THE NEW ICONS
There are many reasons why Amanda Freitag believes herself to be The Next Iron Chef. In our opinion, her personality alone takes the competition. The fan favorite chef-judge gives off a competitive energy balanced by a deep awareness of her peers (contestants and judges alike). It makes her an integral part of the food community, and whether you’ve seen her competing on The Next Iron Chef, or at the judges’ table on Chopped, you’ve probably fallen in love with her already. We certainly have, which is why we sat down and got her take on season five of The Next Iron Chef: Redemption. Watch out; redemption is what she’s going for.
What would be your ideal food day?
Oh my god, I need some preparation for that. Well, breakfast would be in Paris – a baguette with butter. Lunch would be in Italy with a bottle of wine, pasta and steak. Then dinner would probably be back in New York City. I’d probably have a burger at Shake Shack.
You’ve worked with iconic chefs such as Tom Valenti, Alain Passard and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. How did these chefs shape you?
When I talk to young people and culinary students, they ask me a lot about how I got to where I am and how I started. I’m really a conglomeration of those chefs, starting first with Jean Georges and getting to cook side by side with him – which is much rarer now. Then opening a restaurant with Tom and working with Diane for six years, which is just an unheard of amount of time in the culinary world. She was very smart; she knew I wanted to do my own thing and she’d say, “you’ll get your chance.” She told me to write down the ideas I had and remember them, because then when I was my own chef, I could express them. The way she put it was really great.
Are you excited about Season Five of The Next Iron Chef? What are some personal goals?
Well, there’s a reason why this season’s called Redemption. I competed in 2009; it was very intense and really the hardest thing I’ve ever done – and the other competitors would tell you the same. A lot has changed since then; food TV feels a bit more saturated, but it’s still just as hard as it was before. But I love the experience of being in the kitchen cooking. I work best under pressure, so all this creativity comes out when I compete and I really love it. It’s also good for all of us because fans will see us as judges (or as hosts on shows) but then they get see us cooking hands on, sweating and having to compete – it’s a great experience.
What ingredient would you hope to be assigned? Which are you dreading?
Well, I’ve competed on Chopped as well, and that’s a whole other experience. People are always asking ‘Do you all know the ingredients in the basket?’ and I say, ‘No way, not even close!’ Something that comes up a lot in that basket – that I’d never want – is this soy bean called Natto. I would never want that ingredient. I don’t know what to do with it or how to cook it. I know then as a chef I should go out and buy it and try to cook with it, but I think I’m staying away from it for the moment. Then, in terms of dream ingredients, I think I’d like just fresh, simple ingredients – a basket of heirloom tomatoes or farm-raised chicken. Although sometimes, with those crazy weird ingredients, you do have to push yourself harder to do something with them, which is good. But with a simple farm-raised chicken, everyone can cook that, so you have the challenge of making it in the very best way.
Who, on the new cast, are you most excited to compete with?
I’m excited and scared to compete against Elizabeth Falkner. She’s a double threat; she’s an expert in both sweet and savory, so she’s coming in with everything. On top of that, she’s physically so fit; she’s a fighter; she’s a warrior when she goes in there! I feel like I am physically fit as well, but when it comes to pastry, I do more simple things. She can do a smoking meringue in twenty minutes, so I’m excited that she’ll be pushing me to do well.
What’s it like going from being a judge, to being judged?
That is hard. I always think I’m not going to be nervous because I know what it’s all about (since I’m at that judge table on Chopped). But it never fails – As soon as I get in front of that judge’s table, I get those heart palpitations and I forget that I made a good dish. I just think “this could be it,” because I know the other side of it. As a chef, you know where your strengths lie and whether or not you made something good. It’s really just about hoping the judges are nice about it.
Does this make you nicer as a judge?
Absolutely. I have fans, friends and family that tell me I’m a really fair judge. I always say it comes from being there (on the other side of it). I know what it’s like. I always try for constructive criticism because it is a learning experience, so I try to be constructive and kind, unless I really feel it’s offensive.
We know you’re worthy of being an Iron Chef, but if you absolutely had to sum up why in one sentence, what would you say?
I’m the next iron chef because kitchen stadium needs a woman like me. I have fun while I’m cooking but I’m fearless when I battle the iron chefs. I love kitchen stadium; I thrive there; I always have fun there and it’s my turn. It’s just my turn.
What do you think of competitive food TV in general? Are some shows better than others?
I do feel the popularity of Chopped is so extreme because people see it’s real. Contestants are surprised by the ingredient in the basket; you have chefs judging, not actors or models. When people come on the show, they can go back and tell their friends and family that everything is real; everything is how it seems when you watch. If cooking shows can stay real, they’ll stay popular. If they’re too extreme and stray from cooking, they will fade away fast. I know people love drama but people want to see cooking – and believe me, there’s enough drama in the kitchen. You don’t need to add to it. The shows that continue to be about the food will rise above; the others will fall away.
What are the most common pitfalls you encounter from contestants on Chopped?
Oddly – and I know this may happen from people’s adrenaline etc. – people forget to use salt or seasoning. They don’t taste and season their food. You can easily be the winner of Chopped if you taste your food and use salt and seasoning. Contestants are so busy getting their dish together and getting everything on the plate, they forget the basics. It sounds so simple, but it’s so true.
