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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 the show’s host, Ted Allen, to find out his take on the competition.
As the host of Chopped, Ted Allen gets to see professional chefs enter the heat of the competition, but on America’s Best Cooks, it’s all about the home cooks. Amateurs who have proven they’re the best home cooks in the nation will enter the competition for a chance to be chosen and mentored by one of four Food Network chefs. According to Ted, each team will show a different dynamic and each mentor will have a strategy — some similar, some a bit different. As the host, he has a unique point of view: He gets to see everything that happens on all four teams.
What makes this competition different from all the others?
TA: It’s the pressure that the contestants are under to perform well for their mentors, who are Iron Chefs and giant Food Network stars. And if the cooks don’t perform — if both the cook and the mentor fail to perform — that mentor gets eliminated from the competition and has very little control over that. That’s what makes this competition so interesting. The other side of it is the fact that the mentors feel a responsibility to do a good job mentoring.
What’s different about seeing these FN chefs as mentors?
TA: All four of these people are incredibly competitive; you’ve seen them compete and you’ve seen them win, but you haven’t heard them talk through their plan, let alone try to pass that plan on to an amateur — to a home cook in a way that he or she can execute. It’s very revealing of the leaders’ personalities as to how they try to teach. Cat, Tyler, Alex and Michael all have similarities but they have their very own distinct styles. This competition reveals things about them that you haven’t seen on other shows.
What’s your perspective on the mentor-mentee relationship?
TA: Most of the mentors have said so far that they want to let the home cooks cook the thing they want to cook, whatever they’re comfortable with, whatever it might be, and the mentors then just add a little bit of a chef’s twist, a few good techniques to make it more special. I don’t think you should come in and tell someone that they have to make something outrageously weird that they don’t understand. But having mentors obviously is the saving grace. The home cooks would be lost without them, but at the same time the mentors create much of the pressure. If they see you do something stupid, they’re going to bark at you. It’s essential and yet it also creates much of the stress.
Can you talk about the regional aspect? Do you have a favorite?
TA: Great food comes from all four of these regions. The culinary revolution that swept the United States in the past 20 to 30 years has left no state unturned. Everyone has been affected by it in a really positive way. I’m from the Midwest and grew up eating Midwestern American comfort foods. I think the Northeast has the strongest culinary identity for me of flavors that I really love — from seafood in Maine to carnival foods from Rockaway. New York City is the capital of all American cooking. But then again I love the food of New Orleans, the produce of Napa and L.A., and the comfort food classics of the South. They all have a lot to offer.
What do you think is the biggest difference between home cooks here versus professional cooks in a competition like Chopped?
TA: Chopped is a competition for professional chefs. America’s Best Cook is about home cooks. I’m a home cook myself. I do not cook fast. Home cooks don’t have that time pressure. They can start as early as they want and they’re not accustomed to banging out large volumes of plates night after night. Here we’re giving them time constraints that they’re not used to. You watch a home cook work and they don’t have that kind of urgency — what chefs call economy of movement — where they don’t waste steps or even knife strokes. On Chopped you’re on your own and for some people that’s hard, but for some people that’s much better.
Skill-wise, what are you seeing as these home cooks approach the competition?
TA: I’m seeing that these people come down to the set and they’ve watched, they’ve absorbed so much of this programming already. When time is called, they know to throw their hands in the air. It’s part of the culture now. But I do think that they’re not as accustomed to quickly jelling an idea in their head as a professional chef would be. They don’t have the arsenal a chef has. They haven’t been trained to cook everything, so I think they have a much smaller arsenal to pull from.