Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Beyond The Next Iron Chef: A Conversation with Chefs Chris Cosentino and Traci des Jardins

For those of you following my recaps of the Food Network show, “The Next Iron Chef,” you’ll know that this series boasted two amazing chefs from San Francisco. Traci des Jardins, a 2007 James Beard award winner and the chef behind Jardinière, Acme Chophouse and Mijita Cochina Mexicana in the city, had the distinct honor of being the cheftestant eliminated at the end of the first show. Chris Cosentino, executive chef of Incanto in Noe Valley, went as far as the top three but was eliminated in this past Sunday’s episode.

I was fortunate enough to do an interview with both chefs for my blog. Although they’re both in San Francisco, it would have been an organizational nightmare to find a time when the two busy chefs could be in one room. So instead, I did this interview via e-mail.

This interview was also compiled in the days prior to this past Sunday’s episode. So answers from Chef Cosentino don’t reflect his recent elimination.

One final note, I typically do these Q&A’s identifying myself as Chef Ben, which is the user name I made up for my blog. But being in the presence of such distinguished chefs, I didn’t feel it would be proper to call myself a chef in the same posting. With that said, the following are edited excerpts from my e-mail interview.

Ben: What made you decide to enter this competition to be “The Next Iron Chef”? Some people say the stakes are higher for the competitors of this show because all of you have built up a reputation on your own already and a departure from the show may be viewed as a failure. Did that ever cross your mind?

Chef Chris Cosentino: I’ve wanted to be on Iron Chef since back in the days when it wasn’t even translated into English. This was the opportunity of a lifetime.

Chef Traci Des Jardins: I had a great time when I went on Iron Chef the first time, it was a wild ride, very challenging, but ultimately an absolute blast. Chefs and restaurateurs are in a risky business, I have always been an adventurer and am willing to take risks, this was no different really. Every time one opens a restaurant, they are risking failure and it is certainly true that many great chefs have tried and failed for whatever reason. The show is really no different, just a different medium. I, of course, knew going into this that it was a probability that I might not win, I was simply willing to take on that risk.

B: San Francisco was the only city to boast two Iron Chef contestants, even more than Manhattan. What do you think that says about the restaurant world in the Bay Area?

TDJ: I think that the Bay Area is a Mecca for chefs, restaurants and foodies so it is not surprising to me that they selected two contestants from this area.

CC: I’d attribute this to pure luck more than any attributes to the Bay Area’s restaurant scene.

B: What were you hoping to showcase about your cooking style or philosophy on the show, and do you think you had the chance to do that?

TDJ: I don’t think that I necessarily had a chance to exhibit my style and cooking philosophy given how quickly I was eliminated from the show and the challenges that I participated in. Given that the major challenge that I was eliminated in was pastry, and pastry with a curve ball, I think that it only really represented a very narrow area of abilities (or lack there of—LOL).

CC: I wanted to show that offal can take center stage in everyday food, and I had some opportunities to do that.

B: The two women in the competition were eliminated back-to-back on the first two episodes of the series. Pure coincidence or do you think this reflects anything about the current state of women in the restaurant business?

TDJ: I don’t think that the first two out had anything to do with the fact that we were women, we just happened to be the two women.

CC: The eliminations were based on particular food-oriented competitions on those days. To think they are reflective of the state of women cooking in America is inaccurate.

B: Chef Cosentino, in the science challenge you seemed really frustrated with the technical and scientific gadgetries you had to play with but then you were able to pull off the win. What did you do to deliver the winning razor clam dish? Are you going to put it on the menu at Incanto?

CC: I focused on one technique that made sense to me and tried to apply it to an ingredient I was familiar with. No, it’s not going on the menu.

B: After your win, you had the upper hand in the following week’s challenge when you paired chefs together. Did you have a strategy going into that challenge and do you think it worked? I have to say, Alton Brown seemed pretty suspicious about whether you really took full advantage of your position. Do you think you could have done more to sabotage your competition?

