"Food Network Star" 2014 came to a close Aug. 10 as gourmet cowboy Lenny McNab bested runner-up Luca Della Casa and third place-finisher Nicole Gaffney to take the season 10 title. Less than 24 hours after the finale aired, Examiner caught up with the personable McNab for an exclusive interview. Still basking in the joy of his big victory, the 42-year old executive chef talked freely on a variety of topics, including which of his fellow competitors cooked up the best cuisine, how he and the other finalists celebrated his win, and his earliest cooking memory.
When was the show actually taped? When did you find out?
Lenny: I found out on Wednesday night [Aug. 6].
So you've had a couple days to let it sink in.
Lenny: You know what, I did have a couple days to let it sink in. You've got to keep it to yourself and boy, that's the hardest thing in the world when you've got good news to spread. I remember last night when I was watching the show... I knew I was gonna win, but when it came down to that moment where [Food Network President] Mrs. [Brooke] Johnson said 'the next Food Network star is' and there was this big pause, for me it was kind of like opening up a bottle of champagne, where you're taking off the foil, and then you're removing that little metal doo-hickey thing and you don't know if it's gonna pop --you're getting into unsafe territory now-- and you're getting nervous, and the bubbles inside are starting to build, and then all the sudden it flashed on the screen, and even last night when that big bottle of emotional bubbles popped in me, I even dropped to my knees last night and started bawling my eyes out. Even though I was there live, it still took me by surprise.
When you saw your face up on that screen, what was your first thought?
Lenny: My first thought was of the Lord, and thanking Him so much for putting me where I am these days, even though maybe half the time a fella doesn't deserve it. I won a really big one. I just felt really blessed so the first thing I did was drop to my knees and pray and thank the Lord.
It was a really sweet moment.
Lenny: It was. [Laughs] Then I threw my hat up in the air and I realized I shouldn't have done that because I was down on my knees and the cameras could catch my balding spot. [Laughs]
Oh, come on. Everyone was looking at your face. We weren't looking at your head!
Lenny: It was the best. It was the best time ever when Mrs. Johnson gave me a big old hug, and she whispered into my ear 'welcome to the family, Lenny.' Man, I'm a Food Network star now! It's just great.
Okay, so you teared up and threw your hat and danced with Giada [DeLaurentiis]. How did you celebrate after the cameras stopped rolling?
Lenny: After the cameras stopped rolling, I went back to my hotel room, I sat on my bed, and I cried for about 10 minutes. Then I took a shower and I immediately went to a beer garden with all the other contestants and had some wonderful bratwurst with sauerkrat and mustard and some delicious hefeweizen beer. It was great. All 12 of us were out that evening and we just tore up that beer garden. It was a big old time.
When you were on the show, which of the mentors was most helpful to you?
Lenny: I think the mentor that was probably the most helpful to me was Alton Brown. When I went into the season, I went in preparing to cook my food for Bobby Flay, wear my personality for Giada, and listen to everything that Alton Brown told me to do and do it. I remember when I was pitching my pilot to the selection committee, I told Alton at that moment 'if I win this competition, I'm gonna give you this belt buckle you've been talking about all season.'
Lenny: Sure enough, that evening, right on the middle of that stage, I took that belt buckle off and I gave it to Alton Brown. I wanted to show that I am a man of my word and I'll give away my most prized possession in my life if that's what it takes to be a Food Network star [laughs].
Where did you get the belt buckle to begin with?
Lenny: I went to Rocky Point, Mexico once on a vacation and I went to this pharmacy to get some suntan lotion. It was in this glass case at the register --this huge, giant belt buckle-- and I asked to see it and on the back of it it says 'made in Chihuahua' which I thought was very funny, because chihuahuas are very small and this buckle's huge. From what I understand, they wear a lot of things big to compensate for their dogs. But I remember I asked the lady behind the counter 'how much for the buckle?' and I think she was pretty savvy and saw the tourists there, and she told me $40. And I was like sold, done. And I've been wearing that belt buckle like it's a religious relic for the last 10 years. I love that buckle, but I'm having a new one made. It's gonna be a half inch larger, and it's gonna be gold and silver and in the middle it's gonna say 'Food Network Star.' It's gonna be epic [laughs].
So Lenny, no lie here whatsoever, when I first saw you come out during episode one, I turned to my husband and I said 'that guy is going to win.'
Lenny: Did you really?
