Interview with Chef Curtis Stone: host of Top Chef Masters and author of What’s for Dinner?

By Dana Getz

Internationally known for his roles on “Top Chef Masters,” “Take Home Chef” and other reality food shows, celebrity chef Curtis Stone knows his away around a kitchen. The Bravo favorite gained instant appeal with his simple, homegrown style and unforgettable Aussie accent, making his way from highly acclaimed London restaurants to network television. Now living in Los Angeles, Stone is gearing up to appear at the Los Angeles Food and Wine Festival on August 24. We spoke to the Celebrity Apprentice alum about his preparation for the festival, what’s in store for his next cookbook and the non-existent American diet.

When did you first discover your love for cooking?

You know, I think it wasn’t a love for cooking as much it was a love for eating. My first good memory is from when I was in the kitchen at my mom’s house and I had a stick of butter and a bag of raisins out of the cabinet. I was running the raisins down the stick of butter and popping it in my mouth, and my mom was like, ‘What on earth are you doing?’ It wasn’t the healthiest, but the flavor combination of the butter and the raisins was very delicious, and I think ever since I’ve been pretty obsessed with the way things taste. I think from that love of food and love of eating, you develop a real curiosity for how it’s put together and made and where it comes from and all that sort of stuff.

Why and how did you get involved in cooking for television?

It happened by accident. I was working in a restaurant called Quo Vadis and I was the head chef there. Someone was doing a book about London’s finest chefs, and I was lucky enough to be included in the book. And from that book I did some television to promote it, and one thing led to the next and before you know it I had a TV show on the BBC, and then back in Australia I did something else. It just snowballed I guess.

How is cooking for television different from cooking in a restaurant?

It’s really different. When you cook in a restaurant I sort of think what you’re doing is practicing the art of perfection. You’ve got a dozen dishes put on the menu, and then you do those dishes each day—you do a hundred of them a day. So you become very good at specific tasks. But when you’re doing stuff for television and writing cookbooks and developing recipes for head cooks and what not, the work really varies. In my test kitchen we probably develop 400 to 500 recipes a year, so instead of practicing that art of perfection what you’re doing is really drawing on your creativity as you’re developing. You don’t get to make those recipes multiple times—you get to make them once. It’s a lot more creative than doing what I’m doing at the moment, but the flipside of that is that you don’t get to practice as much. You don’t get to hone your skills as much as you do in a restaurant.

Where do you find inspiration for creating so many new dishes?

I sort of look to Mother Nature a lot for inspiration. I’ve got a fruit and veggie garden at home that I spend a lot of time in. I think a part of that growing process is fun to see, and sort of watching them develop and grow over time. When the fruit becomes ripe and you have a little war with a squirrel or a bird and you try and get it before the rest of the wildlife—when you get your hands on that piece of fruit it’s a really rewarding feeling. It’s something you’ve kind of created yourself, so what you do with it is really special, of course you’re not going to waste it after all that energy. You’re probably even more careful with the preparation of it, because you it’s special, you know? You want to do it justice. So I guess that’s where my inspiration comes from: wandering around the garden.

You’re getting reading to appear at the Los Angeles Food and Wine Festival later this month. Tell me about your participation in the event and the dish you will be preparing.

I’m going to do a demonstration for 200 people, and we’re going to serve the people that come a couple of different dishes. We’re drawing from my latest cookbook—“What’s for Dinner?”—so we’ve got a couple recipes that I’m going to do really quickly. And then I’ve got a chicken ceviche, which has palm sugar with coconut milk—different ingredients than you’re used to seeing in ceviche, but still delicious—and we’re gonna serve that to 3,000 people. I don’t know if you’ve been to the L.A. Food and Wine Festival before, but it’s an incredible event with amazing chefs and delicious food and fantastic drinks and cocktails and wine—there’s all sorts of stuff to do.

So you’ve been before?

Yeah, I’ve been going for about four or five years. The first time I went I wasn’t actually cooking, I just went to have a look and see what it was all about, and I loved it so I thought I’d get involved the next year.

You’re a host on the show Top Chef Masters, which returned for its fifth season last month. What do you like most about being on the show?

