One-on-One with Chef David LeFevre of Iron Chef Gauntlet
We caught up with Chef LeFevre after his impressive run in the gauntlet tonight.
So, first things first. This year’s Iron Chef Gauntlet finale didn’t end the same way as last year’s competition. Chef David LeFevre, esteemed California-based chef and restaurateur, did not become an Iron Chef, as he failed to out-cook the collective trio of Iron Chefs Izard, Symon and Guarnaschelli after back-to-back-to-back battles in Kitchen Stadium. Though he did best Iron Chef Izard at her own game — Battle Goat! — he couldn’t tied with and fell to Iron Chefs Symon and Guarnaschelli, respectively, and the totals were such that he simply did not earn the necessary points.
We caught up with Chef LeFevre moments after the totals were revealed and got his first take on what went wrong, what’s this process was like and what’s ahead from him. Read on for the scoop.
Talk about the uni battle, which was ultimately your undoing. Were you surprised at the outcome and what did you think of yours and Iron Chef Guarnaschelli’s dishes?
David LeFevre: I was surprised to lose the uni battle. The feedback that I got from the judges – that the risotto was cooked perfectly and that the uni tasted great and the flavor was there – the feedback I got about using the chicken broth … I tried to lighten it up as much as possible. But when they gave the feedback to Iron Chef Guarnaschelli, they loved the toast and that was apparent. But there was also this soup — it didn’t look great. They seemed very mediocre about the soup. And so my thought was that no matter how great this toast it, there’s also that soup. My hope was that my dish overall — in terms of presentation and in terms of flavor — I thought I was going to be ahead of Iron Chef Guarnaschelli on that dish.
You have a similar uni rice dish on the menu at your restaurant Fishing for Dynamite. Was your goal to bring that to life here?
DL: No. What I wanted to do was do it with sushi rice. I didn’t want to do it risotto-style; I wanted to just fold the uni into the rice itself, not like a stir-fry but more of like a porridge texture. … I took the risk on using sushi rice, but then when it wasn’t going well [because of a broken rice cooker], I said, OK, I’m going to get going on another rice for it.
Do you agree with the judges’ feedback after Battle Uni, or do you think they missed something in your offerings?
DL: I think I didn’t really describe it well. I think I should have told them, “Look, this is the kombu. I thinned it out, and I tried to do everything …” But there’s really no excuses. If they liked it, they liked it. And if they liked hers better, then that’s why they’re judges. I respect their opinions 100 percent. I know for a fact that all three dishes I did looked more beautiful. The flavors, I think, on all three dishes were great. I think where I probably lost it was just not using the ingredient in enough different ways.
Seafood is so in your wheelhouse that it seemed like the second and third battles (sturgeon and uni) would be perfect for you. But you won Battle Goat, an ingredient you’d never before cooked and with which Iron Chef Izard has spent years making her own.
DL: There’s a little irony, right? The one I’ve never cooked before, I won, and the one I use all the time, I didn’t end up winning. It’s like you have to be careful what you wish for; you might just get it. I’m really disappointed I didn’t win either of the seafood challenges. Seafood is something that I love and something that’s part of me. And I didn’t show well enough in those.
What did you think about giving Iron Chef Izard her dream ingredient—goat—in the first battle and then ultimately out-cooking her in that battle?
DL: I was more excited about the goat [than the chocolate]. I knew she would know exactly what to do with the goat. Goat is something that takes days of prep sometimes, so not ever cooking but knowing something about it, I thought I could go for it. There was a point when I reflected and I thought that was a bad decision, but I liked the approach Chef Stephanie took in her battles [last year] — give then an ingredient they’re supposed to know how to do.
What have you learned about yourself now that you’ve completed the gauntlet?
DL: I think in terms of the whole show, what you have to do is you have to really, really listen to what the challenge is. If they’re saying “resourcefulness,” be resourceful. Don’t just do something you know. If I was to give anyone else advice, I would say, “Stay in the pack in the beginning.” I think it’s important to do the Secret Ingredient Showdowns. If you don’t do the Secret Ingredient Showdowns, you’re going to get to the end and you’re going to have to do one. I had an advantage over Chef Gomes [in week 5]; she hadn’t been through one and I had, and because I had been through those Secret Ingredient Showdowns, I knew that I could cook that chop in time, I knew what I had to do, and I didn’t have to sacrifice what I wanted to do because of time.
Tell me about your approach to the gauntlet and to the competition as a whole over the past six weeks?
DL: I really went into this thinking: “God, get me through the first day. Along the way something would happen.” I was hoping I would make it further than this, but I just took it day by day and thought: “I need to get past tomorrow. I need to get past tomorrow.” That’s the way I took the gauntlet too: I need to get past one chef. I need to get by another chef. And then I need to get by another chef. Some of these guys have done 40-50 competitions like that. If you look at Iron Chef Symon and Iron Chef Guarnaschelli, they were done about 35 minutes in, so they’re very talented at this competition.
Any battles jump out as being the particularly memorable?
DL: I enjoyed the battle where we got to choose which ingredients. That’s nice because you’re resigned to it or apathetic, but you’re just like, “OK, let’s go. Let’s have some fun.” I really liked that. In the gauntlet, I didn’t like having to choose the ingredient. I think that I’m probably better when the ingredients are chosen for me, because it pushes me to be more creative. That aspect of it I didn’t really love, but I’m sure a lot of people would think that’s a great way to have it.
What will you take away from this competition and into your career and restaurants?
DL: It doesn’t define my success as a chef. I went into this feeling very confident about where my restaurants are, the people who I mentor and who I am in the family of the industry that we have. I don’t think people are going to be like, “Oh, I don’t respect Chef David LeFevre anymore.” They’re going to know he’s a little bit older but he still can cooking. Cooking can be a young person’s game. I’m going to go back to doing what I do. We have a lot of different things going on at the restaurants and other projects going on with TV and stuff like that. I think that, ultimately, what I’m going to take back is being a little bit riskier with some of the dishes that I do. I’m always trying to hit a homerun with each dish, and sometimes hitting a home run means you’re not hitting a grand slam. Sometimes when you’re trying to hit a triple — because all you need is a triple — you miss a really great opportunity to crack it out of the park. It’s a really fine balance because I never want to experiment with our guests. I want our guests to always have an incredible meal. But maybe taking a little bit more of a risk might not get us more home runs but maybe more grand slams.