Short Relief: It's time for a Forest City food fight

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I just don’t watch enough TV. I have not been keeping up with the Kardashians. Am way behind on who is the next American Idol. Totally unappreciative of how many times Jack Bauer has saved civilization from devastation with only seconds to spare in his 24 hours.

However, I do occasionally watch “Iron Chef.” (Although I prefer the original Japanese to the Americanized version.)

My interest in cooking shows goes way back to the beginning of televised time. I recall watching two of the founders of the genre: Julia Child’s “The French Chef” and Graham Kerr’s “The Galloping Gourmet.” They seemed to be having such a great time cooking up great stuff.

It was more than entertainment. It was educational. I liked to eat good food and wanted to learn how to make it.

Their descendant, “Iron Chef,” makes cooking dramatic by setting up a competition. It’s not a particularly innovative formula, but it is effective.

In each episode, the “chairman” hosts a challenger who faces a champion, the iron chef. Iron chefs have specialties. Some are expert in French cooking. Others in Italian or Chinese. The competitors are given a particular ingredient to feature and an hour to make a multi-course meal.

The cook-off is conducted in “Kitchen Stadium,” a studio equipped with two identical, state-of-the-art, side-by-side, kitchens. Commentators follow the proceedings. There is one in the control booth offering insight into what the chefs are doing. Another roams the floor and tries to interview harried chefs in mid-saute, asking about particular techniques such as the use of blow torches and dry ice.

At the end of the hour, the chefs plate their dishes and present them to a panel of celebrity judges who critique the competitors and decide “whose cuisine reigns supreme.” A winner is crowned. Sometimes a champion is dethroned. It’s enough to keep you glued to your tube.

It got me thinking. I know that people are wary of overhyped stimulus plans that favor fat cats over main-streeters, but consider this. Here in Portland, in February, things can get a little slow. Snow has lost a bit of its charm. Darkness lasts a little too long. Winter has set in.

We need a reason to get out of our houses, go in to town, and support our local businesspeople. Winterfest’s Downtown Showdown capitalizes on the popularity of winter sports. I say we celebrate another one of Portland’s great attractions, its restaurants, with a cooking contest.

We need a place to do it, sponsors to fund it, a moderator to keep the action going, and some judges to make the decisions. Each week during the darkest days of winter, a pair of chefs could face off, until we crown a champion.

Local appliance dealers might welcome the opportunity to showcase the latest kitchen technology in Portland’s own version of kitchen stadium. Ingredients could have a Maine slant. Local producers and grocers could display their stuff. Fishermen could boast about their catch.

We could televise the contests on local-access cable TV. People would flock to our restaurants to see what all the fuss was about. They would spend money to sample for themselves our chefs’ specialities. Word would spread.

Our restaurants would be packed. Waitstaff would be showered with tips and have no complaints. There would be a multiplier effect. After a nice dinner, people would be in the mood for a little entertainment. They would stay in our hotels rather than drive home. The morning after, personal trainers would get new clientele who need to work off their indulgence.

It would solve all our problems. Or at least give us something to do on a Saturday night in February.


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Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.