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Roberto Donna was talking a lot of trash for someone whose debut appearance last year on Iron Chef America inspired the Toronto Sun to opine, “We haven’t seen such poor time management since the Philadelphia Eagles had the ball in the last two minutes of the Super Bowl.” Despite finishing only two of the required five dishes in a March 2005 showdown with Japanese Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto—apparently the first challenger in the history of the show not to plate the minimum number of dishes—Donna was flashing some hammy, good-natured Italian bravado Sunday night at the Galleria, across the street from Donna’s Galileo, where a sold-out crowd gathered to watch the rematch between the celebrity chefs.
Donna’s staff sported all-black Iron Chef rematch T-shirts for the occasion. On the back of the shirts was a quote from Donna: “I’m coming to get you, Morimoto!” Later, during an early break in the taped program, shown on three large-screen TVs in the middle of the Galleria’s massive, multi-story atrium, Donna summarized his Kitchen Stadium performance up to that point: “If I did the same thing the first time, it would be a different story,” he said. “I wouldn’t be here, ’cause there wouldn’t be any revenge.” The implication, lying there as still as the whole roasted suckling pigs on the buffet table, was that Donna would have mopped the floor with his Japanese counterpart had he just prepared the first time around.
The build-up to the Iron Chef America screening was equally full of beery chest-thumping for Donna. A taped segment featured local toques who either bragged on the hometown boy or ribbed him for his limp performance last year with scallops, the “secret ingredient” in the first battle between Donna and Morimoto. Of course, for all I could tell, the local chefs could have been encouraging Donna to carve Morimoto up into small bits of sashimi; the audio on the taped segment was practically unintelligible—and chef Jeffrey Buben, his face strangely covered by shadows in the video, looked like he was answering probing questions about the tobacco industry instead of toasting Donna.
Dressed in whites and a long apron that hung from his ample belly, Donna lorded above the main dining area from his perch on the landing of the grand staircase. Microphone in hand, he auctioned off items for the Share Our Strength, an anti-hunger nonprofit (a dinner for 20, to be prepared by Donna, Michel Richard, Jeff Tunks, and Kaz Okochi, went for $6,000); he commented on the proceedings inside Kitchen Stadium (“She hates everything I cook,” Donna said of Asian food writer and Iron Chef judge Akiko Katayama, foreshadowing a second defeat for the chef); and he cracked jokes, as when he introduced the final, 15-minute cooking segment by saying, “This part of the show gets funny. It’s time to panic.”
Donna didn’t seem to panic much when another mollusk was revealed as the secret ingredient: squid. In fact, the chef tripled his output from last year, turning out six mostly Italian-accented squid dishes with the help of Galileo executive chef Amy Brandwein. Their highlights included a ravioli-like stuffed squid and a squid-ink-blackened tin of Israeli couscous that was prepared to look like black Russian caviar. Even Katayama was impressed with Donna’s creations.
But were the dishes good enough to “get” Morimoto this time? Let’s just say this for the people who have yet to watch the episode, which will air five more times this week on the Food Network: When the winner was announced, the Galleria crowd rose to its feet, streamers were shot over Donna’s head, and someone queued up Queen’s “We Are the Champions” over the loudspeakers.