Ever try to recreate a dish you’ve only tasted once? That was the problem many of ‘The Next Iron Chef‘ contestants struggled with during Sunday night’s episode. Even some of the stronger competitors stumbled in their interpretations of classic international dishes. In the end, however, it was Chef Holly Smith who got the ax for her Bouillabaisse interpretation that left the judges cold. Smith talks about her difficult time finding her culinary “happy place” and what she would do differently if given another shot.
When you were eliminated from the show, during your exit sound bite, you said, “I wasn’t able to find my happy place. I wasn’t happy with any dish I made.” What was it about the show that made you feel that way?
It’s funny. The only advice you get from somebody when you’re doing a show like this is to cook from your strength. I’ve learned as a professional chef and, what Cafe Juanita exemplifies is, I cook food that I love and that I want to eat. I’m definitely not a fusion or multicultural chef. I’ve found my home in Italy. What I found out about myself is just how literal I am. I am a rule follower. I should’ve made an Italian Brodetto; I should’ve done seafood risotto; I should’ve done rabbit with the same sauce as bouillabaisse. I typically think really well on my feet, but I wasn’t. I was kind of cooking to get to the end. “Happy place” sounds kind of goofy, but the food wasn’t ‘mmmm I want to eat this,’ it was more ‘must get to the end.’ I hope that if I had stayed longer that I was able to get my stride and just let those other things go by the wayside and just cook and have fun. I wasn’t doing that in the challenges that you saw.
If you had a second chance to be on the show, what would you do differently? What would you tell yourself?
I’m still trying to figure that out. Just that what I do is good enough. I never deconstruct things, but I was looking around and there were chefs in that room who love to deconstruct. Plating styles is really more of what I’m thinking about. I think I should’ve just kept my own soul first, to just do what you do. Historically, my food gets great results. My perspective is different and different is fine and great. I think I would’ve kept to that instead of second-guessing that in this venue and in this time you need to do highly conceptualized food. I would’ve tried to have more fun. I had fun with the experience but I didn’t have fun with the food. I would’ve tried to laugh at it all a little bit more and enjoy the creative side instead of fighting against it.
Did you go into the competition with a strategy just from watching the previous season or even other competitive food shows?
No, but I’m starting to wonder, ‘Oh look maybe I should’ve had a strategy.’ I think it’s just best to be yourself and it’s an interesting lesson at my age, that something rocked me out of just being myself. You don’t know until you’re there. I was expecting different types of challenges for sure. I was expecting a skill challenge and something that was more ingredients based and less conceptual. So far you saw us with vessels and a specific dish. I would also have gone and eaten bouillabaisse at least once in my life before.
A lot of chefs seemed to say during that second interpretation challenge that they had only eaten the dish they were assigned to interpret a handful of times, if at all.
Yeah, I had never had it [bouillabaisse] and I was completely focused on fennel. I’m embarrassed to say that I’m 42 years-old and I love food, but I’ve never eaten bouillabaisse! Honestly, I felt a little foolish. I don’t think you should be reinterpreting something that you don’t know.
Such a core part of the original ‘Iron Chef’ show is seeing chefs work off this one ingredient and the dishes they try to create when they’re not entirely sure know how good the final product will taste.
Right, and I know what they were going for and I get it. I’ve talked to other people, who were still on the show as of that episode, who said, ‘Yeah I stayed with my strengths for a while, but then those other times where I didn’t and followed the challenge verbatim. Those were the times where it didn’t work.’ So I think the people who said, ‘I’m going to make food that I know and I’m just going to spin it back towards dishes I’ve done.’ Those are the people who are doing really well. It’s funny, it’s a game, you know? [Laughs]
What was the hardest challenge for you out of the four that you had during the competition?
Oh, definitely the one I went out on. It was just because I didn’t have a good concept. My idea was never one I could settle into. It was sort of a lesser of two evils choice. So it was never ‘oh, this would be a good idea.’ It was just that I don’t know the dish and so I’m just going to go with the components and not give them the soup, because the soup will get me out.
Did you watch yourself on the show?
Yeah, of course! We [the chef contestants] were all at the Food & Wine festival in New York. So we had a long day, I cooked on Sunday and I tend to travel with my five-year-old son and so I didn’t want to go out. So we snuggled into our hotel room and watched it. It was fun.
The show has a very unique aspect to it where in the first challenge all of the contestants judge each other’s dishes and decide by popular vote who should get the advantage for the next challenge. What did you think about that aspect of the show?
Yeah, no one likes that. Nobody likes that. For me, I think I was very cautious of what I said. I mean we’ve all seen ‘Top Chef’ and a billion other shows that are reality-esque where things can be misunderstood out of context. I was kind of hyper-vigilant to that when we got to that judging. That’s just something I didn’t want to do. It was a tough thing. I never want to say, ‘What’s the thing I like the least?’ I’m good at constructive criticism. I know how to do that. In a game like that I had no interest in picking the loser.