Category Archives: “Take Five” Q&A

Take Five with Ming Tsai, on His Experiences on the “Next Iron Chef”

Ming Tsai (photo courtesy of the chef)

He’s only 46 years old, but Chef Ming Tsai of the 12-year-old Blue Ginger restaurant in Massachusetts was an early pioneer of modern-day cooking shows with his innovative East-meets-West flavors that are more relevant today than ever.

Indeed, he’s now doing Season 8 of his “Simply Ming’’ show on public television. And he just missed winning this season’s “Next Iron Chef’’ competition on the Food Network, coming in third.

Yesterday, I had a chance to talk to him by phone about how the landscape of food television has changed, as well as his timely new cookbook, “Simply Ming One-Pot Meals” (Kyle Books).

Q: When the lineup for ‘Next Iron Chef’ was first announced, a lot of folks were surprised to see your name. In fact, my friends thought that the Food Network should have just made you an Iron Chef, that you’d already earned it after all these years.

A: I wish your friends worked at the Food Network. (laughs) It would have saved me a lot of work and time.

Q: Why did you want to compete on the show?

A: For fun. I enjoy competition and cooking. It’s the only format out there that’s legit. I think the judges were fair, though, I didn’t always agree with what was said. But Michael Symon was spot-on for the most part.

I wasn’t out to prove to the world that I could still cook. But I was out to prove to the rest of the world that I still had game. This seemed like the perfect format. I had enough staff at the restaurant to cover for me since we were shooting for five-plus weeks. It was a huge time commitment. But it was a blast.

It was as hard as I thought it would be. You have 30 minutes to do one dish or 60 minutes to do several dishes. You just have to put your head down and go for it. The hardest challenge was the Vegas buffet. It was brutal. People were getting delirious.

I’m certainly glad I did it. I made some great friends for life. Marc Forgione and Bryan Caswell are solid guys. Those are guys I probably would have never hung with. They’re 10-15 years younger than me. I tend to hang out with Jean Georges (Vongerichten) and Daniel (Boulud) — guys like that.

Q: I heard that some of the other chefs such as Duskie Estes were calling you, ‘Uncle Ming’?

A: Some of them did say that. (Marco) Canora called me that and he’s 43! I was the oldest there. But I was not in the worst shape of any of them. I loved the fact that they were thinking about me so much for the first couple of shows that they weren’t even concentrating on their own food.

Q: Did you like the way you were portrayed, i.e. the comments about your plating being stuck in the 1980s and the scene with the messy sous vide machine?

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Take Five with Chef Duskie Estes, On Competing On “The Next Iron Chef” Despite Never Watching the Food Network

Tune in to watch Duskie Estes of Bovolo and Zazu restaurants in Sonoma County. (Photo courtesy of the Food Network)

When the third season of “The Next Iron Chef’’ premieres on Sunday, Oct. 3 at 9 p.m., 10 chefs will compete to win a chance to stand alongside Michael Symon and Jose Garces as the newest Iron Chefs on that smoke-billowing platform.

Among them will be Duskie Estes of Zazu Restaurant + Farm in Santa Rosa, the only Northern California chef in the competition, who is gunning to follow in Cat Cora’s footsteps to become the second female “Iron Chef.’’

I had a chance this week to chat by phone with Estes, a former vegetarian who went over to the pork side, who feared she nearly blew the interview when she was first asked to do the show.

A believer in “snout to tail’’ cooking, the 42-year-old Estes, who grew up in San Francisco, is also chef-owner with her husband of Bovolo in Healdsburg and the Black Pig Meat Co., purveyor of salumi and bacon in Sonoma County. Estes has worked at such top restaurants as Al Forno in Rhode Island, Bay Wolf in Oakland, and Dahlia Lounge in Seattle. She and her husband, John Stewart, who studied salumi making with Mario Batali, met while working together at Etta’s Seafood and Palace Kitchen, both of which are Chef Tom Douglas’ restaurants in Seattle.

