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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, Cat Cora is leading the South, a region she knows a lot about, especially since she grew up there. As the first female Iron Chef, she took to the heat of competition and isn’t afraid to pull out all the stops now. Coming up as a chef, she had some of the best mentors, including Julia Child and Jacques Pepin, and she’s ready to pay it forward, passing on her knowledge and skill to her team of home cooks with the hopes of bringing home the win for the South.
What are some words you’d use to describe the foods of the region you represent?
CC: There’s a lot of depth to our food. There’s a lot of history to our food. It’s got these layers. It’s complex, whether it’s a really good rich gumbo, red beans and rice, or shrimp and grits. It’s really a rich cuisine.
What type of qualities do you look for in a good home cook?
CC: The qualities I look for in a good home cook are passion first. You can teach skills but not passion. If they don’t have passion for cooking, you’re pretty much dead in the water. You don’t have a whole lot to work with. After passion, it’s some type of skills, whether it’s good knife skills, good ideas or technique. Technique is important, because you have that really great foundation. You can do anything from there. It’s a great jumping-off point, but you’ve got to have that solid foundation. It doesn’t have to be chef-level, but definitely some basic techniques.
As a mentor to these home cooks, what’s the best help or advice that you can give?
CC: As a mentor to these home cooks, the best advice I can give to them is to stay focused, to really eat a lot of different foods, and read up on cookbooks and magazines to get them acquainted with what’s going on in the world of food. Think outside of the box. You don’t have to do anything to leave your home nowadays, just get on the Web and really research food. Tasting a lot of different ingredients, different spices, different foods, helps you become a better cook. There’s no doubt. Get in the kitchen as much as possible. Having a love of food, being a foodie, is so important. I think that if you’re a foodie, that comes with the territory, to really get out there and seek out great food and different cuisines.
As a former Iron Chef, do you have any experience or lessons that you would like to pass on to your home cooks?
CC: I think really staying focused and having confidence in your decision. If you don’t, you get scattered. Just get back to your food. Look down at your cutting board, and start cutting an onion. Do something to get back to your food. because it will get you back on track. Once you get scattered, especially in a competition arena, it’s hard to get back on track. I always find that if I get back to my food, it gets me back in the zone again. It will kick-start it again. That’s one of the biggest skills.
Coming up as a professional chef, who was your mentor?
CC: I was lucky enough to meet and be around Julia Child. My mentors were really my mom, my grandmother, my father, my godfather, my family at home, but professionally it was Julia Child. I was able to spend a little time with her. She really mentored me. Jacques Pépin was a great mentor as well. I was really lucky to come up with some of those legendary chefs.
What are some words of advice they gave you that you still keep close to you?
CC: I think it was Julia Child who said to me, “Always pay it forward. I’m giving you advice now and helping you, but always make sure you pay that forward to young cooks.” And so I feel that in this show I’m paying it forward. I’m able to pay it forward, and I do that in my career and personal life all the time. I’m always available to young aspiring chefs and cooks to give advice. And then one of the best pieces of advice I got from her was, “You need to go to the Culinary Institute of America, and as soon as possible, and get a culinary degree.” And I did that. She taught me a lot about integrity, being gracious and about always being a student. You never quit learning, always be a student of cooking. And Jacques basically said the same thing.