How would you describe your cooking (and eating) style? How has it evolved?
Since so many of my friends and associates are professional chefs – and since I cooked professionally myself, I usually prefer simple, straight forward cooking: Italian, rustic, country French, Asian street food, and Mexican street food.
What was exciting to you about joining The Taste?
I was excited by the project because it was such an unlikely enterprise for me. It was a challenge to do something new, and large in scale. And I was particularly delighted for the opportunity to work with Nigella Lawson.
Is there anyone who gave you a chance in your career, whom you’ve considered a mentor?
I wrote about him: I refer to him as "Bigfoot" in Kitchen Confidential.
What’s the best cooking advice you’ve ever received? The best you’ve ever given?
Have a plan. Be organized. Keep it simple. Don't over think. Work CLEAN. And always – when doing something TO food, ask yourself: is this making it BETTER? Or is it just an attempt at impressing?
What was the most valuable advice you gave while working on the show, and to whom?
I think the best advice I gave was to let the professionals make the kinds of mistakes that professionals make – they will try too hard to impress with technique. I told my team to stick with what they felt they did best – to cook with integrity. To always think hard about WHOM they were cooking for. To remind them that cooking is, at its best, supposed to make people feel pleasure. To simply make delicious, assertively flavored food. And I reminded them often that they were cooking for a bunch of particularly jaded palates.
You’ve traveled the world hosting TV shows. In comparison, how was your experience judging The Taste? How did your background influence what you brought to this show?
Obviously, my travels have led me to a deep and abiding love for authentic Vietnamese, Thai, Laotian and Chinese flavors and condiments – a love of spicy foods. But I also have an appreciation for a simple, good thing, whatever it might be, or from whatever country. My extensive travels all over the globe, and all of that eating, has also made me likely to get cranky when people abuse, misrepresent, or egregiously misunderstand what's good about classic preparations like pasta pomodoro or beef bourguignon.
What was the hardest part about working on the show?
Not cursing as much as I usually do. Also wearing make up. That’s just something I'll never get used to.
Any hilarious or outrageous moments that stand out?
All of us repeatedly falling backwards into a pit for the promos. Best memory? Nigella kicking the crew's ass at beer pong.
You’ve eaten some very exotic foods over the years. Was there anything that surprised you on The Taste?
There were a lot of surprises. We tend to make assumptions about certain flavors and preparations. We foolishly assign characteristics like "masculine" or "feminine" to certain foods. It was great to see so many preconceptions punctured, week after week. We were constantly surprised when those hatches opened and we saw who cooked what.
Each episode of The Taste explores a unique cooking theme. Do you have any tips for helping people incorporate unfamiliar ingredients into their cooking?
No. Generally speaking? Don't.
Do you cook at home? What’s your go-to meal?
A simple Neapolitan style ragu of beef or veal, very slow cooked neck or shanks, simmered for hours, then served with pasta. That makes me happy. My daughter too.
What’s next for you after The Taste?
Keep doing what I'm doing. I'm currently traveling for my CNN show.
This interview was conducted by Williams-Sonoma. Visit their site to get all the cookware used on The Taste. (http://www.williams-sonoma.com/)