Sameh Wadi defeated -- barely -- by Iron Chef Morimoto

Saffron Chef Sameh Wadi did Minnesota proud Sunday night, becoming not only the youngest challenger to date on the Food Network's "Iron Chef America" show but also the first from Minnesota. While Wadi is used to cooking competitions, at the end of Sunday's "Iron Chef America" competition it was Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto's take on mackerel that won over the show's three judges though.

But not by much. Morimoto edged Wadi out by just five points, with a score of 57 to Wadi's 52 (out of a total possible of 60). The two actually tied in the "taste" category and differed by just one point on "plating." It was "originality" scores that differed the most between them, with Morimoto earning a 15 to Wadi's 11.

One potential reason? The secret ingredient. Wadi says his first thought upon hearing that the competition's featured ingredient would be mackerel was "Not fair!" Morimoto, who is Japanese, is an expert with sushi and other types of fish preparation.

But Wadi, flanked by sous chefs Kevin Manley, who works with him at Saffron, and Nick O'Leary, executive chef at Restaurant Max, proceeded to create five inventive mackerel dishes deftly and competently. Wadi's five dishes, which he explained to judges as a "journey," were as follows:

  • 1. Spanish mackerel trio
  • 2. Indian-inspired curried mackerel duo
  • 3. Mackerel spanikopita
  • 4. Whole fried mackerel (served with tahini, yogurt sauce, and a cilantro cumin salsa)
  • 5. North African-inspired mackerel tagine (marinated in chermoula and preserved lemons)

If you saw Sunday night's show you were likely impressed by Wadi's coolness and concentration during the hour-long competiton (and maybe got the giggles at his stony seriousness when he was introduced by "chairman" Marc Dacascos at the beginning of the show). "There was a litlle bit of freakout action, but we really kind of kept it calm," Wadi says.

With decades of experience under his belt, Iron Chef Morimoto is thought by many to be the most formidable of the Iron Chefs -- which is exactly why Wadi says he selected him to compete against. Wadi says he's watched "Iron Chef" when it was still just a Japanese program. "It was an amazing experience for a cook my age, going against Morimoto. I'm 25 years old. He's been cooking longer than I've been alive," he says.

Wadi says he was proud just to be selected to compete on the show. When asked if he thinks he should have won, he says, "Of course I think I should have won!" But he goes on to say, "But being selected was more important. It's a huge honor."

His only regret? Not getting an autographed photo of Morimoto to hang on his fridge.

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