The Iron Chef, a competitive cooking show, opens with dramatic music, a swelling crescendo of exciting sound building as the camera zooms around a dramatically lit kitchen stage prepped with shining knives, mammoth cooking ranges and walk-in freezers.

The theatrical host steps out in a sharp, tailored suit and introduces the audience to the current episode’s rivals. The show usually pits a world-renowned chef (Mario Batali is one regular) against an up-and-coming culinary ingénue. Classic David and Goliath tension ensues.

The hook? With a flourish, a secret ingredient is unveiled. It could be kumquats, ghee, foie gras, or squid.

Whatever obscure or ordinary ingredient may be revealed, the chefs must successfully use it in each part of a four-course meal, which will be consumed and nitpicked to death by a panel of unforgiving judges.

At the Smith household in Whitehorse, the build-up leading to the Iron Chef Potluck Dinner is slightly less intense. In fact, it is nearly eclipsed by the fact that the Golden Globes are on and it’s minus 30 out.

Both these variables seem to be distracting all participants from the ferocious competition that ensues on TV’s Iron Chef. Fair enough; it’s bloody cold out, we arrive ready to drink, and Tilda Swinton looks fantastic.

In keeping with the theme of this month’s potluck, participants have drawn a secret ingredient out of a hat. But to make the Iron Chef ideals more conducive to the potluck format, four different ingredients were designated.

The chefs have each known their secret ingredient for a week, in order to plan properly.

The flames of cutthroat competition may have cooled in the cold snap, but the spirit of honouring rare or unique ingredients is still alive. We’ve chosen pineapple, eggplant, coconut and fennel.

Chef Cindy upholds her strong reputation (readers may recall she created an outstanding dish in the first of the potluck series) by letting pineapple shine in her juicy, barbecued elk ribs.

The aroma of coconut precedes Chef Mar’s sweet and nutty rice pilaf.

Chef Ruby gets away with snubbing the rules because her vanilla cupcakes blow away the judges with their double helping of whipped cream. They are both (magically) stuffed with fluffy whipped cream and topped with it. Brilliant.

She may also get away with eschewing conventions because she is in Grade 5.

At the end of the evening, Chef Matt ups the ante on this string of successes with his creamy, delicately-flavoured fennel ice cream.

Then, out of nowhere, Chef Katya steals the scene with a gravity-bending, flourless, layered apple cake, glazed in caramel, tinged with orange zest, and topped with cream.

She could have been our Iron Chef, but she’s bent the rules by downplaying her secret ingredient – and she’s old enough to know better.

Alas, it comes down to a panel of discerning judges who, tipsy and tired, have piled onto the couch to catch George Clooney’s acceptance speech. No one seems to care who our Iron Chef may be.

Our Davids and Goliaths are just happy to be warm, together and well fed. In the spirit of good eating, we are all victorious. The true secret ingredient, it appears, is conviviality.

Yet in the spirit of competition, I’ve taken it upon myself to include what I opine to be a standout. Chef’s Cindy’s ribs both highlight the exotic pineapple, and celebrate local elk. Her recipe, adapted slightly from a Food Network recipe by Tyler Florence, is included below.


  • 2 pounds elk ribs
  • 2 tbs toasted sesame oil
  • 1/4 cup Chinese five spice powder
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish
  • Pineapple glaze:
  • 2 tbs unsalted butter
  • 1 whole fresh pineapple, peeled and cubed
  • 1 cup soy sauce
  • 1/2 cup dark rum
  • 1/4 cup hoisin sauce
  • 1/4 cup ketchup
  • 3 tbs rice vinegar
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 fresh red chile, sliced thin
  • 2 garlic cloves, smashed
  • 1 (2-inch) piece fresh ginger, whacked open with the flat side of a knife


  • Preheat the oven to 300F.
  • Rub the ribs all over with sesame oil; season generously with five-spice powder, salt, and pepper.
  • Arrange the ribs in a single layer in a shallow roasting pan and roast for 2 to 2-1/2 hours.
  • To prepare the pineapple glaze: in a saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and add the pineapple chunks; sauté for 3 minutes.
  • Add the soy sauce, rum, hoisin sauce, ketchup, vinegar, brown sugar, chile, garlic, and ginger.
  • Bring to a slow simmer and cook, stirring, until thickened, about 20 minutes.
  • Pull out the ginger pieces.
  • Pour the glaze into a blender and purée until smooth.
  • In the last 30 minutes of cooking, baste the ribs with some of the glaze. When they are done, the pork will pull away from the bone and you will see about 1/2 inch of bone showing.
  • When ready to eat, baste the ribs with more glaze and stick them under the broiler for 5 to 8 minutes to give them a nice crust (watch them carefully as they can easily burn).
  • Separate the ribs with a cleaver or sharp knife, pile them onto a platter, and pour on the remaining sauce.
  • Sprinkle with chopped cilantro before serving.