Blame it on Dr. Seuss. Iron Chef Cat Cora edged Valley chef Lee Hillson by one point Sunday on the Food Network’s culinary competition “Iron Chef America.”
Her secret weapon? A variation of green eggs and ham, the title dish of Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel’s classic children’s book.
“It would have been nice (to win), but it’s not the be-all and end-all,” says Hillson, executive chef at the Royal Palms Resort & Spa’s prestigious restaurant, T. Cook’s, in east Phoenix. “It’s one of those rushes most people will never experience.”
For a while Sunday, it looked like the 39-year-old Mesa resident was headed to a third straight victory by a Valley chef on the television show.
Elements chef Beau MacMillan won in 2006, and Tarbell’s chef Mark Tarbell won last year.
“The hardest thing was watching Mark’s show (which was televised a week after Hillson taped his show in September),” says Hillson, who wasn’t allowed to reveal his outcome. “People at Mark’s viewing party were saying, ‘You better have won. You better have kept the streak going.’
“I think Mark and Beau could actually read (on my face) what happened. They came up and said, ‘You’ve done something most chefs can only dream about. Even if you lose, you’ve won.’ ”
After the episode’s secret ingredient — ham — was revealed, Hillson and Cora had 60 minutes to make at least five dishes with either American Virginia ham, American country ham or Spanish serrano ham.
The English-born Hillson, who pulled off the rare feat of finishing his dishes nearly 10 minutes early, made ham-stuffed lobster carpaccio, a twice-baked ham souffle, fettucine carbonara, a ham-and-cheese pithivier and ham-stuffed rabbit.
Cora countered with six dishes: ham-and-gruyere croquettes, country ham dumplings in consommé, a ham-and-salsify wrap, a grilled ham tartiflette, cola-braised ham and — to the delight of the three-judge panel — a dish she called “green ham and eggs,” which featured serrano ham with green chimichurri sauce atop a poached duck egg.
The scoring by the judges — food author Ted Allen, public relations consultant Karine Bakhoum and fashion designer Marc Ecko — was close.
Hillson beat Cora in taste, 25 points to 24. The two tied, 13-13, in plating.
But Cora earned a two-point advantage in originality, 14-12, giving her an overall 51-50 victory.
Hillson, who watched Sunday’s show at a private viewing party at T. Cook’s with his wife, Kim, and the two assistants he selected for the competition, T. Cook’s sous-chef Matthew Holmes and Estate House sous-chef Chris Mayo, takes consolation in the judges’ opinion his dishes tasted better.
“That’s the part to me that means the most,” says Hillson, who recently was nominated for the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame. “I’d rather win in taste and narrowly lose overall than the other way around.”
Since he finished early, Hillson says he considered trying to make a dessert, an ice cream dish with deep-fried, caramelized pieces of ham.
“Looking back, I wish I had tried it,” he says. “But you never know.”