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The final cooking challenge of the evening pitted PS 7’s Peter Smith against Barton Seaver (presently unaffiliated), the reigning champion of the Capital Food Fight. The chefs’ reward for making it to the finals was the opportunity to cook with Szechwan buttons, an overpowering Szechwan-peppercorn-like ingredient that Seaver compared to “sucking on a lemon” while “putting a nine-volt battery on your tongue at the same time.” I call it getting kicked in the crotch for being too talented in the kitchen.
“I thought it was a Chinese comedian,” someone quipped to Seaver when told the name of the secret ingredient.
For his 10-minute dish, Smith prepared a scallop ceviche with citrus vinaigrette, oil, and those powerful, tongue-tingling Szechwan buttons. Seaver also went raw: He prepared a wild striped bass crudo topped with honey infused with walnut oil and Szechwan buttons.
The judges went with Seaver’s dish in what was described as the “closest [margin] of any of the competitions.” His victory, however, did not come without a little controversy. Noted one chef anonymously: “Honey hides [the flavor] of Szechwan buttons.” His meaning was clear: Seaver won because the judges couldn’t taste the buttons.
Of course, I think you can safely say neither chef featured the buttons as the main ingredient in their dishes.