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Take Five with Chef Charles Phan, On His “Iron Chef America” Battle

With his outrageously popular Slanted Door restaurant, three Out the Door eateries, Heaven’s Dog, and the Academy of Sciences cafe — all of them in San Francisco — it’s hard to believe Chef Charles Phan has time to do much of anything else.

But somehow the 47-year-old chef, who’s ethnically Chinese and a native of Vietnam, found time to go mano-a-mano and burner-to-burner with Cat Cora on “Iron Chef America.”

Filmed in July 2008, that episode finally will air 10 p.m. Nov. 8.

I had a chance to talk with Phan yesterday about his surprising appearance on the show, given his aversion to doing TV.

Q: Ahem. So, I was witness to you saying on a panel in San Francisco earlier this year that you hate being photographed and you hate being on TV. So what gives?

A: Yeah, I do hate it. (laughs) But I kind of have to do it, because it’s my work. The Food Network approached me about doing it. It’s a national show and a chance to show off Vietnamese cooking.

Q: How did it go?

A: It was fine. I didn’t get too stressed out about it. I did the show with my chefs from Slanted Door. Getting the food plated was a challenge. We usually don’t plate individually like that. We normally serve family-style. So we were out of our realm a little bit. But it was OK.

Q: What surprised you most?

A: The judging comments. The judges show up before the dishes are even done. They’ll make a comment like, ‘I don’t like peanuts,’ or ‘I don’t like flying fish eggs normally.’ It kind of sets you up. It’s almost like it doesn’t matter any more what you cooked if they don’t like flying fish roe. You’re kind of stuck. That was my issue with some of the judges.

Hopefully, they are just saying that for drama, but actually have more of an open mind.

Q: Since you know Cora already, did that make the competition easier or harder?

A: I don’t know her that well actually.

Q: So did everything go smoothly during your battle?

A: Some of the teams were just more freaked out than others. The team that filmed before us — I can’t remember who it was now — had a big explosion. Someone had put a fire starter right on top of the grill. It was bad.

Our team was pretty calm. The only drama was that one of my chefs got whacked by a camera. She was turning around and he was turning around. I’m not sure if they edited it out. Fortunately, she was OK.

Q: Are you a fan of “Iron Chef”? Did you watch the show previously?

A: Yes, I watch it. My wife and kids were in the audience when I did the show. They were rooting me on. You’ll hear three kids in the background, screaming.

Q: I know you can’t say what the ‘secret ingredient’ was. But can you say if it was an Asian one?

A: No, it wasn’t. Not really. It’s like saying chicken is an Asian ingredient. It’s not like it was black bean sauce.

Q: Are you glad they chose the ingredient that they did?

A: No. It was a tough one.

Q: On “The Next Iron Chef,” Dominique Crenn of Luce in San Francisco ended up having to cook with sea cucumber. She had never tasted it and never cooked with it before. She ended up making it into a dessert with vanilla pudding.

A: Oh my god.

Q: What advice would you have given her about sea cucumber?

A: My advice is that you just need to take your time and look at each ingredient’s attributes and expose them. With sea cucumber, it’s just a piece of muscle. It’s gelatinous. It’s slimy. It has some flavor, but not a lot. The classic methods are to cook it with chicken and ginger in a clay pot, or with abalone in a brown sauce. You have to braise it in a pressure cooker.

Q: Sounds like you wouldn’t have been fazed if that had been your ingredient to battle with?

A: Actually, I wouldn’t have minded. It would be hard to have five unique dishes using it. But you don’t have to do dessert with it.

Q: Would you do this show or another TV chef competition again?

A: Yeah, I think so. Although, given my schedule, I shouldn’t. One is probably enough. It was kind of goofy.

More: My Q&A last year with Cat Cora

More: My Q&A this year with Dominique Crenn

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