I did! I think it was the combination of the fact that you seemed different from everyone else on the network and your big personality and your big belt buckle. Did you have a moment during the show when you thought 'I could seriously win this thing'?
Lenny: Yes, I did have that moment. That moment came to me when I did the belly flop at the pool party. Working on a set for a TV show, there's a lot of stimulation, you get pulled in a lot of different directions and you don't know what's coming around the corner because it's a competition show. I remember when I did that belly flop --and this was totally unexpected-- but I went under water and I was probably under water for maybe a couple seconds, but everything muted in my life for those seconds I was under water. Time seemed to stop and the loud screaming had come to a little muffled roar, and I felt like I was back in some type of pool of life and I realized at that second that this is where I want to be. And as soon as I popped out of that water it was like being baptized. From there on in, Food Network has saved my life.
You had several pretty distinctive moments on the show, but I remember when you walked in an saw Chef Robert Irvine standing there, I saw your face and I thought 'I wonder what he's thinking right now?' So what were you thinking?
Lenny: I was thinking 'aw, I wish it was Guy. I wish it was Guy Fieri.' [Laughs] The first thing that went into my mind was 'oh, Chef Irvine, he's tough' and it immediately brought back memories of when I was going through basic training in the Army. And I got scared for a second because he's a very ominous figure and a very straightforward guy and he's got biceps the size of the Taj Mahal. But then he kind of eased my mind. But then he yelled at me a little bit and made me get out of my head. I couldn't have done the pilot without Robert Irvine. It wouldn't have come out half as good without him. Boy, I owe him a debt of gratitude. I should cook him dinner some day.
You should! What would you cook for him?
Lenny: I might go with some nice Colorado lamb chops with a sweet pea and mint puree cuz he's from England and they love peas, from what I understand. And some Hungarian roasted potatoes and a nice sweet onion demi-glace to swirl around the plate.
That sounds good.
Lenny: I think that's what I'd make him. I'm starving now.
You're working up my appetite, too.
Lenny: I just went out to the garden a little while ago. I've got this beautiful garden here at my house, putting out 23 different vegetables this year. I was just out in the garden and I picked a bunch of zucchinis and one of them was the size of my head. I sliced some pieces off it and sauteed it in butter with salt and pepper and then mixed up a couple eggs and poured it over it and baked it in the oven. That was a great breakfast for me this morning.
You're killing me, Lenny! The only thing I've managed to grow this year are tomatoes because we're in drought country.
Lenny: Did you grow some tomatoes?
I have a ton of tomatoes in my back yard. I say that I didn't grow them, God grew them...
Lenny: Yes, God grew them...
...because I have a habit of letting tomatoes fall off the plants and letting them do what they want to do so I ended up with a ton of plants.
Lenny: I'll tell ya, that's exactly how I run my garden. I rarely weed anything. I'm not a big on getting down on my hands and knees because I don't know if you knew it, but I'm kinda heavy. But you know what I grew for the first time this year? These black tomatoes. They're really dark black, and when you hold them in the light they've got this purple tint to them. I just picked off the very first one this morning and I tried it, and it kinda has a smoky flavor to it.
Lenny: Yes, exactly! It's the weirdest thing ever. So I'm really excited about my smoky black tomatoes. I can't wait to bring them up to the ranch and cook supper with them for the guests.
You talked about smoke. When I think about smoke, I think about Guy Fieri. I know you love him and that you've said that he's one of your big inspirations. What is it that you love so much about Guy?
Lenny: I think I see some of Guy in me. Guy's not afraid to be himself and he's cool as a cucumber doing it. And man, if there's one Food Network star I'd wanna emulate, it would be him because he's just real laid back. The time I got to meet him on "Guy's Grocery Game" he was just an everyday fella. He was just sitting out in front of his trailer with his tank top on and a soda pop in his hand and he was very approachable and very kind and I was like 'yes! That's what I wanna be!' I wanna be the guy that people don't mind coming up to in the airport because I love people so much.
Well, you seem pretty approachable.
Lenny: Yeah. I want people to come up and talk to me. I think that's one thing that I'm enjoying the most about this --and it only really dawned on me when I went back to New York for the finale-- but people are screaming my name... from across Chelsea Market and a whole family of five came up to me and they're like 'we watch you every week! We can't believe we're seeing you!' and I can't believe that... people know me. I'm shocked by it.
It's definitely cool! But I know you got your start somewhere, way back when. So, what's your earliest cooking memory? Go way back!
