Local chef competes on Iron Chef

Chef Chris Hastings spends time at the Hilltop Montessori School in Mt Laurel to teach young students about growing their own food and eating well. (Contributed)

By CHRISTINE BOATWRIGHT / Staff Writer

A local chef will challenge Iron Chef Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America on Feb. 26.

Chris Hastings, the owner and executive chef of Hot and Hot Fish Club, received an email from The Food Network informing him the network included him on a list of potential candidates for Iron Chef.

“They wanted to know if I’d be willing to go through an interview process with them both by phone and by Skype,” Hastings said. “Of course I said, ‘Sure, I’d be happy to.'”

During the interview, Hastings was asked what he understood about the show.

“(We talked about) where (the show) fit into the importance of the food scene in America and did I have a sense of what a big deal it was to be on that show,” he said. “Not everyone is comfortable being in that situation. It’s a pressure-packed situation with a lot going on. They want to make good TV, so they want to be sure who they choose understands what goes down.”

After receiving an email saying he’d been chosen for the show, Hastings did his homework before facing off against his competitor.

“I called some of my chef friends and asked how to prepare. You try to recreate the same environment so you can run back and forth during your prep just like you would do in that hour,” Hastings said. “You want to kind of recreate that moment. You’ve got to kind of practice it. Imagine yourself cooking something in an hour, what does that look like, feel like. When you get there, you’re not just making it up.”

The actual competition took place in July 2011. When asked about details of the show, Hastings said it was “highly guarded information.”

“The Food Network is very protective of any information leaking out,” he said. “They have the surprise of the moment.”

He said Bobby Flay is a “very nice guy, very polite and a great competitor.”

“We feel good about it. We feel ready for it. It’s time,” Hastings said. “Our restaurant’s been open 17 years. We worked hard to make a restaurant that’s worthy of the conversation about the best restaurants in the country. We feel like we hold our own in that conversation.”

When Hastings isn’t appearing on national TV or cooking up award-winning food at Hot and Hot Fish Club, one of his interests lies in helping children learn how to grow food and eat healthily. The Hilltop Montessori School in Mt Laurel benefits from Hastings’ culinary expertise.

“Being on the property with over six acres donated by EBSCO, we’re searching to develop our outdoor classroom areas. Chris has been a wonderful inspiration for us in helping us with the planning of that,” Executive Director Michele Scott said. “We’ve worked closely with him for several years. That’s one step, where we were starting some gardening, but we took it to the next level with him.”

Hastings said he has “been very fortunate to work with them.”

“We’re working on how to create a healthier environment for the kids as it relates to the food they consume and where it comes from,” he said. “(They have) an edible school yard, how to incorporate it into the classroom in terms of science and math, how to nurture plants and grow things. We want to take that work and turn it into parts of their meals they eat at the school. They’re early in the process, and I’m trying to help them expand on that. This will enrich their learning experience through food as well as their personal health.”

Hastings will compete against Flay on Sunday, Feb. 26 at 9 p.m. on the Food Network.