This week marks the Food Network’s premiere of The Next Iron Chef. The show aired last night and the theme of this season is redemption, giving previous competitors a second chance. Possible redemption for the contestants lies in the hands of the judges, one of whom is a favorite of ours – Donatella Arpaia. Arpaia is the “tough but fair” judge (she is also a recurring judge on Iron Chef) who has also referred to herself as a cross between Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul. It’s an accurate depiction – and it’s the thing that makes both contestants and viewers hang on her every word. Arpaia is a restaurant mogul as well, most recently adding her passion project Donatella – an authentic Neapolitan pizzeria in New York – to her long list of restaurants. We sat down with Arpaia to talk about authentic Neapolitan pizza, fellow judge pitfalls and of course what to expect from the new season of The Next Iron Chef: Redemption…
What would be your ideal food day?
For breakfast, caviar and eggs – really well done the way Jean Georges would do it – with really great coffee. For lunch, I would say bucatini with sea urchin butter. For dinner, Neapolitan pizza from my restaurant Donatella, and a tasting of cheeses.
How has the industry changed since you first started?
Oh my god…I mean, I think the Food Network changed everything. Chefs are celebrities now. The food world has become a celebrity world and I think it’s really affected the restaurant industry. It used to be about restaurateurs and maître d’s and now it’s about the chefs. A more chef TV driven world affects how restaurants are run.
Also, people in general are more educated about food, which is a great thing. Another thing is that it’s harder to make money than ever before in the industry. The costs of food and liquor have increased so much.
Could you tell us a bit about the passion project that is Donatella?
This has been in my mind since I first started. I spent my summers in Naples; my Father was born in Naples. I have these memories from my childhood of eating Neapolitan pizza and the flavors and taste were things I dreamed about.
I wanted to open an authentic restaurant featuring the food and pizza of Naples. I went to great lengths to do this; I had my chefs trained in Naples; my oven was hand-built from Stefano Ferrara and all the stones came over from Mount Vesuvius by ship. I really made an effort to make it the most authentic experience possible.It all came from my childhood and memories of food and my happy place. It’s been a long time coming.
There seems to be a Neapolitan pizza trend in New York. What’s different about Donatella? What are other people doing wrong?
I don’t want to say other people are doing it wrong. There is a trend. There’s a lot that goes into making a pizza, from creating the dough, to the oven and to training. I went to great lengths to make it as authentic as possible. There’s certain criteria for that, and some places are more loose about adhering to the criteria.
Also, Donatella is casual and fun but at the same time we take things seriously. There’s wine, a pastry chef with a pastry program, and a real commitment to the experience in general – not just to serving pizza. Whereas some places just serve the pizza. It’s something that should be treated reverently.
If you could go back and do anything differently concerning your restaurants, would you?
There are so many mistakes along the way and you just have to learn from them. The restaurant business is about making those mistakes. People that do this are very passionate, but it also needs to be about the business of the restaurant. You have to have a keen understanding of that business – and who you select as your partner is extremely important. Looking back, maybe I wish I was more practical at times, and not just passionate. There are certain things I’d do over, but maybe if I had [done things differently] I wouldn’t be where I am today. It’s also about adapting. You can’t stay still in this industry. You have to be constantly moving forward.
What led you into the world of food TV?
I used to be so nervous about public speaking and being on TV. At first, being on TV was about promoting my restaurant at the time and doing whatever I could to be busy, as I was unknown.
With food TV, I conquered that fear. I really had severe frights about being in front of the camera, but I’m the kind of person who always puts myself in uncomfortable situations, because that’s the best way to overcome the fear.
I did a show in Connecticut, so I did a few episodes at these little local places and finally got more comfortable. Someone saw me on a local station and asked me to be on Iron Chef. It grew from there.
I really came to love food TV. In today’s world, you sometimes want to shut off the TV, because it can be depressing. But food is something we all can enjoy and I enjoy it. I really do.
Do you think other stations do it wrong?
There’s reality TV now and there are trends. It started with Julia Child. She was the original type of cooking program, which was relaxed but also more formal. Now, it’s all about competitive TV because that’s what sells. Hopefully, there will be a trend towards real cooking again. I think things happen in cycles and I think there’s a need for that again. Food TV has gotten away from food, and I want it to come back to that. Now it’s about drama and competition, which is fun, but let’s not forget about food.
You recently filmed the newest season of The Next Iron Chef: Redemption and you are also a recurring judge on Iron Chef. What can you tell us about Iron Chef that we don’t already know?
The contestants take it very seriously. The Iron Chef’s don’t want to lose. It’s done in one hour and it’s all real. There’s no manipulation. I really think it’s one of the true reality TV shows left. And the cooking really does occur in one hour.
And the secret ingredient?
A couple of weeks beforehand, the contestants are given a list of five ingredients and the secret ingredient is one of them. So they do have a chance to think about it, but they don’t know which one it will be. At end of the day, it still doesn’t make it much easier.
When judging Iron Chef and The Next Iron Chef, what do you find to be the greatest challenge?
Eating all that food. Today I had a challenge and it was just a lot of food. The contestants sometimes will have five components in their dish and you have to taste each. You also have preferences that you have to set aside. I hate lamb, and I had to eat lamb three times this week. It’s about setting those preferences aside and appreciating what the chefs do. But sometimes it’s about eating bad food, which isn’t fun.
What would you say your judging style is? Is honesty always the best policy?
I’m fair and honest. I used to be much nicer – I guess I got tougher, as I think it’s better for the chefs to hear. I always like to be positive but also let them realize what is wrong with the dish and how they can improve. Chefs that realize you always have to learn are the ones that will grow. The ones that don’t [realize that], don’t. I’d say I’m tough but fair.
What will usually win you over? What usually doesn’t work for you?
At the end of the day, it has to taste good – and chefs forget that. They may make something with a beautiful presentation, but the food’s not there. Or there are a lot of bells and whistles, but no substance. At the same time, it is Kitchen Stadium, so I am looking for that extra spark. I like to be surprised and satisfied at the same time
What’s been one of your favorite dishes ever created on the show?
I have a couple of favorite things. Bobby Flay did this toasted couscous that I went crazy over. Morimoto – when he does his sashimi and sushi – is at another level. Mario Batali created this pasta made out of pizza dough and it was incredible.
Do you have any advice for someone coming onto the show as a guest judge for the first time?
I think that if they don’t know about a type of food or about what a chef is doing, it’s okay to say they don’t understand and ask questions. They should really think about the audience, and about how they express themselves. They have to use descriptive words about why it’s good and bad. They have to consider all the senses and have fun with it.
What can we expect from the new season of The Next Iron Chef?
A lot of surprises. I think this will be the most watched and highly anticipated season. I can’t tell you why, but it’s going to be good. So stay tuned.
Is there anyone you’d still like to work with, that you haven’t worked with yet?
A chef without an ego – if you can find one.
What advice do you have for those coming into the industry?
You really have to love it, because if you don’t, it’s not going to cut it. You have to have a true understanding of what it means to own and run a restaurant, not an unofficial understanding from watching TV and being a restaurant guest.
Is there anything, at all your restaurants, that screams “Donatella?”
I always just aspire for quality ingredients and service – and a little extra spark.
And most importantly, how do you feel about new potatoes?
I love potatoes and I like new potatoes because they’re small and pretty. I like the shape, texture and thinner skin. They’re great for boiling and roasting. The different color and varieties – they’re fun and less work. You can put them in a roasting pan with onions and you don’t have to do much with them and they’ll be delicious.
*To view Donatella’s recipe for Baked Figs with Prosciutto and Gorgonzola, Click Here
*Photo by Danielle Kosann