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Iron Chef-Style Showdown Sunday at the American Indian Museum

Mitsitam Cafe's own Chef Richard Hetzler does battle against Chef Don McClellan (Cherokee) using ingredients of the Three Sisters–corn, beans and squash

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Images courtesy of Don McClellan and NMAI, SI.

This Sunday, July 24, two chefs will enter the American Indian Museum’s outdoor amphitheatre, but only one will leave victorious. They won’t be squaring off in hand-to-hand combat, but knives will be drawn as they compete in an Iron Chef-style showdown from 2-5 p.m. as part of the museum’s 2011 Living Earth Festival. As for the competitors. . .

Smithsonian’s own Chef Richard Hetzler, the executive chef for the museum’s Mitsitam Café, does battle on his home turf once again. He stands undefeated at 1-0, after carving out a victory at last year’s event over L’Academie de Cuisine instructor Brian Patterson. The good-natured Hetzler likes to push the envelope, and is “not afraid to take risks and do some fun stuff with molecular gastronomy.” Whether that will be possible in the heat of the amphitheater kitchen remains to be seen.

His opponent, Chef Don McClellan (Cherokee), who will be competing for the first time, hails from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and what he lacks in battle experience, he makes up for in confidence. “I believe that I will win, yes,” he states. The executive chef at Atria Vista del Rio, McClellan prefers to keep his preparations simple and flavorful, and his southwestern style should mesh well with the battle’s not-so-secret ingredients.

Each chef must prepare two appetizers, three entrees and two desserts using ingredients of the traditional Three Sisters–corn, beans and squash. They’ll also have other ingredients, including fresh proteins such as salmon, duck and buffalo, at their disposal. The chefs won’t have to go it alone, however, as they each will have assistants provided by the local organization D.C. Central Kitchen.

Judgment, the final part of the competition, will be handed down by a group of local chefs. This year’s panel includes Scott Drewno, executive chef at The Source by Wolfgang Puck and last year’s Washington, D.C. Chef of the Year; Brian Patterson, Hetzler’s opponent from last year; and Pati Jinich, executive chef at D.C.’s Mexican Cultural Institute and host of the cooking show Pati’s Mexican Table.

I spoke to both chefs below to gain some insight on their battle plans, their guilty pleasures, and whether or not they’ll be trash talking in the kitchen:

Briefly, how would you describe your style of cuisine?
Richard Hetzler: Kind of new age, and not afraid to take risks and do some fun stuff with molecular gastronomy.
Don McClellan: Good-flavored food utilizing the ingredients simplistically

What’s your favorite guilty pleasure food?
RH: Pizza
DM: Chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes and gravy

How do you plan on training for this match-up?
RH: That’s great! (Cracking up). I think that’s the first time I’ve ever been stumped on a question! I would say just a lot of general tasting and checking out the product and sizing up my opponent. No push-ups and sit-ups. And a couple glasses of wine.
DM: I plan on eating lots of corn, beans and squash to make sure my palate will be able taste what I need to do the day of the competition.

Which of your skills do you think will be the most advantageous for this kind of competition?
RH: My skills as a jokester!
DM: My ability to multi-task. And having a good sense of time-management.

How will you have to adapt your style, since you’re going to be cooking outside in the heat?
RH: I think definitely. The weather always takes a toll on anything we do, whether it’s items we’re cooking, or what we decide to make, or how we’re going to make things, because the temperature affects a lot.
DM: I’ll drink lots of water. And maybe bring a clean jacket so I look presentable once the actual judging stats.

Do you have any idea in what direction or style of preparations you’ll be going with?
RH: Not really, because I think in these competitions we try to go outside the box and give people something crazy they normally wouldn’t think of and really give them something wild.
DM: In my mind it’s going to be simple, flavorful food with a twist, most likely on Mexican and new Mexican style food, reducing lots of chilies, with a flavorful profile.

Will there be trash talking?
RH: In this type of event, I don’t know (laughing). I imagine it’ll stay pretty civil. Of course, there’s always some animosity whenever you’re dealing with chefs. . .
DM: There very well could be. I just found out, though, that I am going to be able to bring a posse of other chefs with me as well. Meaning probably two other chefs. So I’m hoping that the banter is shared equally both ways.

Why do you think you’ll win this weekend?
RH: Just because I’m going to pull out all the stops and all the tricks I’ve got! And we’re on our home turf–how can you not win when you’re on your home turf?
DM: I believe that I will win, yes. I know that I have stiff competition. My sources have told me that Chef Hetzler is very talented, and again, having been the winner of last year’s competition, there’s some big shoes to fill to make sure that his competition is stiff and that he has a run for his money.

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