all stars

Catching Up With Penny Davidi

Penny DavidiWhen Food Network Star season 7 premiered last year finalist Penny Davidi quickly made herself the villain.  A few snide remarks about other cast members in the opening interviews of episode one had established Penny as the cast member you love to hate.

It was a role that the smart, single mother understood could make her name hard to forget.  In this age of reality celebrity-ism that is important for surviving the worst economy in the last 70 years.  Like the old adage says, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.  But being the bad guy is not a role for sissies.

Having gotten to know a number of last year’s cast fairly well I can tell you that they do not feel the same way about the Middle Eastern Mama as much of the viewing public.  Just last month I talked with Vic “Vegas” Moea and he had this to say about her, “Penny – she’s good people, man.  She really is a good person.  She just played the heel.  That’s OK because at the end of the day when she goes home with her family she’s a loving mother, she’s a caring friend.”

Folks, you cannot ask more from a person than that.  It’s easy to pick out Penny or Debbie Lee or Brianna Jenkins or any other FNS villains and say they are a bad person but they’re not really, not in the grand scheme of things.  Osama bin Laden was a bad person.  Adolph Hilter, Harvey Updyke, David Berkowitz, Andrew Jackson, Elizabeth Bathory – all bad people.  Penny is just a woman who went on a reality cooking show and made a name for herself.  Lighten up, people.

Is she competitive?  Yes.  Is she focused?  You bet.  Is she evil?  Hardly.

As I watched the Chopped All Stars finale the other night I kept an eye on the #Chopped hashtag on Twitter.  Tweets were flying faster than I could process and I couldn’t help but notice all of the “Anyone but Penny” comments.  Folks, do you realize they were playing for charity?  Had Penny won, $50,000 would have gone to help women and children who are homeless, victims of abuse and neglect.  How can you root against that and have the audacity to say someone else is a bad person?

Think about this.  In two hours of television Penny did more for Gramercy Housing Group than most of us will do for any charity in our entire lives.  So I ask you, who again is the villain?

On the heels of her appearance on Chopped All Stars I chatted with Penny about the changes and challenges in her life since her Food Network debut last spring.

You’ve been a busy lady of late.  What are you working on?

I’m opening up a restaurant in LA called the Spice Bar and Market.  It’s going to be about bringing ethnic doable food mainstream.  I’m rolling out with a 70,000 square foot food destination in which I’m collaborating with some major chefs and big companies to make that happen.  At the same time I’m working on a line of products to go on QVC.  I’m also working on my line of seasonings, sauces and spices.

I should have a book and a book tour in July of 2013.  I’m really excited about how it looks and how it’s coming together.  It’s fun; it’s edgy, my sarcasm, my sense of humor.  It’s Penny in a book.

When I last spoke with Vic, he mentioned that after shooting FNS for 12 weeks that the four of you showed up on the Chopped set feeling no pressure.  Was the finale as stress-free?

Oh my God.  The pressure was intense.  I knew that I would never get past Marcus Samuelsson.  I almost wish I had gone home round one because I hate that people are like you know if Michael Symon had gotten the okra on the plate you’d have been the first to go home.  And I just said What makes you think Jeffrey Saad’s noodle dish would have passed me?  It doesn’t matter.

And on Twitter. . . some woman yesterday was like, “You suck you F’n B!”  She went crazy right?  What a potty mouth.  Then I look at her profile and she’s a photographer nearby in Monterrey.  I looked at her company web site and I thought this looks kind of interesting.

I called her, Stuart.  I called her on the phone; she nearly had a coronary.  Later she Tweeted Here I am bad mouthing Penny and she calls me to ask me if I would consider doing the photography at her wedding.  She’s actually really nice.

A thousand people commented on the (Food Network) blog and 900 of them were saying “down with Penny.”  That’s valuable to them, Stuart.  People want to watch and people want to watch other people take me down.

Bobby Flay told my agent, “You can’t not sign Penny.  In fact, I want to handle Penny.  Food Network needs to maximize her potential and don’t you dare stick her in a studio.  Let’s stick her out in the field.  She’s an Anthony Bourdain.  Use that.”

Anthony can go off on any chef he wants and people love him for it.  He chewed Paula Deen’s . . .  People loved him.  He’s the man.  He’s powerful.

