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.