CC: This was not about sabotage but great cooking under pressure, so no, I don’t think I would have done anything differently.

B: What were your thoughts about the judging process? You read reviews about your cooking, I’m sure, all the time. But here you’re getting instant reviews right to your face about your food. What was that experience like?

TDJ: We are rarely faced with that kind of immediate judgment, so it was very difficult. I think that it was equally difficult for the judges, these are three people who are dedicated to and live their lives in the food world—and who really love food and chefs—they are there to judge though and to discern what is the best in that moment, indeed a very difficult job. So the process was hard, for the judges and for us.

CC: It’s like everyday at my restaurant. Customers tell me right then and there when they like or don’t like something. At the restaurant I get to come back and fix things, on the show, I could get sent home.

B: All the chefs seemed to have a good camaraderie in the kitchen. Did you enjoy working with the other chefs and did you learn anything about cooking from your fellow competitors?

CC: Yes and yes. I talk to my fellow competitor chefs all the time.

TDJ: I loved all the chefs I worked with on the show—it was an absolute blast getting to know them and working together on that wild ride that was the “Next Iron Chef.” I don’t think that we really had time to learn about cooking from one another though.

B: All the contestants, including yourself, were previous competitors on Iron Chef America. Which was harder to do? Cook a secret ingredient in an hour or do the various challenges to be the next Iron Chef?

CC: The Next Iron Chef. Cooking in the Kitchen Stadium is a more predictable situation because you know what your equipment and playing field are, you just don’t know your ingredient. NICA had many more variables so it was more challenging.

TDJ: Not all of us had been competitors on the show. John (Besh), Morou, Michael (Symon), Chris, Aarón (Sanchez) and myself had all been on the show, Gavin (Kaysen) and Jill (Davie) had not. “The Next Iron Chef” was much more difficult, many more unknowns and unfamiliar territory and no support staff. As chefs we are used to working together with large teams of people all of the time, we are collaborative by nature, perhaps the most challenging aspect was not having a team to bounce stuff off of, although we did collaborate with each other to some degree.

B: OK, I’m sure you can’t say anything about the finale or the winner, but can you say who you think should be in the final match up and why?

CC: I’m unable to comment on this. (Again, just a reminder that Chef Cosentino answered these questions before this past Sunday’s elimination.)

TDJ: There are three left at this point, obviously they are all very worthy and the finale will be a great one.

B: What’s next for the both of you in your food life? Any changes we should expect to see at your restaurants? Working on any books? Any chance you’ll be on TV in the near future again?

TDJ: I will keep doing what I have been, running my three restaurants, trying to make them the best they can be every day. Jardinière just celebrated its 10 year anniversary and I want to make the next 10 as magical as the first. No book projects currently and I will always be open to doing TV again.

CC: I’ve just launched Boccalone, an artisanal salumi company and I’m at work on the definitive cookbook on offal. As for future TV appearances, stay tuned to see what happens...

My thanks to Chefs Cosentino and Des Jardins for taking part in this interview.

The finale of The Next Iron Chef airs this Sunday, Nov. 11, at 9 p.m. on the Food Network. Photos courtesy of the Food Network.


SteamyKitchen said...

great interview!

Anonymous said...

great interview.

does cc seem to come across a bit snippish, or is that just the way i'm reading it?

tdj is very warm and magnanimous - love her.

keep it up!

Single Guy Ben said...

Thanks! Actually, I think Chef Cosentino might just sound that way because I did the interview via email. So I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt that he's much more chatty in person. Sometimes with his busy schedule and email, I'm sure he can come off as curt with his short response. I'm sure that's not the case.

Unknown said...

Wow, how cool are you getting in touch with the gliterati chef ben? I've yet to go to Incanto but have always found Chef Cosentino's website to be very interesting reading. One day... Anyways did I mention that your blog has got me watching the next iron chef?