A presidential ‘Iron Chef America’

(Associated Press)

White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford knows about all about cooking under pressure. After all, she cooks for the leader of the free world. (First under George W. Bush, now under Barack Obama.)

So she said she wasn’t all that unnerved by entering Kitchen Stadium for a special two-hour episode of the Food Network’s cooking competition “Iron Chef America,” which will air at 8 p.m. Sunday.

“Kitchen Stadium and the White House, they’re both immensely intense in terms of pressure,” Comerford said. She quipped that there is, however, one big difference: “One thing that the Kitchen Stadium has is a fog machine.” It’s used for dramatic effect on TV. “If we could only have that at the White House . . . “

Typically, “Iron Chef America” begins with the Chairman revealing a secret ingredient that competitors must use in dishes they will present to a panel of judges.

This time around, the “secret” ingredient is hardly a secret. It’s anything that can be plucked from the White House garden. And First Lady Michelle Obama will be on hand to issue the challenge: Come up with five dishes that show off the bounty of the nation’s most famous garden and reflect the ultimate American meal.

Comerford will pair with up with Bobby Flay, and the two will go up against celebu-chefs Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse. Judges include chef Nigella Lawson, Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin and actress Jane Seymour.

Flay’s visit to the White House, as seen in Sunday night’s episode, was actually his second. He had been invited there as part of a Father’s Day 2009 initiative to mentor young men and had the chance to do a little barbecuing with the president himself. “He knew what he was doing,” Flay said of the chief executive’s grilling skills.

Flay said that he was struck most by the relaxed tone of the White House and “how comfortable it is there. You feel family there, you feel an incredible caring. Bo, the dog, is running around. Cooking at the White House, for me, was probably my greatest professional moment.”

Speaking during a media conference call, Flay and Comerford were barred from talking about the specifics of the ingredients they chose for the TV show and about what dishes they prepared.

But Flay did let a few tidbits slip.

“The White House has [a beehive and] honey that is delicious and we absolutely used,” he said. He also took advantage of a tip from Michelle Obama: “She said one ingredient that I should not pass up was the sweet potatoes; they were immense.”