Several hot shot chefs met at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival to discuss everything from Food TV to the next hot ingredient to musings on where the future of food is headed. Moderating the panel was Alex Guarnaschelli, the executive chef and partner of two Butter restaurants in New York City and the 2012 winner of The Next Iron Chef competition. Also on the panel was Scott Conant, chef/owner of five Scarpetta restaurants, Stephanie Izard, the chef/partner of Girl & the Goat and Little Goat Diner in Chicago, and Alex Stupak, chef/owner of Empellon Cocina and Empellon Taqueria in New York City.
Guarnaschelli: Stephanie, you are known as the first female chef to win Bravo's Top Chef competition. What has that done for you?
Izard: First of all, I don't want to be known as a female chef. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if you’re male or female, it's whether you've proven yourself to be a good chef or not. With that said, Top Chef did open doors and provide opportunities, including drawing investors who like what you do. But once you open the door to your restaurant, you have to prove yourself. You can't rely on the reputation you got from TV.
Guarnaschelli: Scott and I are at a point in our careers where we often don't cook on television, but rather sit behind a desk and judge what others cook on Chopped. It removes you one step from what you like to do best.
Conant: First of all, I'm a lot nicer than I look while judging Chopped on TV. And because the judges don't do what they are known for, we started getting pressure from the public to be a contestant. That eventually happened with Chopped All Stars.
I've been on TV very little, but the amount of attention you get afterward is insane. But it sure helps draw attention to your restaurants, and that's great.
Guarnaschelli: The funny thing is when you start a conversation about food competitions on TV, you end up getting away from what it's all about—cooking.
Stupak: I know. I feel guilty when I'm not cooking. I have two restaurants and I can't be cooking like I once did. I can't imagine how little cooking I'd be doing with four or more restaurants.
Guarnaschelli: It's funny because you start off in the business making the soup and making sure that the soup gets a nice squeeze of lemon at the end. And then as your career advances, you're not making the soup, you're asking the kitchen what is the soup of the day because you didn't have a hand in it.
Izard: I have two restaurants, but luckily they are across the street from one another. I still taste most of the food on those menus. But I know that one day further down the road I'm not going to be able to do that. I'll have to be much better at delegating.
Even with one restaurant, you need people who are empowered. The ability to empower your people becomes even more important when you have several restaurants. Without empowerment we can't do what we are meant to do: make people happier on the way out of your restaurant than they were when they walked in.
Guarnaschelli: I got into this business because my parents told me to do for a living what I like to do because I'll be doing it all day long, and I love to cook. But is food TV drawing people to the restaurant industry for the wrong reasons?
Stupak: It may be, but watching Jacque Pepin and others like him on television is what inspired me to cook.
Guarnaschelli: But I've got cooks in my kitchen telling me they want to be on television, but they don't even know how to do a perfect diced carrot. The best chefs are good at what they do because they love to be cooking, not competing on TV.
I wasn't just inspired by cooks on TV. I was inspired by my father, who did all the cooking at my house. When I would go to my friends' houses I realized the food I was eating at home was better than what I was eating at my friends' homes. He taught me the importance of fresh garlic and how to salt.
A question from the audience: What ingredient can't you live without?
Stupak: Salt, because without it nothing else tastes good.
Izard: Acid, because it brings out the flavors in everything.
Conant: Parmesan cheese. It helps bring the salt.
Guarnaschelli: Dijon mustard, because it adds acid and salt.
Restaurant Hospitality editor Mike Sanson reported live from the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami Beach, Fla., Feb. 20-23. The event, now in its 13th year,attracted more than 60,000 attendees, 150 celebrated chefs and 250 wineries and spirits producers. A component of the festival is trade panels designed specifically for restaurant operators. Sanson's reports from South Beach focus on those talks and interviews with top chefs attending the event.