I could see myself judging.  Like Iron Chef or something.  Be the Simon Cowell of Food Network.  I could also see something like Throwdown with Penny.  That’s something my agent was talking to Bobby about.  He suggested Bobby hang up his hat on that because Penny is now the most hated person on Food Network.

I think if I did Throwdown with Penny people would love it.  They’d watch to see me lose.  All my haters would tune in.

Have there been any talks with Food Network about your own show?

They keep wanting to use me for their ratings but not give me a proper show.  They wanted to use me for another docu-series covering my life, like I’m the Cruella de Vil of Food Network.

I said no, give me a cooking show.

I have big things happening but I can’t talk about it right now.  I so want to talk about it but I can’t.  It’s ridiculous how big it is.  Bravo loves Penny; that’s all I’m going to say to you.

Even though you didn’t win Chopped All Stars did the attention help Gramercy Housing Group?

Absolutely.  Especially after the first episode.  It’s for charity.  That’s what’s important.  That’s why I continue to do things in the charity realm.  I sit on the board for Gramercy and do all kinds of events for them.  I’m happy for them and that we brought some attention to the charity.

I have a platform that I want to use and it’s in culinary; it’s in lifestyle.  That’s the direction I want to go.  You know I am the mother of five kids now and my biggest joy is in the kitchen preparing meals for them.  That’s where my joy lies now.

Has Reality Hit Reality Food TV?

If the universe has taught us anything it’s that life is cyclical.  Greece becomes the world’s first global empire but in just a few hundred years it is replaced by Rome.  Rome lasts a few hundred years giving way to the Ottomans who then yield to Great Britain.  See what I mean?

The same is true with television programming.  Remember when westerns ruled the tube?  Of course not, if you are old enough to remember that chances are you don’t know what a blog is.  You’ve heard the names though: The Rifleman, Big Valley, Rawhide, Bonanza, Have Gun Will Travel, et al.  Every channel (all three) had several westerns.  That was followed by family sit coms, cop-buddy shows and the night-time soap opera.

The same is true for food television.  Remember when food shows featured talented chefs who taught you how to cook and actually made learning entertaining?  Then came the food contests like the original Iron Chef which was followed by Iron Chef America, Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, etc.

Chamed City CakesWhen Ace of Cakes hit the air back in 2006 it was a revelation of food programming.  Food Network had simply taken a camera crew to chronicle the everyday lives of the anything-but-everyday cake decorators at Baltimore’s Charm City Cakes.  It was an instant hit.  The Network tried to duplicate the magic a year later with Two Dudes Catering but the forced dialog and contrived tension between the owners did not resonate with viewers.  Though that copycat failed dozens have flourished like TLC’s Cake Boss, Planet Green’s Future Food, Private Chefs of Beverly Hills and the feel good mini-series The Chef Jeff Project.

A scant five years later and it appears this trend is petering out.  Just a few months ago Ace of Cakes wrapped it’s final show.  On March 3rd Food Network attempted to regain the glory of Ace with a new series about ice sculpting called Ice Brigade which features the same eye-popping creativity and a gaggle of cool characters headed by Chef Randy Finch.

Just before the premiere I spoke with Finch and asked him if Ice Brigade can do for ice sculpting what Ace of Cakes did for cake decorating?  He replied, “I tell you I really hope that it does.”  The ratings thus far have been fine but Ice does not appear to be creating the same buzz that Duff and the gang at Charmed City Cakes did when they first hit the airwaves.  This despite the fact that it is easily as entertaining in every way.

Also saying goodbye earlier this year was the Private Chefs of Beverly Hills, gone after just two seasons. PCOBH burst onto the scenes with a cast of chefs straight out of the pages of a fashion magazine (literally in the case of former model Manouschka Guerrier).  The blogosphere exploded with debates over whether the uber-demanding clients were real (they were) and proclamations as to who was everyone’s favorite chef.  They were the hottest caters in the nation by far.  Now PCOBH has gone its way like roman candles fizzing out.