Lenny: That's a great question because I've always remembered my first cooking memory! When I was seven or eight years old, one of my Christmas presents was a cookbook for kids. It was real thin and big with a lot of cartoon pictures in it and it had stuff like peanut butter and jelly sandwich and deviled egg and stuff that kids could cook. Of course, what seven-year old wants a book for Christmas? Blech. So after I had broken all my other toys, the cookbook was left. So I remember one day I brought it down into the kitchen... and decided I was gonna make some eggnog. So I separated the eggs and I got the milk out and the sugar and the cinnamon and the nutmeg and the vanilla, and I put together my first batch of eggnog. I was like 'whoa, I love eggnog!' And every day, I'd get up and make more eggnog until about two weeks later, my mom comes into the kitchen and she's like 'Leonard! Enough with the... eggnog! Pick another recipe out of that book!' So I went directly into hot chocolate. But that's my first memory of being little chef Lenny. Still love eggnog.
Well, it's good stuff! So, going back to the show for a minute, how did the experience of competing change the way you think about being a chef?
Lenny: Doing the competition is very different than being a working chef. As a working chef, I have all day --sometimes two or three days-- to build a dish and execute and plate it. The competition showed me to keep it simple [to create] a better dish that's do-able. In the end, the show will be about teaching so that's what I've taken from this competition: to make things that are do-able.
When you were on the show, which dish was your favorite creation?
Lenny: Boy, I think that's a toss-up between either the chicken fried lobster at the beginning [of the season] or the lamb burgers with the homemade curry ketchup and the goat cheese. That was just so succulent and juicy; it was a nice game-y burger with that smooth, velvety goat cheese underneath and that super zing of the curry ketchup all enveloped inside a little brioche bun. It was like a burger angel had descended from burger heaven with a ketchup scepter. Yeah, let's go with the lamb burger.
Of all of your fellow contestants, which of them made the food that you'd most like to eat again?
Lenny: Ooh, I'm gonna tell you whose food was great every time. I'd go and try everyone's food because you wanna size up your competition. And the one person's food that I'd just love to eat,, I'd get over there and just start munching and munching and munching, was Nicole's. Nicole made some out of control, great food. That girl's got her act together and if she doesn't get a show I'll be surprised. You'll see her on TV some day. She's really good and she was just so sweet and nice to me, too. Everyone was really nice. Luca became my best friend out of all of them.
Okay, so I have a couple of fairly quick questions to wrap things up. I read that you like to perform as well as cook. Who's your favorite musician?
Lenny: My favorite musician is Dwight Yoakam.
Do you sing or just play guitar?
Lenny: Oh no, I play guitar and sing. I have a whole 'nother persona and a stage name, the Black Mamba. I go on stage every night at Kessler Canyon and do a honky tonk show with song and dance and cowboy poetry and stories. The Black Mamba is very dangerous. He rides a three-legged donkey. Her name is Priscilla. [Laughs] Just throwing that out there for ya. The Black Mamba shows are really some of the highlights of my day, every day.... I consider myself a country music star but I don't think anyone else does. [Laughs] You gotta have fun with yourself in life before anyone can have fun with you. I crack myself up.
When you're cooking, if you have a glass on the counter, what's in it?
Lenny: Probably a whisky and cola if I'm at home. If I'm at work, it's just water or tea. I like the Alpine Berry Tea because it's like drinking tea, but also it tastes like Kool Aid and I love Kool Aid.
Dogs or cats?
Lenny: Dogs, especially Tess, my little springer spaniel. She just brought me back lunch. I'm sitting at home out on my porch and she ran off into the woods and brought me back a turkey.
Lenny: Yeah, no joke. So I'm gonna make turkey soup today. Life on the ranch!
Okay, last one. What's your favorite Food Network show?
Lenny: "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives." I like Guy, but I think I like watching the people that he goes to because you get to see all the little spots in life that I eat at. I eat at diners and dives. That's where I wanna eat. I want a can of Spaghetti-Os and raw hot dogs. Chefs eats awful food, by the way. Because we're cooking good food all day, we just wanna eat Oreo cookies and orange soda when we get home.
I wish you the very best when it comes to getting your show off the ground.
Lenny: My first show, I'll tug my ear and that'll be for you.
Okay, I'll be looking for it!
Lenny: I'll do it! I got a memory and a belly like an elephant.