Starting off, we spoke with your fellow “Top Chef” judge Tom Colicchio recently about the joint event you guys did to preview both Bounty DuraTowels and Cascade Platinum. Can you tell me a little about that?
It was a really exciting event for the launch of two different products. Both Cascade Platinum and the new Bounty product which is the toughest paper towel to date. It was fun for Tom and I. We were tasked with making recipes that went together so he did this beautiful salad and a fish dish and then I followed with dessert. I made a Ginger and Strawberry Panna Cotta recipe. We cooked with a bunch of the editors so they could get their hands a little bit dirty and be up close and cooking with us and asking questions about the product. What was great for me was getting to show people how to make a dessert that people see in restaurants and they're really scared of so they knew how easy it was, not only to make but to clean up when you have great products to work with.
That sounds great. Anything with ginger in it is for me!
It really was lovely. It had lots of lemon and fresh ginger and this beautiful strawberry sauce that went around it when it was served.
You're not someone we see on TV doing advertising partnerships often. What made you decide to partner up with Cascade Platinum?
It's not something I take lightly. I always make sure when I'm working with a product it's an organic relationship and it's a product that I use myself. So that's the first thing I think about when presented with an opportunity like this. I entertain a lot, I cook a ton, so working with Cascade Platinum made sense. It's a brand that I depended on, it's a product my mother depended on and used all the time. The best part about it for someone like me who uses my kitchen, I use my kitchen all the time for entertaining and as a test kitchen when I'm developing new recipes for my work and I wanted to make sure it was something I depended on for my uses so when I talked to people and to the press it was something I knew how it works and I feel like I could trust.
What was it like cooking with your fellow editors and critics? A lot of those guys are really good cooks.
I was a cook for a long time. That's a side of me you don't see on “Top Chef” specifically because you see me there eating and judging rather than cooking. But people who know me know that I came from cooking first and foremost. I went to culinary school, I cooked in professional restaurants, I worked for big name chefs and now I've been an editor at “Food and Wine” for 8 years. Now I spend a lot of my time on television but cooking is my passion first and foremost. So it was wonderful to get to cook in front of an audience and not just talk about cooking. There's nothing I love more than getting my hands dirty and my dishes dirty. As long as I have Cascade Platinum, I'm ok. I didn't want to be the one doing the dishes! It's the one thing I don't love to do.
I certainly love cooking, I love cooking for people, I love teaching people to cook. I think in everybody's busy lives these days, cooking is a thing that gets pushed to the side. People don't have time to cook for their family, to cook for their friends and just sit down at the table. So when I have a chance to demystify food for people, to not only present food in a way they'll understand, but to teach them things but not dumb it down but give them tips for how to do things well and do things efficiently in the kitchen. That's the biggest reward for me, that's why I go to work every day.
For those who have watched “Top Chef” over the 10 seasons now, you notice each of the judges kind of have their niche of things they're looking for and one thing I've noticed you place a real importance on is the plating of the dish.
Sure. Presentation is a big part of how we eat. That goes for home cooking too, not only in restaurants by professional chefs. Presentation of food is what draws you in, it's what appeals to you and makes you want to eat something. So that's the very basis of when you create a dish and that's something that as a critic I notice all the time. I know at the end of the day it has to taste great and that determines its value, but I'm not going to want to eat it at all if it doesn't look good and doesn't look appealing. You eat with your eyes is something we say again and again on the show and it's true. Messy food, food that isn't cooked with care, that isn't presented with care, it really shows.
I say to make a dish really look great you start with the dish you choose on up. You need a sparkling clean plate, making sure they're clean, they're fresh, they're not spotted. From there, you want to make sure it's clean, it's focused, there's great balance in color, that the plate you choose is the right one for the food you're serving. For example, I don't want to serve something that is soupy and saucy on a really flat large plate because the sauce is just going to spread around and drip everywhere. You want to use the right shallow bowl that can get the sauce but still allow you to scoop out the food well. You want to think about garnish and color contrast, all of these components go into making a dish look great and luring me in and want to eat it.
You're preparing this week to crown your 10th “Top Chef.” When you started this thing, did you guys have any idea it would explode the way it did?
Not even a little. It wasn't that we didn't think we had a good show. We knew we were on to something. We were just doing something that had never been done before. When you think back to our first season in 2006, food was in a different place and food television was in a different place. We wanted to do a show about the true lives of professional chefs. This was not an instructional show about how to cook or about home cooking or teaching you how to make recipes. This was a show about the professional kitchen and it was the first of its kind.
