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Jeff Houck

The Tampa Tribune’s food writer since 2005, Jeff Houck covers the way people live through their food. He also hosts the Table Conversations food podcast and believes that everything crunchy is good.

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How Exactly Does One Judge An Iron Chef? [Chef Scott Conant Talks About “Chopped All-Stars]

Posted Apr 5, 2012 by Jeff Houck

Updated Apr 5, 2012 at 05:11 PM

Scott Conant

As a respected New York City chef, Scott Conant knows what it’s like to have your food judged by critics.

In 2008, his Italian restaurant Scarpetta in the West Village earned raves from the New York Times and New York magazine, being named by both publications as one of the 10 best new restaurants that year.

But as one of the celebrity judges on the Food Network cooking competition series “Chopped,” he has to dish out criticism to colleagues in the food industry he respects.

On Sunday night, he’ll do it again for another season of “Chopped All-Stars,” although this time, he’ll be taking aim at dishes made by “Iron Chef” superstars like Michael Symon, Mark Forgione, Cat Cora and Jose Garces.

The show’s premise: Take a handful of seemingly unrelated ingredients and turn them in a limited time frame into an appetizer, entrée and desert dish that is then judged by a three-member panel on flavor, creativity and presentation.

As if that isn’t enough pressure, the ingredients have very little apparent compatibility. It’s one thing to cook under a time constraint. Making a delicious bite using prunes, animal crackers and cream cheese or a combination of watermelon, canned sardines, pepper jack cheese and zucchini is something else.

Conant took a few minutes recently to talk to me about the show:

What is it like to sit on a panel and judge Iron Chefs? I can’t imagine the level of pressure that must go into having to find the smallest hair to split on each of their dishes.

It’s unfortunate, but it really comes down to that, looking at the smallest, most minute detail.

The most difficult part about it is, here are these chefs who are so incredibly talented that I’m not going to pretend I’m going to match their talent. So it’s really difficult to do. There’s no pretense on my end. I let them know that I’m saying these things and it’s really difficult to judge. Really difficult.

A lot of people would look at the show and think, “These are three totally random things no chef would cook with.” But it goes to the essence of chefs being able to cook under any conditions. And I saw you in February cooking at second base of the new Marlins Park in Miami during the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. I thought when would a chef think during his career that he would be making short ribs and polenta at second base?

It’s a good point. I’m a huge baseball fan, so that was a very special event for me. Just to be at second base in a professional ballpark, I’m just happy to be there. If they said, “Scott, stand on your head and do cartwheels all night long,” I would have been happy to do that, too. I was just happy to be there.

Diamond Dishes at Marlins ParkYou were rocking the big baseball beard. You pulled it off.

[laughs] I had to trim it. My wife wasn’t too happy about it. [laughs]

On the first episode of “Chopped” you judge with Jeffrey Zakarian and Aaron Sanchez. How do you three whittle it down to decide who wins each step?

The interesting thing is, “Chopped” is so much different than “Iron Chef” in that there’s a lot tighter time frame, there are different ingredients they have to incorporate into each dish and you’re working in very tight conditions without a sous chef. I was actually with [chef] Michael Symon today and we were talking about the difficulty in doing “Chopped” versus “Iron Chef.” Don’t get me wrong; “Iron Chef” is very difficult, but he found “Chopped” to be more difficult. It’s difficult to sit there and tell these talented chefs what they did wrong.

It’s one thing to judge Cat Cora, Mark Forgione, Jose Garces and Michael Symon, but in episode three you’re judging Next Food Network Star contestants. Do you have to calibrate how you judge them?

No, but there is a difference between a home cook and a professional chef. So you don’t look at the finer details as much with the Stars. The problem is, they’re going to go head to head in the finals, so you have to be equally difficult on everyone. They need to step up their game to get to that level where they’re competing against an “Iron Chef.”

Has there been a time when you’ve seen contestants open a basket and thought, “There’s just no way I could do anything with that?”

Probably every time I do a show. [laughs] At least once a day.

I remember durian was one of the products one time coming out of the basket and it was so difficult to weave into a dish to make it edible. Durian is not one of my favorite products. It’s just really pungent, really assertive fruit from Asia which a lot of people consider a delicacy. But it’s really strong. Let’s put it that way. Even a little bit is too much for me.

What qualities are you looking for in a dish when things get down to the finals?

We have to judge on taste, creativity and presentation. Those are the three main categories, but if anything takes precedence over the other, it’s flavor. Taste is such an important part, clearly, that if I had to choose any particular order, taste would be at the top of my list.

I’ve seen you on shows and it seems like people lose their nerve when it comes to presenting a bowl of pasta to you. You’re like the Pasta Terminator, in a way, because you have a specific standard in mind and it’s difficult to do that in the time constraint.

It is very difficult, but there’s one thing I tell the chefs: I’m never going to sacrifice my standards. I wouldn’t do that myself and I wouldn’t want other people to do the same to me.

But it’s very difficult to do, and if there’s a way to help people create a different product, that’s what I see my role as. I’m not there to take anyone’s legs out from underneath them. That’s not a good position to be in.

Chopped - Conant Zakarian Sanchez

How would you judge your style to the way Aaron looks at a dish or Jeffrey analyzes a plate.

It’s funny because we normally see eye-to-eye on these things. On certain dishes we find ourselves repeating the same things or saying, “That’s a great point.” That’s the good news, because if we all saw it from a different angle, it would be a mess.

Have you been looked into a basket and been tempted to get your hands dirty with it?

It happens, but it’s a very different situation when you’re behind those tables and in front of those judges. The time counting down on you, it’s a very difficult show. I’m not going to pretend that I could get back there and do what they do until I get side by side with them and do it myself.

It’s a crowded TV landscape of cooking competition shows. Why do you think “Chopped” has hit a popular vein?

I’ve done a few different shows in my career, and it’s really interesting when you catch an energy. That show, whether it be the production assistants, the producer, the director, the judges – Ted Allen is kind of the big toe, so to speak – they have such great energy. I really feel that’s the reason for the lightning in the bottle.

And viewers put themselves in the position of the chefs thinking, “I have no idea what I would do with those ingredients.”

I’ve had people stop me in airports and say exactly that to me. The best compliment I got was from a woman who says she lives in a house with four generations. Her grandmother, her parents and her children and the one thing that brings them together is watching “Chopped.” That was the best compliment I ever could have gotten. It’s really the last element left for family television.

I’m curious about how you deal with Yelp and Urban Spoon and Open Table. It seems like everyone has a microphone in the palm of their hand.

Really it’s about creating a great vision for a restaurant and hiring great people and holding feet to the fire, so to speak, and making sure the hospitality aspect is always in place. There’s no reason a customer should be mistreated inside a restaurant. There’s really no excuse for that. For me, whenever I read those Web sites and I see those mistakes made, we try to reach out to the people and navigate if there is any validity to these things. It’s a great outlet, very often, and sometimes there are just mistakes or misunderstandings from the guest’s perspective.

If someone gets a glass of water and they wanted a Coca Cola, that doesn’t necessarily make for a big deal – sometimes it’s easy to ask for the right thing. Everyone has a right to their opinion, I always say, but not everybody deserves the platform.

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