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Ron Siegel seems destined to forever
Honolulu Wine Festival & AuctionFriday's dinner with Ron Siegel and Hiroshi Fukui was the first event in a two-part fund-raiser for the Lupus Foundation of America, Hawaii Chapter. Part 2 is a wine-tasting:
Benefit event: 5:30 p.m. Saturday
Place: Dole Cannery Ballrooms
Featuring: Seafood dishes by chefs Russell Siu, George Mavrothalassitis, Doug Lum, Phillippe Padovani, Hiroshi Fukui, Alan Wong, "Santa" Miyoshi, D.K. Kodama, Elmer Guzman, Colin Nishida, Scott Okamoto and Dean Okimoto
Ticket: $75 advance; $100 at door
And yet, what is the notation in every item ever written about him? He was the first American to reign supreme on Japan's "Iron Chef."
That was in 1998, a moment that still lives -- in reruns.
"The show will come on and somebody'll come in and they'll say, 'I just saw you!' -- and they'll freak out. It's kind of awkward when you think about it."
Siegel has been in town for just a few days, to cook for last Friday night's Lupus Foundation benefit dinner. As if to put an exclamation point on the visit, his "Battle Lobster" episode airs once again on "Iron Chef" at 8 p.m. Wednesday on the Food Network.
You can never outrun your past.
Siegel says he was picked for the show when the producers were looking for a San Francisco champion. After eating at his restaurant, they offered him the slot. "I'm like, 'Thanks, but no thanks,' and it really upset them."
He'd never heard of "Iron Chef," which at that time aired only on Japanese-language stations in the United States. So they gave him some tapes.
"I watched it and I said, 'I'm definitely not going. But then I thought, 'Who's going to see it? It's in Japan.' "
Inside Kitchen Stadium, his assistants spoke no English, so he yelled at his interpreter, who yelled at them, and it was made all the more intimidating because cooking against him was the formidable Hiroyuki Sakai, the Iron Chef French, who hardly ever loses.
At judgment time, his dishes were well-received, he recalls, save one: a lobster dish with ravioli, abalone and sweetbreads. "When I was being judged, they're talking to me in Japanese and I had no idea what they're saying. My interpreter is telling me what they're saying and they're ripping this dish, and I'm like, 'Wow, this is my best dish.' ...
"And yet it all worked out, because every dog has its day."
The victory was great for business at Charles Nob Hill, but affected him in many other ways. Before visiting Japan, "I was very one-way. I wasn't as open to different techniques and ingredients."
Fresh wasabe, yuzu and masutake mushrooms all have a place on his current menu, but more important is the matter of philosophy picked up in Japan. "What really opened me up to them is that their theory is investing in the best product as possible and being as simple as possible with it."
Not that you should ever consider a Ron Siegel dish to be simplistic.
For his dinner Friday at Hiroshi Eurasion Tapas, he prepared a specialty, Slow-Cooked Pork Belly, with grilled Asian pear, young ginger, scallions and sweet-sour sauce.
The pork must cook for 24 hours, using the French technique of sous vide -- under vacuum -- at very low heat, about 136 degrees.
As he arrived in Honolulu just a day before the dinner, Siegel did most of his pre-cooking in his San Francisco kitchen.
This was necessary, Siegel says, not only because of time constraints, but because his personal organizational skills are a bit lacking.
"I'm never one that was good at writing or taking notes or packing, so usually I forget six or seven major things," he says. "I'd be the worst caterer. If I catered your wedding, I'd forget the cake or something.
"I guess I must really like to be stressed out."
This little organizational thing has always been a problem -- "I was not very good at school" -- but he found refuge in the world of food, beginning with a job in a butcher shop in high school.
In the kitchen, he has no problems focusing, Siegel says, and the chance to cook and create is ever stimulating.
"I enjoy being around food. I really love it.