FN Dish is counting down until the premiere of America’s Best Cook on Sunday at 9|8c. On the new show, four Food Network chefs representing the four regions of the United States mentor teams of exceptional home cooks in a competition to find America’s best cook. The winner walks away with the title and $50,000 in prize money. But which region will that winner be from? It could be North, South, East or West. The final result will be a testament to the mentor who coached the winner. Ahead of the premiere, FN Dish spoke with each of the mentors to find out more about the competition, mentoring strategies, what makes a good home cook and more.
On America’s Best Cook, Alex Guarnaschelli leads the East, a region that she grew up in, lives in and runs restaurants in. As a judge on Chopped, Alex knows what makes a good cook, and as the most recently named Iron Chef, she’s got the fire to lead. Having learned the trade in France, Alex owes it all to Guy Savoy for giving her the confidence to become a chef, but she also looks up to fellow Food Network chef Bobby Flay for inspiration when it comes to blazing a path.
How would you sum up the East Coast style of cooking in a few words?
AG: I think I would sum up the East Coast style of cooking as homey and hearty. But it runs the gamut from super fresh to homey and hearty — anything from shucked oysters on the half shell, steamed corn on the cob at the beach, a lobster roll, all the way to braised beef short ribs. The East Coast is a place where an array of beautiful ingredients just makes the range and scope of the dishes so wide. That’s why the East Coast cooks are going to prevail.
What type of qualities do you look for in a good home cook?
AG: I think a good home cook is someone who knows how to organize what they’re doing at home, runs a tight ship, keeps their cupboards and their counter organized. When they’re putting together a dish, they have enough room to think about it, breathe and put it together.
As an Iron Chef, do you have any experience or lessons that you would like to pass on to your home cooks?
AG: These are home cooks who know how to cook at home but now they’re attempting something at a higher level with professionals. I think the hardest thing to do is to remember you just simply have to believe you can do it and just take that drive that’s in you and use it to propel yourself forward, like a self-starting motorboat, suddenly going 300 miles per hour. You’ve got to believe. You’ve got to have that will to get that engine going.
As a judge on Chopped, you’ve had the opportunity to see both professional chefs and amateur chefs compete. Is there a benefit to being an amateur cook in competition, maybe a sense of limitless possibility? Does that make them a better competitor?
AG: I think there is a great benefit to being an amateur cook, because your mind is not cluttered with all sorts of professional concepts, which might lead to overthinking the challenges. I think a cluttered mind, a cluttered kitchen, equals cluttered food. It’s so much better when somebody who cooks for their family, friends, colleagues does it only out of love when they want to, out of pleasure. They’re very connected to the joy that comes from cooking something good, and so that sheer joy — sheer passion unadorned, unadulterated — is actually a great secret weapon.
Coming up as a professional chef, who was your mentor?
AG: I have had many mentors, most notably Guy Savoy, who has an eponymous restaurant in Paris. I worked for him for many years, and he was amazing to me. He yelled at me a lot, but mostly yelled at me to help me believe in myself and in my own abilities. I certainly count Daniel Boulud as one of my other mentors. He’s an amazing chef. And Bobby Flay. I think I will never stop having mentors. I’ve had mentors who wear many different hats. I totally believe in the power of mentoring.
What are some words of advice they gave you that you still keep close to you?
AG: Guy Savoy really told me to just get over myself, don’t overthink stuff, just practice, practice, practice. Daniel Boulud sort of has that wonderful way of making you feel appreciated for the work you’ve done and at the same time that your work is never good enough, so you’re always striving to be better. And with Bobby Flay, it’s a lot about how your attitude toward yourself and your own abilities can so affect what happens to you. You can affect the outcome. You can move mountains. I think Bobby Flay can levitate and can sit on top of the mountain and say, “Yeah, I’m going to make it rain” and it works.