Eric Greenspan, the chef-owner of the Foundry on Melrose, has cooked a lot of unusual fare in his day, but there he was, looking down at a platter piled high with this Asian delicacy. With the clock ticking, he needed to figure out not one, but two dishes in which to feature the crunchy little critters.
What better way to judge whether Greenspan has what it takes to become "The Next Iron Chef"?
Season 2 of the popular Food Network competition kicks off Sunday night and takes place in L.A., making the most of the city's international culinary reach. It was shot in a studio just outside downtown, not all that far from the Foundry.
FOR THE RECORD:
Cooking competition: An article in Saturday's Calendar section about the second season of "The Next Iron Chef" said chef Eric Greenspan is 43. He is 34. —
Greenspan, 43, was sequestered in a hotel during the weeks-long shoot along with fellow competitors, including Northern California's Nate Appleman, the James Beard-award-winning "rising star" and East Coast chef Amanda Freitag, a frequent guest judge on "Chopped." (Based upon our early look at the premiere, you might want to keep the TiVo remote handy so you can relish Freitag's legendary scowls as she experiences what it's like to be on the other side of the table.)
Being the hometown kid gave Greenspan one distinct advantage: "I was the only one in the group who had a car," he said. As a result, he became the L.A. ambassador.
"I took them to places like Langer's. We went out for noodles in downtown. It's always fun to show off the diversity that L.A. has to offer . . . but it's weird to be sequestered in your own town."
The winner of "The Next Iron Chef" goes on to join an elite crew of Iron Chefs that includes Cat Cora, Bobby Flay and Michael Symon (who won Season 1 of "The Next Iron Chef.")
For the uninitiated, “Iron Chef” is a spin-off of a Japanese TV cooking competition, pitting comers against battle-tested veterans. Each show has a dollop of kitsch -- the sound effects that accompany the limber Chairman as he unveils the week's "mystery" ingredient, for one -- but mostly there is frantic cooking.
The Chairman kicks off the series in equally over-the-top style, intoning: "I have summoned you to the City of Angels . . . because you are Gods of the Kitchen!"
Host Alton Brown, taking a break as Day 1 shooting began in the spring, said the challenges are designed to reveal the inner mind of the chef -- necessary to determine whether they have what it takes to enter the hallowed Kitchen Stadium as an Iron Chef.
"It's the ultimate test. They're all given the same exact task. What they do with it is up to them."
Brown, who weaves his way among the frantic competitors, asking "Whatcha doing" in a manner so cloyingly sweet that it wouldn't be a surprise if he gets hit in the head with a frying pan, said the pressure is almost fragrant.
"I'm just glad it's not me," Brown quipped.
Greenspan said he was surprised to find that the pressure of the competition doesn't really compare with the stress of running one of the city's highest-profile restaurants.
"I would say that the hardest part is that that hour is a real hour, and that's rough. The trick is knowing which corners to cut, because you've got to cut corners. You cannot cook everything with perfect technique, and perfect execution, because you just don't have the time to do it.
"If that were the case, I would be able to show up at work at 5 in the afternoon each night instead of 10 in the morning."