of chilled KWV Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa – an irresistible combination. Life simply doesn’t get much better.
Well… hold on… take a look below at the view from The Moodie Report Interim Nassau Bureau. Correction. Life just did.
[Digital signage: There were plenty of other events going on yesterday at the Atlantis Royal. Deciding I might be too squeamish for the American Association for Hand Surgery's 'joint meeting', I headed instead for the OTG show, which was handy enough]