By Drew Olson Special to Published Oct 12, 2006 at 5:15 AM

The restaurant business can be as cutthroat as any other industry, but few people really thought of cooking as a competitive activity until The Food Network imported the popular "Iron Chef" series from Japan and turned it into an American culinary cultural craze.

On Saturday, for the fifth and final time this year, Cathedral Square Park will be transformed into a small-scale Kitchen Stadium as four contestants and their assistants square off in the final round of the East Town Market's "Battle of the Chefs."

The concept for the competition, which began in June with a series of four once-a-month preliminaries, is simple. Chefs from area restaurants are given a culinary challenge and handed $50 to gather ingredients from the merchants at the farmer's markets. The chefs then have 45 minutes to transform them into a plated dish for a panel of four judges who will judge the effort based on quality of preparation and flavor, originality and creativity, performance (flair) and presentation.

"It's pretty cool the way it works in the time period," said local food critic Willard Romantini, who hosts the competition's broadcast on Time Warner Cable's "Wisconsin On Demand" station.

"They've got 45 minutes to buy the ingredients, prepare it and make it look nice. Organization is the key, along with creativity and other skills."

In addition to a pair of eight-foot tables, the four finalists -- Michael Dunn of the Wyndham Hotel, Bob Milhoff of Yanni's, Jordan Short of Coast Restaurant and Brian Frakes of the Pfister Hotel -- will be provided a "pantry" of items that includes black pepper, kosher salt, flour, panko, eggs, red wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, white wine, granulated sugar and heavy cream.

The tools allowed include three butane burners, one immersion blender, two saute pans, two pots, two cutting boards, two bowls, two serving spoons, two spatulas, one pair of tongs and up to four knives.

Asked what aspiring cooks can glean from watching the experts work, Romantini noted that most of the pros have a background in French cooking and the concept of "mise en place," which translates to "setting in place," or the cook's mantra "une place pour chaque chose et chaque chose a sa place," which means a place for everything and everything in its place."

"Cooking is all about organization and timing," he said. "If you look at most professional kitchens, it looks like controlled chaos. But, there is no wasted effort or movement. It's almost militaristic in that way. Everybody is assigned a place to be and a job to do.

"Think about going to a restaurant. You sit at a table with four people and order four different things. The tick is to get them all done at the same time with out burning or undercooking anything and without making anybody wait. Timing is everything.

"In 10 years that I've been doing a TV show, I've learned that flaming pans and slicing and dicing gets their attention. But, I think people should watch the organization, along with the knife skills and the way these guys saute things and put them all together."

For some of the chefs, the "hands-on" work of chopping, slicing and dicing represents a nice change of pace. "They usually have any army of prep drones do all that stuff," Romantini said.

With whirring knives and pans, the action at the chef's tables provides a stark contrast to the generally laid-back pace of the East Town Market, where shoppers sip coffee and stroll through an assortment of vendor stands that feature fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers, herbs, spices and plants as well as jellies, jams, nuts, cheese, sausage, breads, muffins, baked goods, soup and organic meats. There also are selections of jewelry, pottery, photography and paintings alongside things like hand-made soaps and sweaters.

Many people watch the chefs work for awhile and find inspiration to do their own shopping / cooking.

"So far, our results have been very good," Romantini said. "The first time, we did a salad because there wasn't much available. The second month, we had some exotic mushrooms so we did a vegetarian thing. The next time, we did a hot dip.

"It's just a good time. We give the chefs $50 to make enough food to feed about 10 people in a half-hour. It's all from the ground and it's very inexpensive. I think people who watch get some great ideas and they can go shop and fix dinner for their families for about $10.

"It's a fun event."

Drew Olson Special to

Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.