Cheer on Estes as she goes up against: Marco Canora (chef and owner of Hearth, Terrior, and Terroir TriBeca, in New York), Bryan Caswell (chef and owner of Reef, Stella Sola, and Little Bigs, in Houston), Maneet Chauhan (chef at Vermilion in Chicago and New York), Mary Dumont (executive chef at Harvest in Cambridge), , Marc Forgione (chef and owner of Marc Forgione in New York), Andrew Kirschner (executive chef of Wilshire in Santa Monica), Mario Pagán (chef and owner of Lemongrass in Puerto Rico), Celina Tio (chef and owner of Julian in Kansas City, MO), and Ming Tsai (chef and wwner of Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Mass.).

Q: You had an Easy-Bake oven when you were growing up. I’m so jealous, as my Mom never let me have one because she thought I’d burn down the house with it. Was this the start of your love for cooking?

A: I was 5 when I got mine. I have a photo of me baking a birthday cake for my grandfather with it. I was very proud of it.

I got one for my older daughter when she was 5. They have so many added safety features on it now. You can’t get in there and get the stuff. It’s less fun now. It was better when it was dangerous. (laughs) So, I let my older daughter, who’s 9 now, just use the real oven instead.

Q: Is Duskie a nickname or your given name?

A: It’s my given name. It’s a testament to my California hippie parents.

Q: Since you grew up in San Francisco, you must have had a pretty foodie household?

A: My father was a scientist, and scientists are all closet chefs. After my parents divorced, my Dad would take me out once a week to a restaurant in San Francisco. So, from the time I was 10, I had a great exposure to what great chefs like Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower were doing.

I’m also the youngest in the family. Growing up, I was the one who cooked for the whole family. I loved it.

Q: You graduated from Brown University. How did you go from that to cooking professionally?

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Take Five with Chef Jennie Lorenzo, On Cooking with Bad Boy Chefs and Life After the Fifth Floor

One of the best meals I’ve had this year can’t be experienced again.

Not in all its totality.

It was on Sept. 4 at San Francisco’s tony Fifth Floor restaurant, on what was the last night that Executive Chef Jennie Lorenzo was in the kitchen.

Although, I had eaten at the Fifth Floor a few times over the past few years under the reign of other top toques, I had yet to make it in there to try Lorenzo’s cooking. I had planned on doing so some day. But some day came all too unexpectedly when Lorenzo emailed me that week, inviting me to come in as her guest, as she was about to depart the restaurant after cooking there on and off for five and a half years.

My husband, who is happy enough with a burger and gets jaded after one too many fancy tasting menus, sat back in his chair that night, looked me square in the eyes, and said emphatically after only the second course, “I am SO glad we came. This is really good.”

How good? Even our server, who had worked with Lorenzo for the past few years, came in to dine on his day off a few days before because he wanted to experience Chef Lorenzo’s dazzling cooking one last time before she left.

You might be scratching your head right now, thinking how it’s possible you’ve never heard of this talented, 35-year-old Filipino-American, who has worked for some of the most legendary chefs in the United States, Europe and Japan. It’s not your fault. For whatever reason, Lorenzo never garnered the buzz she should have. She took over right after the restaurant was remodeled — its wild, flashy animal prints toned down to a sleeker, simpler contemporary look.  But the public seemed confused about what the restaurant had become. Some thought it still fine-dining; others turned their back, thinking it had morphed into a bistro of all things.

The pity of that.

Especially  because Lorenzo decided to leave the restaurant to take a much needed break. Although the restaurant will continue, it’s unclear yet who will be named as her replacement.

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Take Five with Chef Christopher Kostow, About Competing on Sunday’s “Iron Chef America”

Chef Christopher Kostow of the Restaurant at Meadowood in the heat of things on "Iron Chef America.'' (Photo courtesy of the Food Network)

When I first started my Food Gal blog in 2008, Chef Christopher Kostow, who had just landed at the Restaurant at Meadowood resort in St. Helena as its executive chef, was gracious enough to be spotlighted in my first “Take Five Q&A.’’

In that interview, the Michelin two-star chef who celebrates his 34th birthday this week, famously said he’d never want to be on a show like “Top Chef’’ because he couldn’t fathom he’d gain anything from it. That may be so, but this Sunday, Sept. 5, you can tune in to watch Kostow tackle another cooking competition show instead –- “Iron Chef America’’ –- when he goes up against Iron Chef Cat Cora.