Can you share any secrets on the show’s process?
I get asked a lot how long us as judges are deliberating for and how long it takes for us to decide to chop someone. What you see on TV is a minutes worth, but in reality, we discuss for thirty to forty minutes – and believe me, it gets heated. We do not always agree at all. That’s why there are three judges, because hopefully two can persuade the one that may disagree. I don’t think there’s enough of that on the show; hopefully we’ll eventually be able to show more. Right now, I think people have a twisted view of how that deliberation really works. Another thing is, it never is about someone’s personality. We forget about that and look at what’s on the plate. You can really fall in love with a chef and love what they’re doing through the show, but if they end up blowing it on the plate, that doesn’t matter.
Do you get acquainted with them?
We get to know them on that day, but we only see them when they cook and stand in front of us. I actually enjoy watching it after and seeing their interviews and what they say. Sometimes I’m glad I didn’t hear that the day of the competition! But we don’t interact with the chefs behind the scenes.
What’s especially unique about the restaurants and venues discovered on Unique Eats? How is it different from other shows of the same nature?
I think people are starting to use it more as a guide. For example, we just did an episode in Portland, Maine; I think if someone is going to Maine, they may use that episode as somewhat of a guide – and the chefs are there to give personal comments and views. I personally love the high production value – from how the food looks to getting the vibe of the restaurant and the chefs and owners. You get that without it being “the best burger ever” or “the hottest pepper in the US.” It’s more about highlighting artisans that are doing amazing things without being extreme. People are always asking me, ‘When you’re in New York, where do you go to eat?’ ‘When you’re in LA, where do you go?’ I think the show provides [an answer to] that.
Is there anything you find “unfair” happening in the food world right now?
Good question. I think the only thing that gets difficult is that sometimes customers and clients complain about the cost of food. If you’ve never worked at or owned a restaurant (or looked at rents) you have no idea what it takes. If you want local ingredients and organic ingredients properly prepared, you have to pay for it. If you go to France or Spain, people spend a lot of money at restaurants. I think people here want good food but they don’t always want to have to pay for it. The reality is, if you want artisans to make your product, you have to pay.
Are you interested at all in the combatant dialogue between chefs from different networks, etc. What do you think of this?
It’s so competitive in our industry – and it’s gotten more competitive with the onslaught of media. I’m thankful for the Food Network because it really makes people fall in love with food, but in general the industry is so competitive. “Why does that chef have more restaurants?” “Why is he or she on TV more?” It always has been [competitive] but you didn’t hear it as much. Now that there’s Twitter, Facebook and TV, that kind of berating is almost promoted. We all want to be the best; anything a chef or restaurateur does is to make his or her restaurant better. There are so many media outlets now though, so you have to be careful what you say.
When cooking at home, what are your go-tos?
I’m about to make myself lunch actually! The way my life is, half the time I’m traveling filming Unique Eats, or judging and competing in competitions, so I’m not eating very healthy. Sometimes on Unique Eats, we eat double lunches and double dinners so we can hit everywhere! So when I’m home I eat somewhat vegetarian. I eat a lot of kale and high protein like chicken, egg whites and fish. Or I make a great vegetable medley – I eat really clean at home.
What are your favorite cities for food? Where do you go there?
I live in Chelsea now so a big go-to is Cookshop [pictured above]. In Philadelphia – it may have been on Unique Eats – I absolutely love Zahav. The food is outstanding there. It’s rare I want to come home and recreate what I had at a restaurant, and I really wanted to do that after eating there. This summer I was out in LA and I went to MBPost four times. I couldn’t get enough. I love his [David LeFevre's] food. It’s the way I want my restaurant to be – just the feel of the place. It’s very modern; I think a lot of restaurants opening will be similar to that.
Are there certain chefs whose careers you’ve always followed?
I keep my eye on women chefs, because there’s not a lot of us. I love Gabrielle Hamilton. I’m so inspired by her, between Prune and her book Blood, Bones and Butter. She’s just able to do it all and not just be fixed on one thing. My friend Missy Robbins – who has A Voce – is super hands-on with two restaurants. It’s all about the food; she doesn’t just give it over to someone else, which I really respect. On Chopped, I get to sit, watch chefs and talk with my peers on the judge’s table. I get to sit and ask Marc [Murphy] about the empire he’s built, or speak with Scott [Conant], Geoffrey [Zakarian], and maybe talk to Aaron [Sanchez] about growing up with his Mother (cooking authority Zarela Martinez). I just love how everyone’s story is different.
Do you have any advice to chefs just starting out?
Oh, I have lots of advice. My one main point would be not to skip all the good stuff, which is the time in the kitchen. Chefs want to get right to owning the restaurant and being on TV, and there’s just so much good stuff in between then and now. I’ve been doing this for twenty years; I started at the bottom and worked my way up and around. All of that made me who I am today. Be a line cook; try being a pastry chef for a year even if you don’t want to. All of that will come back to you in the end.
How do you feel about new potatoes?
Oh my god, I love new potatoes! I just cooked them at a rehearsal dinner in Vermont this weekend; we made the most gorgeous potatoes. We boiled them, then roasted them with garlic, lemon and ton of olive oil – very rustic. I ate so many potatoes I couldn’t eat dinner.
*Amanda Freitag photographed at Cookshop by Danielle Kosann