Just enjoying incredible foods from literally the best chefs in the country. We have this crazy kitchen with ridiculous challenges, and it’s so much fun. These guys just produce such amazing food. When we do the challenges I sit there and think to myself, ‘Okay, this chef will do this and that chef will do that,’ but when we say go they all step up and don’t necessarily do what you were expecting. So that’s actually a really nice part of the show for me, to watch people be put under such incredible pressure and to challenge them, and see them do such amazing jobs.

You also published your fifth cookbook, What’s for Dinner? Delicious Recipes for a Busy Life, last April. Do you have anything else in the works?

It’s an interesting thing to me when you talk to people and you say, ‘What are your challenges? What do you want the answers to?’ And to me, they usually revolve around time, budget and simplicity. It’s almost like what we’re doing as chefs to write recipes is not competing with each other. We’re competing with fast food joints and take out, all that sort of stuff. There’s a lot of people that can cook for themselves, you know, they have the time and money to do it, but they need incentive. So I’m thinking of writing a new cookbook to inspire people to really do it, to empower people to have fun at the dinner table with their friends and family.

So what is your go-to meal after a long day?

Well, like I said we’ve got a beautiful veggie garden, so it sort of depends on what’s in there, but it’s usually something pretty simple. We grill a lot, so some fresh steaks or some grilled chicken. You’d be surprised how much you can put on the grill.

You also recently got married—congratulations! What’s your favorite dish to cook for your wife?

It depends on where she’s at in the world. Right now she’s pretty chilled out. We just got married, she’s taking a little bit of a break from work, and she doesn’t have to as stressed out about her appearance and her weight, so she’s indulging a little more than usual. But I guess her favorite thing is seafood. She loves good seafood. We have a woodfire oven at home, so whenever I have fish in the woodfire oven she’s a happy girl.

You’ve traveled all over the world. What’s the biggest difference when cooking for an American audience versus a European one?

Oh, good question. There’s a difference in their palettes, I guess. I think the American palette is really comfort-oriented, and they love comfort food. So I’d say that’s a big difference, but it depends where you are in Europe of course. That’s a big umbrella to put over Europe, but it is in America as well—I say that all the time. America is a really diverse country with really diverse eating habits and cuisine. Whenever I travel people talk about, ‘Oh, the American diet,’ and I feel like saying, ‘There’s no such thing as an American diet, it’s impossible to say that.’ There’s a huge difference between New York and San Francisco and Kansas, you know? It’s so diverse and there’s so many different things going on that you could never put a blanket over it, so it really changes depending on where you are in the country.

What are the three kitchen tools every cook must have?

You need a sharp knife. That’s a probably the most important thing because when it comes to preparation it makes it a whole lot easier. You need some good nonstick cookwear. And the third tool would probably be a great blender. That enables you to do a whole variety of things.

What Australian food do you most miss since moving to the U.S?

In Australia we had great Pan Asian food, great Thai food. We were very close to Asia so we had great, quality Asian cooks and we had great, quality Asian venues.

Do you have a favorite dish to cook?

I love making handmade pasta. I really enjoy making handmade ravioli. I did that a lot when I worked in London and I really miss that, so when I get the opportunity I really enjoy doing it.


Chefs on the Grill

By Dana Getz

On a sunny Wednesday evening beneath the hub of tourists surrounding Millennium Park’s bean, around 550 people gathered June 19 to celebrate the sixth annual Chefs on the Grill event hosted at the Park Grill. Guests sampled entrees and creative cocktails from 13 local restaurants, with all proceeds benefitting Special Olympics Chicago/Special Children’s Charities. The event also featured a raffle, silent auction and live performance by local cover band The Walk-Ins, as well as NBC 5 Chicago’s meteorologist Cheryl Scott as emcee.

Chef Cory Morris of Mercat a la Planxa took home the trophy for Champion Chef with his summer-inspired dish of Colorado lamb chops with ramp pesto, pickled ramps and migas. After a brief hiatus last summer, first-time winner Mercat returned for its third year in the competition.

“We took one of our best dishes and added a seasonal twist,” Morris said of his key to success. “It means everything [to win]. It’s good for a lot of people supporting the foundation.”

Chef Brian Jupiter of Frontier earned best cocktail for his Yerba Buena mix of cognac, Absolut craft vodka, agave syrup and lemon.