Yesterday, I chatted with him by phone about why he decided to make the leap into this reality TV cooking arena, and how he coped with his lifelong personal aversion to this particular “secret ingredient.’’

Q: So you remember what you said to me about ‘Top Chef,’ right? So, why go on ‘Iron Chef America’ then?

A: I still don’t have anything to gain from ‘Top Chef.’ But ‘Iron Chef’ is one day or just a few hours really. It’s good exposure, especially when you have a restaurant in Napa that’s off the beaten path. I didn’t miss any time in my kitchen, either, which was important to me.

Q: Are you a fan of these types of shows?

A: Not really. I don’t really watch much food TV. I don’t want to go home and watch people scrambling around, cooking food, because I see that when I’m at work.

I think TV is a double-edged sword. It has raised awareness among the populace about what we do. But there’s a false sense about it. People think we run around all day competing in the kitchen. In some ways, it demeans what we do. I take this all with a grain of salt. We’ve done a lot in this restaurant, but I find it amusing that this is the thing everyone wants to talk about. At the end of the day, that’s why chefs go on TV.

Q: When the Food Network came calling, you didn’t say ‘yes’ immediately?

A: I went back and forth about it. I’m not a chef shut-in by any means. I like talking to people. I like being in the dining room. But I didn’t want to present my food in a style that wasn’t me. In the end, we presented things on the show in a manner that we were comfortable with.

Q: Did you know Cat Cora already?

A: It was the first time I met her. It was filmed a year ago. And then last December, she was part of our “Twelve Days of Christmas’’ (when 12 renowned chefs pair with 12 Napa Valley vintners for a series of holiday feasts). It was fun. I enjoyed meeting her and her team.

Two California chefs duke it out in Kitchen Arena in Kostow vs. Cora. (Photo courtesy of the Food Network)

Q: What hint can you give us about the secret ingredient?

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Take Five with Chef Dominique Crenn, on Her Upcoming “Iron Chef America” Battle

Last year, Executive Chef Dominique Crenn of Luce in San Francisco, showed her chops by competing in the Food Network’s “The Next Iron Chef Competition.’’

Now, the 45-year-old chef who used to square off regularly against the guys in soccer in her homeland of France, shows off her combative skills again, this time in Kitchen Stadium on Aug. 8 on “Iron Chef America’’ when she takes on Iron Chef Michael Symon.

She plans to feature her “Iron Chef’’ dishes on a special prix fixe menu at Luce, too, starting Aug. 10. The multi-course dinner will be $65 per person, and be available through Labor Day.

Crenn joins a small cadre of Bay Area chefs who have battled an Iron Chef: Ron Siegel of the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco; David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos, Traci Des Jardins of Jardiniere in San Francisco; Mourad Lahlou of Aziza in San Francisco; Charles Phan of the Slanted Door in San Francisco; Chris Cosentino of Incanto in San Francisco; and Nate Appleman (formerly at A16 in San Francisco and now at New York’s Pulino’s). By Crenn’s count, that makes her the eighth competitor from these parts, a most auspicious number for her, too.

Q: What’s up with the number eight?

A: In France, we celebrate the names of people on certain days. So, Aug. 8 is the day to celebrate St. Dominique in France.

Q: Hmm, so does that mean there was a good outcome for you in the battle because of that?

A: (laughs) You can’t read anything into that.

Q: The day you did the battle also marked the anniversary of your father’s death?

A: Yes, it was the 10th anniversary. The battle was for him. That day, I was sad, but focused. I wished he was there. But it also was a day to celebrate the person that he was. You have to celebrate that or else you just end up staying at home and crying your eyes out.

Q: Did you know Symon before doing the show?

A: I met him when I did ‘The Next Iron Chef.’ And I knew about him through friends in the industry. He has an incredible reputation. It was an honor to be in a battle with him.

We were putting makeup on, and sitting next to each other, just cracking up. He’s a wonderful man. But the gloves come off when it’s time to battle. It’s one hour of craziness.

Q: Of course, he has that unmistakable devilish laugh, too. Was that intimidating?

A: I love his laugh. I made a comment about it. You will see.

Q: I know you can’t say what the ‘secret ingredient’ is. But was it at least an ingredient that you liked?

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