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 Pagin (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?

A: I was pre-med at Brown. But then I discovered I had a phobia to blood. I nearly passed out. So, I discovered that wasn’t my destiny. My grandfather — the one I made the Easy-Bake cake for — was a federal judge, so I decided to study pre-law. I got an internship at the public defender’s office in DC. I realized that in law, things don’t always turn out fairly. So, I knew I would be miserable. That wasn’t my calling, either.

Then, I took a semester off from Brown, and enrolled in the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. I went back to Brown to graduate, and have worked in a restaurant pretty much ever since then.

There was a brief interlude when I had an internship in the Clinton administration, working on the health care bill. I was an intern, but I was not THAT intern. (laughs)

I’ve always been interested in policy and politics. I put that stamp on my food now.

Bovolo, llocated in the back of a bookstore in Healdsburg. (Photo by Carolyn Jung)

Q: Why did you want to compete on ‘The Next Iron Chef’?

A: In high school and college, I was athletic and loved competition. I was on the swim team in high school, and on the men’s crew team at Brown. It was definitely hard-core. We’d practice three hours a day.

I am passionate about winning. I never turn away from a challenge. I want to be the next female Iron Chef. There needs to be another one on that stage.

Q: You’re going up against quite the roster of chefs. Did you know any of them before? Or did any of them leave you particularly intimidated?

A: I’ve known Ming Tsai for many years. I’ve been a lackey for Food & Wine magazine for the Aspen Food & Wine festival. I’d help organize demos for that. I knew Ming from that event.

When I saw him in the lobby of the Food Network, checking in, I assumed he was a judge. And we ended up sharing a stove like neighbors. I was used to being his lackey, not his equal. We all called him Uncle Ming, but I’m not sure he liked it.

I knew Mary Dumont from Boston. We once rode a gondola for 30 minutes up a hill in Aspen. I absolutely admire her. I was unnerved to be considered at the level of those two chefs. The rest of the chefs I didn’t know. I feel honored to have been selected.

Q: Had you been a fan of ‘Iron Chef America’ or the original Japanese ‘Iron Chef’ shows?

A: I haven’t had a TV in nine years! I signed the documents before I had even seen the show. During the interview process, I didn’t ever want to admit to them I didn’t have a TV and never watched Food Network. I never lied, but I never gave them that information until I was actually on TV.

I tried to watch ‘Iron Chef America’ online, but I couldn’t find it. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m a Luddite or what. I asked them to send me DVDs. So, that was the first time I saw the show.

After they interviewed me in the casting call, my husband called me to ask how I did. I said, ‘I think I did great, but I blew the most important question.’ They asked me why I wanted to be the next Iron Chef, and I said I didn’t know why. I didn’t explain why I didn’t know, but said that I was really competitive and liked to win.

So, there you go. That’s how it happened. Now, of course, I’ve met Morimoto. He is such a kind man. I bet the original ‘Iron Chef’ was hilarious. But I’ve still never seen it.

Q: What surprised you most about competing on this show?

A: When they sent me the DVDs, and I saw people get eliminated, then get hugged, I said to my husband, John: ‘What is THAT? I would never hug any of these people.’ When I left to do the show, I told myself I was going into a sea of sharks. I didn’t think I’d become close to any of my rivals. Well, I was proved absolutely wrong. And I love being proved absolutely wrong. We had a blast together and eating out together. They’re all so talented and fun.

Q: Do you ever think food on TV has become too competitive?

A: In my restaurants, we collaborate. Everyone’s ideas come to the table. I love cooking like that every day.

But when I called my mentor in Seattle — Eric Tanaka, who runs Tom Douglas’ restaurants — he told me that this is the current stage for cooking, and you have to decide if you want on or off of it. He told me to do the show, so I did. And I’m glad he did.

The dining room at Bovolo. (Photo by Carolyn Jung)

Q: At your restaurants, you’re all about the pig. What is it about pork that mesmerizes you?

A: I was a vegetarian for 22 years before I met my husband. I worked at Greens in San Francisco three times a week and at the same time, worked at Bay Wolf three days a week as their butcher. So, I’ve always straddled those worlds.

My husband is an amazing salumist. He makes all of our salumi and bacon. He was Mr. Pork with the big tattoo. I told him that if we decided to be together, we needed to make sure the pigs have a great life and only one bad day. That meant non-confinement, and no hormones. That’s how we came to terms with each other.

Of course, I’ve gone to the dark side now, obviously. (laughs) We raise our own heritage pigs. There’s a commonality with the pigs. We save our restaurant scraps to feed the pigs. They come running up the hill with a voracious appetite, with their ears and cheeks flapping. Pigs are adorable and they love life and they want to play. To me, they have more personality than a dog. I love them as creatures. At the same time, there are so many uses for pig and pork. I adore belly, cheek, ear, and trotter. Every part can be prepared differently. It allows you to do so much. The fat content makes them so moist, too, that you don’t ever get a dry piece of meat.

Q: Do you think our love affair with pork — with bacon found on just about everything now — is on the wane? Or is it a trend that’s here to stay?

A: I’m not one for trends. I feel things that things that are great stand the test of time. Pork is delicious and it will always reign as king.

Q: Any new projects in the works? Another restaurant? A cookbook?

A: All of the above.

Q: Any hints on all of that?

A: We’re working on a potential show, a cookbook and another potential restaurant in Sonoma County. It’s too early to talk much about any of it. The proposals are still going back and forth.

Q: Could you eat pork every day?

A: I guess I do already. I’m always trying things at the restaurants. I’m not sick of pork yet.

Q: What would your ultimate pork meal consist of?

A: I’m a total seasonal cook, so it depends on the season. For fall, one of my favorite dishes is one we do with Brussels sprouts, apples, almonds and bacon with a goat’s milk cheese from Bodega Bay shaved over the top. I could eat a big bowl of that every day. It’s always on our Thanksgiving table, too.

More: My Dinner at Bovolo in Healdsburg

More: My Q&A with Cat Cora

More: My Q&A with Masaharu Morimoto

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