Park Grill owner Bernie Laskowski started the competition in 2007 to raise awareness about the culinary scene developing in the South Loop—a scene typically associated with the River North area according to Laskowski. The event has since blossomed into both a haven for foodies and a learning experience for local chefs.

“I can’t say there’s competition. All the chefs are very competitive by nature…but we’re also very supportive of each other,” Laskowski said. “It’s more collaborative than competitive.”

When asked his favorite places to eat, he pointed to each of his 11 competitors’ stations, saying his favorite part of the annual event is “all of the chefs getting together to relax and have a good time.”

Laskowski’s own dish was Lechon style roasted pork with cilantro and goat horn pepper sofrito, inspired by a recent trip to Puerto Rico.

“The food in Puerto Rico really was part of my upbringing as a kid being Guatemalan,” Laskowski said. “It’s a reflection of my origin and my love for cooking meat.”

The dish was designed to demonstrate the Park’s concept for their own menu: approachable yet modern. Laskowski said the Park’s clientele consists mainly of well-traveled tourists and businessmen and women, so they aim for something unique but also familiar. To test new dishes they’ll run them on specials first, so Laskowski suggests looking there if you’re feeling adventurous.

Chefs on the Grill began partnering with the Special Olympics during its third summer. All proceeds go toward covering the expenses associated with the 22 sports their more than 5,000 athletes participate in, primarily including transportation and equipment costs.

“It would be impossible for us to do this on our own,” said Susan Nicholl, executive director of Special Children’s Charities. “We would definitely not be able to reach the number of athletes or events held that we have now; it’s creating many more experiences and memories that we can offer them.”

The Food Truck Phenomenon

By Jen Rock

I call it the “food truck phenomenon” and most of Southern California might agree. Foodies and families alike have fallen in love with gourmet food trucks. From South Bay to the west end of the San Fernando Valley, these mobile restaurants have taken over curbsides just about everywhere they can. Some communities are more receptive to this food trend than others. Granada Hills, which is a small pocket located in the west San Fernando Valley, has extended its community hand to local food trucks.

Every Wednesday and Friday from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., the gourmet food trucks line up along Chatsworth Street to feed gourmet street food to the masses. It all started with Mary Turner, who runs a street cleaning business in the area. In July of last year, Turner and her husband lost their jobs and went on unemployment. It was during that summer that they saw the food truck frenzy as an opportunity to make money. They started their own street cleaning business and went to the Chamber of Commerce in Granada Hills. They proposed that the chamber allow food trucks to operate along Chatsworth, as long as each truck paid a street cleaning fee of $30. Turner and her husband’s business, D & M Cleaning Services, would then clean up the streets after the food trucks left. “When the trucks come in, everybody comes out. The parents, the kids, the animals, it’s really a fun time. It’s a great to see all the neighbors and people in the community come out and enjoy a meal,” says Turner.

Since September 2011, it has been a street event every Wednesday and Friday. Foodies rejoice in all that these food trucks have to offer because there are options for almost any palate. Filipino, sushi, barbeque, American, German, French, Mexican and even Hawaiian cuisine are just some of the choices residents have along Chatsworth Street. “A lot of families live in the area and foodies alike. The town is really good to the trucks. Anytime where you put a bunch of trucks together hopefully a lot of people come out and this is a great example of that,” says Dave Miller, owner of Trailer Park Truck. Trailer Park Truck serves up some tasty American cuisine with burgers, mac and cheese, bacon melts, and chicken salad to name a few. Pineapple Express serves up some tasty Hawaiian medleys and experienced business in Granada Hills for the first time on Friday. “We’ve been checking this spot out for a while. Our commissary is not too far from here and it seems to draw up a lot of crowds,” says Jeffery Mora, owner of Pineapple Express.

Of course some of the cons that come with food truck events are the complaints from brick and mortar businesses in the area. Some business owners on Chatsworth Street have said that the trucks take up all the parking for customers, create dangerous situations for pedestrians crossing the street, and cause extra congestion and trash. However, it looks like the food truck phenomenon is here to stay for now. Check out Roaminghunger.com to find a food truck near you. There’s bound to be one to satisfy your palate.