The latest sign that the reality food show is waning is the recent premiere of SyFy’s new show Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen starring Chef Marcel Vigneron.  It would seem that a show about the hottest trend in food right now, molecular gastronomy, hosted by a Top Chef alum would be a cinch hit for a network that caters to the comic-con crowd.  After a tremendous media blitz the first episode failed to draw even one million viewers.  A paltry 600,000 according to

Sasha Perl-RaverI asked PCOBH alum Sasha Perl-Raver her thoughts on the matter and she opined, “I think, if anything, reality cooking shows will only grow. The market is just starting to boom and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Next Great Restaurant might not be a hit, but Top Chef has spawned three spin offs, Masters, All-Stars and Just Desserts, Food Network gave birth to Cooking Channel.”

Sasha should know.  Not only did she star in a hit food reality show but she has also used her considerable connections in Hollywood to become a genuine TV trend spotter doing work as an entertainment reporter at NBC Universal and for SheKnows, LLC .  Sasha also maintains the very popular blog, Hollywood Bites.   So what’s her expert opinion?  “If anything, I think this is just the beginning.”

Sasha certainly knows her stuff.  While the numbers on behind-the-scenes reality food shows may be on the decline, reality food competitions are only becoming more popular.  Next Food Network Star is currently putting together its seventh season while Iron Chef America and Top Chef continue to capture ratings and both have generated popular spin-offs.  Chopped has gone from cult favorite to bona fide hit with this month’s special series, Chopped All-Stars which pits some of the network’s most popular chefs head-to-head for a $50,000 payday for the charity of their choice.  The numbers from the first two weeks were staggering as host Ted Allen recently revealed on his Facebook page, “Chopped All-Stars was the number one show on cable last Sunday: 6.3 million viewers!”


For more on Chopped All-Stars click HERE.

Chopped All-Stars was the number one show on cable last Sunday: 6.3 million viewers!

Top Chef Addiction? We Got Your Fix

Bravo’s Top Chef is one of the most popular food-based television programs in history and devotees to the popular reality show are often left Jonesing for more.

Top Chef PodcastTop Chef PodcastWell I have a solution:  Jeff Houck (Food Writer for the Tampa Tribune) and Katie Machol (Food & Drink Editor for the Daily Loaf) not only lead a lively and sometimes bawdy live Tweet during each new Top Chef episode but they also have the best Top Chef recap in the known universe.

The Top Chef Podcast on CL Radio is like a methadone clinic for Top Chef junkies.  Did you miss an episode and now you’re wondering who won, who packed their knives or how much cleavage Gail Simmons was showing?  You can always catch the Top Chef Podcast here:

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7 Questions with Alex Guarnaschelli

7 Questions is a series of interviews with the culinary movers and shakers you want or ought to know better.

Alex Guarnaschelli has long been a familiar face on the Food Network be it in her popular cooking shows The Cooking Loft and Alex’s Day Off or as a guest judge of Iron Chef America or Chopped  and soon as a contestant on Next Iron Chef 4.  She has been a polarizing figure to say the least.  It seems she is as beloved as she is disliked.  With Chopped: All Stars set to premiere in a few days perhaps we should get to know Chef Alex a little better.

After graduating from Barnard College in 1991, Guarnaschelli embarked on a lifelong culinary adventure beginning with a little time under the wing of the godfather of American cuisine, Larry Forgione.  If the name sounds familiar it should as Larry is the father of the newest Iron Chef Marc Forgione.

With the elder Forgione’s blessing Guarnaschelli took her studies overseas where she matriculated at La Varenne Culinary School in Burgundy.  From Burgundy she traveled France until landing in Paris for a four day study with famed French chef Guy Savoy.  Four years later she was still with Savoy as sous chef at one of his properties, La Butte Chaillot.  She would stay three more years before returning to America to work with the legendary Daniel Boulud at Daniel.

After moving up to sous chef with Boulud she then moved to the West Coast to work with Joachim Splichal’s Patina.  In 2003 she returned to New York to become the executive chef at Butter.  Since then she has made her reputation in the kitchen, as an instructor and even as a challenger on Iron Chef America before her keen palate was tapped as a judge both on ICA and Chopped.

In a fierce five-part tournament, 16 all star chefs battle head-to-head to win the crown as the champion of Chopped All Stars.  Competing in this battle royal are NFNS alums Brad Sorenson, Debbie Lee, Lisa Garza and Michael Proietti, as well as Anne Burrell, Geoffrey Zakarian, Claire Robinson, Duff Goldman, Robert Irvine, Beau MacMillan, Jacques Torres, Nate Appleman and former NIC contestants Anita Lo, Aarón Sánchez, Maneet Chauhan and Amanda Freitag.