We really trusted our producers, we really trusted Bravo, and we knew we were making a show about great food and the lives and the true process of being a chef but we had no idea it would take off and people would be drawn to it in the way we were. 10 seasons later it's easy to see how we got here, but I remember at that first taping sitting next to Tom, the two of us looked at each other and kind of had a nervous laugh because we really had no idea what we were about to do. If people would judge us, if people would embrace us, if people in our industry would embrace the show. We were so lucky that everyone on the show was as passionate about good food and great presentation as we were so we felt secure in that. We're so lucky to be doing this 10 seasons later.
You've been successful enough to have a couple of spin-off shows, including “Top Chef: Just Desserts”, which you host. Is there another season coming soon?
That's right! I don't know about another season. I'm waiting to hear. I hope so. I love making the show so much. The exciting thing about doing “Top Chef: Just Desserts” is that I'm a trained cook but I always cooked in a savory kitchen. I'm a total dessert addict but I'm not a pastry chef so it was amazing to watch these magicians make pastry because it's such an incredible craft. More than anything what I love about it is that is so visual, in some ways more than a savory kitchen. Cooking meat and stew and salads and soups is beautiful, but a dessert that has sugar work and texture and the magic of baking in it to me is so visual and presentation is so much more a part of the conversation in pastry and that's what the show look so beautiful. People tuned in to see these incredible looking plates of food every day. I hope I get to do more of it. I'll keep you posted!
Do you enjoy hosting or judging more?
They're different. I love judging on “Top Chef.” That's where I started. The original “Top Chef” was where we started, it's kind of like a first child that you always have a soft spot and I love my seat at the judge's table. Hosting presents a whole new set of challenges that I was ready for when they presented me with “Top Chef: Just Desserts.” I was ready to try something different. It's much more challenging physically and the hours are much longer. I was in charge of steering the contents and story of the show in a different way so that was a great experience too. I don't know. They're both things I love. It's great that they're both of the same franchise so it's the same crew, the same people, it's the same quality of production. That for me has been great and it's been fun to slide between them both.
In addition to your work on television and in professional kitchens, you've spent a lot of years as a very successful food journalist and in addition to the chef culture getting out there because if shows like “Top Chef” it has also spiked an interest in food journalism. What advice would you have for someone out there today thinking “food journalism is something I want to pursue?”
If you're serious about food journalism, first you need to really understand food. Everybody eats. What makes you different than anyone else on the planet? If that's because you're passionate about food I think you need to know how to cook, to understand the world of chefs and the world of kitchens because it is so much harder and there is such a massive base of knowledge you need to really speak about food fluently and to appreciate food at that level. It's important to learn how to cook.
Then, if journalism is your thing, get out there and learn how to write. Find a mentor who you respect who does what you want to do in the best way and find someone you can be inspired by and hopefully that will help you get started.
Are there any food writers you would say are essential reads?
Oh there are so many greats out there. Everyone from Ruth Reichl to my Editor in Chief Dana Cowin to Andrew Zimmern who is a great television personality but is also a great writer. I love reading everyone from M.F.K. Fisher who was kind of the original food writer and the woman who started it all. Her writing is so beautiful and so interesting.
I think it's important to understand the more political and timely issues of food in our culture so reading writers like Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle, sustainability advocates, people who talk about the state of food in our world and the new of food is really important.
You have been involved with the charity Common Threads which kind of works in that same vein. Can you tell us a bit about that?
I work with several food related charities. Common Threads is certainly one, in fact I'm going this weekend to Chicago to help host their annual gala fundraiser on Monday where 30 or more of the greatest chefs from the country and the Chicago area get together to cook and raise funds. Common Threads' mission is to change the way young people eat, to reverse a generation of non-cookers, to teach children about non-violence and the greater world around them and about tolerance through the language of food. It also teaches them to take an interest in foods so they can go home and make better food choices. Specifically children in under-served areas of the country. Common Threads works in Chicago, started by chef Art Smith who is an amazing chef there, but now they have locations in Los Angeles and Miami. They do a lot of work in Washington lobbying for greater funding for school lunch programs and for programs that allow children access to fresh food so the issues of hunger and obesity can be addressed. People think hunger and obesity are different ends of the conversation but they're very much related. They're two sides of the same coin. These are the issues of our time and they're very important.
One final question. You have the “Top Chef” finale coming up this week and this time you're having them cook in front of a live audience. Who do you think that rattles more, you guys or the chefs?
Nerve wracking! In some ways it probably rattles us more than the chefs. Even though we've never had the chefs cook in front of a live audience on the show, their time is their time. If we tell them “you have 4 hours”, they have 4 hours and they have to get going. Then they're always cooking for other people, for guests and a larger group. They're used to it in some ways. This has turned the heat up for us. We never judged in front of a live audience before! That really changes the process, for me at least.