Celebrating Four Years of Freshii

By Patty Jae

City-dwelling is riddled with long commutes and greasy fast-food restaurants. But health food lifestyle restaurant Freshii aims to provide the masses with an alternative to fast unhealthy food. Celebrating its fourth year in the second city, Freshii will be hosting their anniversary, June 11-15.

To express gratitude for years of continued patronage, Freshii will have special deals on their menu items during their anniversary week. For those stopping by any of their six Chicago locations before 11 a.m., select breakfast items including the (delicious sounding) Spinach and Goat Cheese Wrap will be buy-one-get one, and after 2 p.m. that deals applies to their frozen yogurt. For lunch, the health-conscious food shop will feature $5 lunch specials, featuring a different menu item each day.

The fresh food provider will also be spotlighting some of their local vendors with samplings including: Skinny Pop Popcorn and Mark Bar. Additionally, Freshii will be donating $1 of every Nestle’s Resource bottled water purchased at either of their six participating locations to Imerman Angels- a non-profit dedicated to providing support for cancer patients, survivors and caregivers throughout their journey.

Founder Matthew Corrin, previously the Marketing Manager for acclaimed fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, launched Freshii in Toronto in 2005. The inspiration came from a lack of conveniently fast, yet guilt-free food options.

“Freshii operates in an emerging industry we call ‘health-casual.’ It has all the elements of fast casual…with an added focus on health and wellness. We wanted to give people nutritious food with plenty of options so they can design a meal that fits their individual tastes and busy, urban lifestyles,” revealed Corrin.

At Freshii you’ll find a range of healthy meals, such as, their Warrior Chicken Rice Bowl, Spicy Lemongrass Soup and Bangkok Burrito- all containing aspects of their health food framework of fiber loaded, slow-burning carbohydrates, and lean proteins. Freshii also has a “Mission Green” initiative which focuses on light packaging, reducing energy consumptions and limiting fatty processed foods.

David Grossman, a Freshii’s franchisor, has notable experience working with unique restaurant chains. He has opened 120 Subways in Chicago, and is becoming a reputable name in the restaurant industry. “I traveled the country looking for the next big thing and looked at many different conceptsFreshii had, by far, the most potential. I knew with the right location, the best team and local food sourcing, we could make it a huge success,” Grossman said.

Freshii has over 50 locations worldwide with their Chicago market being the leader in sales and volume.

For a list of locations, visit Freshii.com.

Nookies Edgewater

Approachable comfort food without the pretense.  That’s what Nookies Edgewater (1100 W. Bryn Mawr, 773.516.4188) diner is all about, according to owner Michael Mitsoglou. The newest location in Edgewater has modernized this concept, responding to customers’ evolving tastes but remaining true to its diner-style roots. So what does a “modern-diner” look like? We say a spacious, comfortable setting with an affordable, large-scale menu full of updated classics and seasonal creations served any time of the day. We say Nookie. The new chef-driven menu offers selections for a more refined palate, including juicy roasts, braises, and barbecues and seasonal choices like roast acorn squash with ancho lentils, steamed kale, goat cheese and house-smoked almonds. The restaurant’s atmosphere is an upgrade on the traditional dinner, with earthy colors, floor to ceiling windows, a liquor, juice and espresso bar and a patio in the works for spring. “Though we have a new face, we welcome our customers whether they are in their Sunday best or in sweat pants!” said Mitsoglou.


Epic Burger

A guilt-free burger? Don’t mind if you do! Epic Burger (227 E. Ontario, 312.257.3260 & 40 E. Pearson, 312.257.3262), prided on crafting the burger of champions, has launched two more restaurants–one in Streeterville, and the other in the Gold Coast–giving them a total of six Chicago locations. In addition to Epic Burger’s characteristic dedication to organic ingredients, energy efficient equipment and eco-conscious packaging, the new locations offer fresh flair. The Gold Coast location will offer breakfast selections, featuring the Epic Egg Sandwich, and a mezzanine dining area, while the Streeterville location will reveal an outdoor cafe when the warm weather returns.

Owner David Friedman says, “From the beginning, my intention was to raise people’s ‘food IQ’ by increasing awareness about what people eat on a daily basis.” He continues to do this by offering cage-free organic fried egg, nitrate free bacon, all natural Wisconsin cheeses, fresh-daily buns sans preservatives, hand-cut potato fries without the trans-fats. Chew on that.