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, Michael Symon is representing the North. After growing up in Ohio and opening his restaurant there, Michael has the knowledge and experience to lead his team of home cooks. There are many cultural backgrounds in the region, and Michael’s going to make sure that those unique flavors are well represented. Over the years Michael has looked up to Jonathan Waxman as a mentor, and he’s hoping to impart to his home cooks that same passion he learned coming up as a chef.
What are some words you’d use to describe the foods of the region you represent?
MS: Comfort, lusty, robust, rich, simple.
What type of qualities do you look for in a good home cook?
MS: For me, a good home cook has to be passionate. It’s really the same things I look for in a cook starting out at the restaurant: passionate, disciplined and focused. The greatest home cooks, the greatest chefs and restaurant cooks, to me, are people who just love food and immerse themselves in it for the right reasons — because when they feed people they love to see them smile; they like their food to bring happiness and bring people together — not because they want to know the next molecular gastronomy trick. I think that people that cook for that reason almost always end up being the best cooks.
As a mentor to these home cooks, what’s the best help or advice that you can give?
MS: Trust me. I’ve been down this road before. Use your instincts as best as you can, and don’t be afraid to season your food.
As an Iron Chef, do you have any experience or lessons that you would like to pass on to your home cooks?
MS: When I’ve judged Next Iron Chef and competed on Iron Chef America, the biggest mistake I’ve seen made by some of the greatest of chefs and the best chefs I know, in the pressure cooker of competition, is forgetting the basics. They forget to salt, they don’t sear the food long enough, they over-fuss with it and they make those mistakes almost every time. So to my team I would say, “Focus on the basics” and “Less is always more.”
Coming up as a professional chef, who was your mentor?
MS: The chef that I’ve always looked up to and has helped mentor me and is now one of my dearest friends is Jonathan Waxman.
What are some words of advice he gave you that you still keep close to you?
MS: The greatest advice he ever gave me was when we opened my first restaurant, Lola, 18 years ago. A week after we opened, I asked him to come in and taste the menu. He tasted every dish on the menu and I asked, “Wax, how is everything?” He said, “If you take one ingredient out of every dish, the menu will be perfect.” And it really reinforced for me that less is always more. Nothing should be on a dish unless it makes the dish better. You shouldn’t say, “I’m going to put this on for a little bit of color” or “I’m going to put this on because no one else makes it like this.” If you focus on the ingredients and the techniques, you’re always going to end up with a better dish.
You cook with a Mediterranean influence. Will we see that in this competition?
MS: The Mediterranean influence will come out in this competition. The region where I’m from has an incredibly large eastern European influence, but I was raised by a Greek and Sicilian mother, and I just can’t help that. You’ll definitely see those comfort foods of the North and the Midwest, but those regions also have a pretty large Mediterranean influence, especially in my family. Where I grew up, I use ingredients from the North in my restaurants, but I cook them with a Mediterranean sensibility. And I think that’s what we’ll do throughout the show. It would almost be like if Greece or Sicily was in Cleveland, this is the food they would serve. The reason that those cuisines are so great is because they cook food that’s only within a 10-mile circumference. That’s no different than what we do in the restaurant, and that’s what I will try to teach my people on the show.