COURTESY TONY LIU"You don't even focus on your competitor because you're so focused on making and preparing your dishes. You're just blinded by the whole vision of getting your food up."
Chef Tony Liu
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Chef finds TV cooking frenzy is no act
Tony Liu competes on the Food Network's "Iron Chef America"
You'd never know that up-and-coming New York chef Tony Liu is a local boy at heart. Until you listen to his mild-mannered, modest speaking style.
He put green peppers on his menu because they remind him of visiting Shirokiya in his younger years. "Food is such a strong memory for anybody," Liu said recently from his West Village restaurant after he finished service in the middle of the night. "Cooking always comes from the heart."
The 1992 Kaiser High School graduate, born and raised on Oahu, opened his restaurant, August, in 1994. Though he and his restaurant garnered attention when the New York Times published a review, millions of people are getting to know him this week as he challenges Mario Batali on the Food Network's "Iron Chef America," a dream come true for Liu.
"I watch 'Iron Chef' religiously," Liu said. "I'm a fan."
So how was he selected for a show he once believed was out of reach?
It turns out that the director of "Iron Chef" enjoys the food and intimate atmosphere of the 55-seat August. On one of his visits, Liu started "lipping off" to the server about what he could do on the show. The server gracefully conveyed the message. The director told the server: "Tell your chef to send us his resume."
He did. Liu, who lists his favorite foods as peaches, goat roti and oxtails, attended Kapiolani Community College's culinary school before graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in New York City. He worked at several notable restaurants in New York, such as Tabla, before opening his own.
The "Iron Chef" producers liked him, and shot the episode in September 2006.
"It was fun and exhilarating," said Liu. "You don't even focus on your competitor because you're so focused on making and preparing your dishes. You're just blinded by the whole vision of getting your food up."
Viewers might not be aware of the most challenging details. "You don't know the kitchen that well," he said. Though support staff members offer prompting, "you're not fully comfortable knowing where all the equipment is, and the camera people get right in your face, and there are times when you're stumbling over the cables."
Functioning efficiently in an unfamiliar environment matters because all your dishes must be presented in an hour or less to meet the time restraints of the show. No exceptions. Typical TV tricks don't apply here. It really is just one hour of cooking fine cuisine as fast as you can.
Liu said he and two fellow chefs from his restaurant practiced four times in August's small kitchen, which is divided by stairs. They went several minutes over. "So we were very stressed," he admitted.
But they told themselves to think confidently and positively when the big day arrived. Without stairs in the mix -- and the excitement of the actual competition fueling them -- they finished with three minutes to spare.
How badly did he want to win?
"No one goes there to lose!" he said. "It's serious stuff. But it's pretty tough to win, actually."
Liu married a woman from New Jersey and has a 6-month-old son, whom he cares for in the mornings before leaving for work at 11 a.m. He usually finishes around 1 a.m. Visiting family in Honolulu will always be a top priority, but he plans to stay in New York.
"I've grown, and I think I've found out who I am, and I'm happy here at August," he said. "The quality is still there, but it's a little more casual. The price is not as high. It's more of a neighborhood place. I think everybody should have an opportunity to have great food. Why should it be reserved for rich people?"