Filipina White House cook wins 'Iron Chef'

by Rodney J. Jaleco, ABS-CBN North America

Posted at Jan 04 2010 05:26 PM | Updated as of Jan 05 2010 09:10 PM

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Everyone knows that Cristeta Comerford, the first-ever Filipino-American White House Executive Chef, feeds the most powerful people in the world.

But she also got a chance to prove her culinary mettle against some of the world's most skilled chefs.

Comerford joined forces with "Iron Chef" Bobby Flay to compete with "super chef" Emeril Lagasse and "Iron Chef" Mario Batali in a special season-opening episode of the top-rated cooking show Iron Chef America.

Iron Chef America is a spin-off from the hit Japanese cooking show called Iron Chef that got a small but dedicated following even in Manila.

The show's concept basically involves pitting the country's top chefs against each other in a time-pressure cook-off challenge using a secret ingredient.

After a frenetic hour of creating dishes that one judge described as "not of this world", the Comerford-Flay team emerged victorious.

Comerford not only won esteem but also became the first White House chef to compete in Iron Chef America.

Super Chef battle

The "Iron Chef" episode featured some of America's leading culinary experts.

Cristeta Comerford joined the White House kitchen as assistant chef during the Clinton administration.

She was promoted as Executive Chef by former First Lady Laura Bush in 2005, and reappointed by Mrs. Obama in 2009 because of her dish's emphasis on healthy cuisine.

Comerford earned her Bachelor of Science in Food Technology diploma from the University of the Philippines and has 26 years of culinary experience in kitchens from Washington D.C. to Chicago, and from Austria to France.

She lives in Columbia, Maryland with husband John (also a chef) and 7-year-old daughter named Danielle, who has reportedly showed signs of following in her parents' footsteps.

Bobby Flay, meanwhile, is no stranger to the White House. A Food Network mainstay since 1994, he is also resident chef and lifestyle correspondent for CBS's "The Early Show."

He was invited by the White House to grace Father's Day activities last year, where he offered some unsolicited barbecuing advice to President Obama.

Fast-talking Emil Lagasse is a familiar face to audiences here and in the Philippines. Although he works mainly out of New Orleans in Louisiana, Lagasse helps run 10 restaurants spread across the America.

Mario Batali is known for his Mediterranean dishes that are the staple of his show "Molto Mario" that also airs on the Food Network.

On the show, set in the imposing Kitchen Stadium, participants are given an hour to create 5 dishes that are judged for taste (10 points), originality (5 points) and presentation (5 points).

Rich crops

If one thing stood out during the Iron Chef America episode, it was the rich variety of crops from the White House garden: fennels, collard greens, kale, rhubarbs, broccoli, watermelon and icicle radish, purple cauliflower and Japanese eggplant, among others.

The Lagasse and Batali dishes comprised of a scallop with radish and fennel salad; an oyster and salad trio featuring several White House greens; sweet potato and ricotta ravioli; a succulent lardo-wrapped quail and turkey wrapped rice and spinach duet; and dessert of sweet corn beignet with an orange liquor-spiked chicory coffee.

Comerford and Flay countered with dishes featuring a fennel and apple salad with oyster; garden salad with lobster and crispy squid; a delightful broccoli clam chowder (that Mrs. Comerford said was Filipino-inspired); a 7-vegetable All-American barbecue dish that incorporated grilled pork, collard greens tamale, cauliflower cheese, and pickled watermelon radish.

For the coup de grâce (deathblow), Comerford and Flay served up a meringue sweet potato tart.

"I told her don't be afraid to use her Filipino background, which have a lot of flavors there," Flay said of Comerford.

Following suit, Comerford tried to infuse ginger, lemongrass and other herbs to bring the best out of the vegetables, which she has often pointed out, is the building block of many traditional Filipino dishes.

Comerford said in a statement that her Filipino heritage made her better equipped to meet the challenge of feeding the Obama family a healthy diet.

The Super Chef Battle panel of judges was composed of cookbook author and chef Nigella Lawson, Olympic gold medal swimmer Natalie Coughlin, and actress Jane Seymour.

The competing duos actually tied in the taste category, but Comerford and Flay scored higher in the presentation and originality categories.

Healthy eating

US First Lady Michelle Obama (center) with the cast of Iron Chef America's latest episode. From L-R: Bobby Flay, Cristeta Comerford, Iron Chef America host Alton Brown, Mario Batali and Emil Lagasse. Photo from the Food Network.

However, the real winner of the show appeared to be First Lady Michelle Obama's crusade for healthy eating and backyard gardens.

Mrs. Obama made a brief appearance to welcome the chefs and make her pitch for a pet project called the Healthy Kids Initiative that aims to reduce childhood obesity through improved school lunches, farmers market, community gardens and exercise.

Obama was the first presidential wife to appear in a reality show. Mrs. Obama also revealed the secret ingredient on the show--vegetables from the White House garden-- for what was dubbed the "Super Chef Battle."

The secret ingredient is usually unveiled by the show's "Chairman" Mark Dacascos.

"Mrs. Obama's message to cook and eat fresh food encouraged us to create this historic battle," said Bruce Seidel, Senior Vice President for Programming of the Food Network, in a statement.

One of the First Lady's first acts after moving into the White House was establishing a fruit and vegetable garden in a corner of the South Lawn.

The "kitchen garden" has become the chief source of ingredients for the presidential dinner table and the White House has given away 1,000 pounds of excess produce to charity. Report by Rodney Jaleco, ABS-CBN North America. Photos from the Food Network.