Whenever discussions of culinary cuties ensue I am always aghast that Guarnaschelli’s name does not immediately come up.  She is clearly a beautiful woman but her descriptions of food are so sensual I swear they make me blush. When it comes to making food sexy she takes a back seat to no one.

Chef Alex will be a judge for this first of it’s kind event but first she answers 7 Questions.

Chopped All StarsCan you tell us what we can expect from Chopped All Stars?

It’s a week of all stars for charity where all the different celebrity chefs are competing for charities of their choice and the grand prize is a $50,000 donation to the winning chef’s charity.  It’s certainly very dramatic.

A little about you, Alex, how would you best describe your style of cooking?

I would say that I’m in touch with the American classics.  My parents were avid cooks when I was growing up; still are.  It was a lot of the French-American, French techniques and American ingredients ranging from Oysters Rockefeller and Lobster Newburg definitely is a big part of my style of cooking.  I love the green market mentality.  Some one once said to me that’s not a cooking style it’s a shopping philosophy which I thought was a very interesting way of putting it.  So I guess I would say French-American with seasonality being one of my favorite things.

Which chefs have influenced you along the way?

Many but probably the most influential definitely is Guy Savoy in Paris.  He was definitely a big inspiration, still is, to me.  Certainly Daniel Boulud is another big influence and inspiration.  You know you have mentors of many kinds when you’re a chef.  And certainly another big mentor to me is Bobby Flay who has just been very supportive of me and really helped me find my own voice as a chef on television as well as, you know, a cooking style.  I think that’s certainly important to me too.

How important do you think improvisational skills are to being a chef especially in a setting like Chopped All Stars?

When you say improvisation to me it makes me think of many other words like solutions.  As in somebody who can handle any crisis.  You know like when somebody doesn’t show up to work at the restaurant or the grease trap explodes on a Friday night or you have to put together a dish from a basket of ingredients in 20 minutes flat.  It’s all sort of that same idea of improvisation.  So I think thinking quickly on your feet is critical.  Which is why I think Chopped is such a natural extension of being a chef, being a cook.  Only now you’re being filmed and all of America is watching you.

What was the experience of being a judge for Chopped All Stars like?

Yeah, it was amazing.  Think about it.  Just think about that list of names.  Can you imagine?  It was incredible.  It was like watching the Super Bowl.

How would you describe the atmosphere in the Chopped kitchen?

The show is such a power, such a house of cards all the time.  Sometimes I like to think there’s a little mystery on the ground floor of the house you know with the basics.

How do you balance being a judge while also being a colleague with the other chefs?

We’re all professionals.  We all work together.  We’re all sort of similar in that all of us are sometimes the competitors and  all of us are sometimes the judges.  And I think that playing that game of musical chairs as professionals you definitely have a tacit understanding of what that’s going to entail ahead of time.  So it wasn’t really an issue.  I don’t think any of us would have allowed it to be.  It’s for charity.

Chopped All Stars premieres March 6th at 9PM ET on Food Network.


This was an excerpt from my latest Kindle Single “Dinner Conversations” which is an anthology of celebrity chef interviews. Available here

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Stuart in 80 Words or Less

Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

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Stuart’s Honors & Awards

2015 1st Place Luck of the Irish Cook-off
2015 4th Place Downtown Cajun Cook-off
2015 2nd Place Fins' Wings & Chili Cook-off
2014 2015 4th Place LA Gumbo Cook-off
2012 Taste Award nominee for best chef (web)
2012 Finalist in the Safeway Next Chef Contest
2011 Taste Award Nominee for Little Grill Big Flavor
2011, 12 Member: Council of Media Tastemakers
2011 Judge: 29th Chef's of the Coast Cook-off
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Wing Cook-off
2011 Cooking Channel Perfect 3 Recipe Finalist
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Gumbo Cook-off
2011 Culinary Hall of Fame Member
2010 Tasty Awards Judge
2010 Judge: Bayou La Batre Gumbo Cook-off
2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Award Nominee
2010 Chef2Chef Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2010 Denay's Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2009 2nd Place Bay Area Food Bank Chef Challenge
2008 Tava: Discovery Contest Runner-up


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