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The husband-and-wife team of Sheryl Verdadero and Rosemel Verdadero try on their new chef coats after winning the overall competition in 'Iron Chef.'
The husband-and-wife team of Sheryl Verdadero and Rosemel Verdadero try on their new chef coats after winning the overall competition in 'Iron Chef.' (Tim Wightmanl / S&S)

NAVAL AIR FACILITY ATSUGI, Japan — Heat, steam, cramped spaces, crowded countertops. The mixed aroma of soups, vegetables, spices, sauces, meats and desserts. People asking frantically, "Where’s the salt?" and others urging their partners to "Go get another tomato!"

Such was the scene 30 minutes before the base’s first Iron Chef competition at the Far East Café on Thursday.

Nine teams of two, representing various base departments, competed to have their dishes included in the cafe’s 35-day cycle menu and Thanksgiving dinner. They were also vying for a specially made NAF Atsugi Iron Chef coat, said Senior Chief Petty Officer Brian Ware, the competition’s creator.

"I thought it was a great way to get the people who love to cook out of their normal life and into the galley," Ware said. "I think it’s great for morale and just great all the way around."

Ware said his goal is to have representatives of each of the services participate in a Kanto Plain Iron Chef when he gets commissioned as a chief warrant officer in March 2009.

On Thursday, the contestants had to make an entree, a salad and a dessert, using one of four possible ingredients that was announced earlier that morning. Some teams were more confident than others with the chosen ingredient — pumpkin.

"I’ve never really cooked with pumpkin, so I’m pretty new to this," Petty Officer 2nd Class Jimmy Frazier said before the competition. "I’m leaning on my partner’s pumpkin stew to win it for us. It’s homemade. We have a lot of faith in it."

More than one chef in the kitchen had Petty Officer 2nd Class Benjamin Kirwin, a culinary specialist, pegged as an early favorite to win.

"I just came here for fun. There is no strategy. I’m just doing what I do. Whatever comes up, comes up," Kirwin said. "Other people’s dishes might be more sophisticated since they brought their own ingredients. But for me, Iron Chef is: what the establishment has is what we use, and that’s what I did."

Midway into the competition, a few judges shared their impressions.

"This is great. It’s the first 27-course meal I’ve ever sat down to," said Cmdr. James Selkirk, the base’s executive officer.

"I didn’t realize we had such talent on the entire base," said Lt. Pamela Dukes. "My favorite would be the lobster. For the desserts, I’d have to say the pumpkin flan."

After the judges had sampled every dish, Ware announced the overall winners "by a lot" to be Petty Officer 2nd Class Rosemel Verdadero and Sheryl Verdadero, the only husband-and-wife team in the competition. Despite neither being Navy culinary specialists — Rosemel works as an aviation structural mechanic and Sheryl is not in the military — the couple said they went with what they knew.

"Our main dish is really, really simple, but we’ve also been doing it for a long time," Sheryl said. That main dish was pumpkin breaded garlic chicken. They also made a honey Dijon salad, for which they won the best salad prize, and pumpkin leche flan for dessert.

"It just takes a lot of fine-tuning and a lot of practice," Rosemel said of cooking. "I used to cook for my prior command, and then for our home parties, we’re always cooking."

The Verdaderos said they expect the number of hungry visitors to their home to increase.

"A lot," Rosemel said with a laugh.

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