In her nearly 25 years in the restaurant business, Food Network star chef Anne Burrell has seen and done it all — right down to teaching the tricks of the trade at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education. That’s why, she says, she feels right at home scouting executive chefs for some of America’s top restaurants in the network’s fascinating Chef Wanted With Anne Burrell, which launches its second season Thursday night at 10pm/9pmCT.
“I have been in the restaurant industry since I was 19 and one thing that I love about this show is that it really shows people what restaurants are like,” says Burrell, who endeared herself to Food Network audiences as Mario Batali’s feisty sous chef on Iron Chef America and launched her popular series Secrets of a Restaurant Chef in 2008. “They are a nutty crazy delightful, wonderful, difficult place. It’s a hard business. It’s not easy. But if it’s the job for you, it’s fantastic!”
Having placed executive chefs in such culinary hot spots as Todd English’s Olives in Manhattan, New York’s Old Homestead steakhouse and James’ Beach in Venice Beach, Calif., Burrell’s hitting the road for 13 new episodes that will take her across the country to Tuscan Kitchen in New Hampshire, Mirabelle in Los Angeles, Oceano in Puerto Rico and beyond.
But you don’t have to have your eye on a culinary career to get a kick out of — and a decent lesson from — the series. Chef Wanted shows what really goes on in a restaurant kitchen via what Burrell calls “the ultimate job interview” for four top-notch chefs who are seeking new gigs for a variety of reasons. With each restaurant’s owners looking on, Burrell puts the candidates through a series of challenges designed to test their business acumen and leadership skills in addition to their flair for food. The final two chefs are then put in charge of the restaurant for one night to battle it out for the keys to the kitchen and the job of their dreams.
Burrell took time out from her “happily, happily busy” schedule to tell me about the new season of Chef Wanted, going toe-to-toe with Bobby Flay for another go-round at the Worst Cooks in America and when we can get our hands on a copy of her brand-new cookbook.
CGM: Before we talk Season 2, let’s look back a little. Who’s still happily on the job?
Anne Burrell: Not all of them have stayed — but that’s just the way the chef world goes. But there’s definitely been some that have been real successes!
CGM: Will we see any changes to the show’s format this season— or since the first go-round was so compelling to watch, are we leaving well enough alone?
AB: We’re leaving well enough alone. But I think that the caliber of chefs that we have on the show is so good, so the tests have gotten even harder.
CGM: And you can give me just a multitude of compelling examples!
AB [laughing]: I cannot! You have to watch!
The thing is, we tailor-make every test to match the restaurant. Because there’s just so many different types of restaurants that there’s no way we could have a blanket-type of test. So we look at the needs of the restaurant and we work with the owners, or whoever is doing the hiring, to create tests that really demonstrate to the people who are doing the interviewing the skills of the chef that we’ve brought them. Because this is a real job interview. We want them to really see that we’ve brought them the right person and the right fit for the job.
CGM: Plenty of people don’t realize that there is much more to being an executive chef than just creating tasty dishes — and you really show that in Chef Wanted. How common is it for someone to have a great flair for food but no head for the business?
AB: You have to remember — it’s the restaurant business. So it is about making money. It is about saving money. It’s about interpersonal skills, how you manage everyone. You have to be a chef and a teacher. If you can’t lead your team and if you can’t show people how to make your dishes and if you can’t get people on your side, then you’re only as good as your last dish and you’re left standing there on your own.
The restaurant business is a bit masochistic — it really is. But as I said, if it’s the right business for you, you can’t do anything else. I love this business; I love the people that are in it. Yes, it’s hard and it’s incredibly intense, as well, but it’s so fantastic.
CGM: You worked with some high-profile chef/owners and locations last season — where are you headed for Season 2?
AB: Well, we are definitely in New York and L.A. and we have spanned the country from Hawaii to Puerto Rico. We have been on the road! We were busy!
CGM: But that’s what makes the show so interesting, because you are representing different styles of cuisine, different locales, different food cultures …
AB: Of course! And that’s just what I love about this business so much is that there are so many different opportunities and restaurants and different types of food — and what each one brings to the table is vastly different but wildly exciting.
CGM: But you also have to come up with a talent pool that represents all of that different-ness. How do you scout your candidates?
AB: Well, I clearly, definitely have a lot of help. We cast a wide net and then we whittle it down. We go through a series of questions and pre-interviews and bring it down to a manageable number, and then we present those to the owner of the restaurant and ultimately they make the decision. They’re the ones that know their business. They know what they’re looking for. They know what sort of a fit they are looking for.
CGM: So the owners don’t just get a say in who they hire from the talent you bring them — they get to choose the four chefs they audition, as well?
AB: They have the final say! It’s their business. We go out and scout for them and then it’s their decision who makes it on the show, who goes home and who gets hired for the job.
CGM: I did not know that!
AB: It’s a real job interview and we want people to be successful and stay in these jobs. It’s not Food Network hiring these people. It’s Food Network helping [restaurant owners] find these people and helping with the interview process, but it’s ultimately the business owners’ decision.
CGM: At the start of the first season, you said that you were unprepared for the “real” part of your reality show — namely, the candidate’s often deeply personal stories — but you found it interesting to see how that played out on the plate. I imagine, even though you’re a seasoned veteran now, that remains as interesting for you as it is for the audience?
AB: Absolutely! I feel like I’m a student of human nature. People always ask me, “If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?” And I’m like, “I think I’d be a therapist!” [Laughs.] You think about all the issues that are wrapped up in food — family issues — and it just goes hand in hand. It goes right back to the part where chefs are a little masochistic!
CGM: Pretty soon, you’re going to have two shows on Food Network at one time — Worst Cooks in America comes back on Feb 17. You’re undefeated at the game. Does that equate with confidence or pressure?
AB: Oh, I think it’s both. It’s definitely both.
CGM: And you’re up against Bobby Flay once again.
AB: Yes! I love Bobby so very much and he’s really fun to do it with. So I’m super excited to be back, doing the show with him.
CGM: Since you’ve bested him before, do you feel like you know what makes him tick now?
AB: He likes to win, like I do. He’s a chef. I get it. It’s never fun to lose. That’s why I just don’t do it. [Laughs.]
CGM: You were working on the follow-up to Cook Like A Rock Star when we spoke to you last. How’s that going?
AB: Well, it’s actually done! We’re in the very final stages of finishing up the photography, so I’m very excited for it to come out.
CGM: Ballpark idea of when that will be?
AB: I know exactly when it’s going to be! It’s going to be Oct. 15, 2013. 10-15-13!
Season 2 of Chef Wanted with Anne Burrell premieres Thursday, Jan. 31 at 10pm/9pmCT on Food Network.
A new season of Worst Cooks in America launches Sunday, Feb. 17 at 9pm/8pmCT
Images/video: Food Network