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September 29, 2009 at 6:31 AM

The Next Iron Chef: Holly Smith — and Daisley Gordon

Seattle chefs Robin Leventhal and Ashley Merriman are still packing heat in the kitchen — and captivating viewers of “Top Chef: Las Vegas.” Meanwhile, Cafe Juanita’s Holly Smith is one of 10 contestants set to compete on season two of “The Next Iron Chef” — premiering Sunday at 9 p.m. on the Food Network.

But get this: if Smith lives to see the second episode (bet on it), we’re in for a Seattle two-fer Sunday, October 11: That’s when Campagne’s Daisley Gordon takes on Bobby Flay on “Iron Chef America.” The show airs at 10 p.m. following round two of “The Next Iron Chef.”

Daisley Gordon seen through the window at Campagne, and coming soon to a TV near you.

Seattle Times photo/John Lok (2006)

Though he’s obligated to keep his mouth shut about the outcome of his fray with Flay, Gordon admitted he had a big-time blast filming the show last year. When he got the initial call from the Food Network folks, “I was surprised, flattered — and nervous,” he recalls. “I wondered, `Geez, why did they call me?’ I just didn’t think I was on anybody’s radar.” His opponent, whom he describes as “very professional, very responsible and very generous,” has been on his radar for years, though.

In December, 1993, while still a student at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, Gordon was stranded in New York City when a friend who’d done an externship at Flay’s Mesa Grill pulled some strings and scored them a reservation. It was a meal he remembers well. “I had langoustines with cayenne, maybe some cocoa powder and butter. For dessert, one of those soft-centered chocolate cakes — new and exciting then — and strawberry ice cream. The langoustines were brilliant. And that was one of the best strawberry ice creams I’d ever eaten.”

Two years later the CIA-grad landed a job as lead-cook at Campagne, working with executive chef Tamara Murphy (who later opened Brasa), and sous-chef Jim Drohman (who took her place, later leaving to open Le Pichet). Murphy is one of only three other Seattle chefs who’ve taken the “Iron Chef” challenge. Tom Douglas famously triumphed over Morimoto in 2005 by preparing a five-course meal using wild salmon as the “secret ingredient.” La Spiga’s Sabrina Tinsley gave it up to Bobby Flay in January.

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“I’m proud of the fact that there are two people from Campagne that have been on the show,” says Gordon, who’s headed up the dual kitchens there for nearly a decade. “That’s certainly been a feather in our cap.” Murphy was a lot of fun to watch in 2005, he says, despite her loss to Mario Batali — another chef with strong Seattle ties. Gordon laughed recalling a classic TV moment when one of the judges took a bite of his former boss’s crayfish gratin and dissed her dish, complaining about its lack of crayfish. “Tamara looked at him and said, `If you put your fork over there where the crayfish is, you’d find it.’ It was fantastic, a very honest expression. And that’s what’s great about those shows: when you’re under pressure, your true self comes out.”

Backing Gordon at Kitchen Stadium was his former sous-chef Nikki Schiebel (who still works part-time at Campagne), and lead-cook Keiko Okuda, who’s since moved on as well. “It was not a hard choice for me,” he says. “They’re two focused, tenacious people. Two very serious women who’ve got a lot of juice.” Douglas proved that choosing your on-stage assistants carefully can be the key to success on “Iron Chef.” His crew included his longtime right-hand-man — James Beard Award-winning chef Eric Tanaka, and Food & Wine Magazine’s 2009 “Best New Chef” Mark Fuller, now owner of West Seattle’s Spring Hill.

“You could easily wilt and say, `I can’t do this in an hour!'” says Gordon of his fast-and-furious TV battle. “But then you marshal your skills and experience and keep going. All of these competitions — “Iron Chef” “Top Chef” — are all about surviving and persevering in adverse circumstances.” And for those who might suggest high-stakes TV cooking-competitions are preposterous, the chef begs to differ: “You see what you’re made of, and what you and your team can do together, and it is transferable to the `real world’ because once you finish that competition, you realize just how focused you can be.”

Here at home, focusing on the Pike Place Market restaurant that remains his kitchen stage he says, “Watching the show is insane. It’s a mad-dash hour of cooking but it was a ton of fun — and I’d do it again.”

So, what “secret ingredient” did Gordon get to use? Lest the wrath of the Food Network befall him, he was mum on the subject. But having spent an evening with Iron Chef’s scowling Chairman last spring (he’s charming in the flesh, and I hear he can really dance), I think I might have some insider knowledge:

The Chairman raises a can o’ Spam in Seattle — while helping raise $250,000 at the 2009 Wing Luke Asian Art Museum Auction.

Let the battles begin!

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