Interview: Chef Anne Burrell on teaching the worst chefs in America

The culinary taskmaster on how she breaks it down in the kitchen.

The platinum-locked chef and television personality, Anne Burrell, has seated herself as a staple of the food television industry. She started in 2005, serving as Mario Batali’s sous chef on Iron Chef America. Since then, she’s appeared on Best Thing I Ever Ate, The Next Iron Chef, Secrets of a Restaurant Chef, and Chef Wanted. Since 2010, she’s co-hosted Worst Cooks in America, now entering its fifth season on the Food Network (airing Mondays at 9 p.m. EST). Take 12-16 terrible cooking contestants (she calls them “recruits”), put them through eight weeks of culinary book camp, all under the watchful eyes of Burrell and chef Bobby Flay. At the end, recruits must cook a restaurant quality three-course meal for three food critics; one winner takes home $25,000. Burrell spoke to Creative Loafing on Valentine’s Day, en route to a flight from Los Angeles to New York. 

What were your expectations going into the first season of Worst Cook in America?

Anne Burrell: I really didn’t know what to expect. What really got me was how clueless the people were. And doing the real part of a reality show caught me off guard. It didn’t occur to me how seriously people would take it…the tears when you send people home and how much they wanted to be there caught me off guard.

You’ve worked with the likes of Mario Batali and some of the best chefs in the industry. What’s it like going from to working with people that have no experience?
It’s a totally different skill set; I had to go 180 degrees because they’re not even in the same ballpark. I was a teacher before I started doing shows, a culinary teacher, so I had a bit of an idea on how to approach the situation. These people were so bad, and every season since I’ve been surprised at how bad people really are. It’s like all right, here we go, let’s put our heads down and just shovel away.

Why do you think some people have such an anxiety about cooking?
Everyone eats and everyone knows what good food tastes like. Cooking has been presented as this genetic trait passed down from Mom and Grandma. But it’s just like everything else; you have to learn how to cook. Some people don’t take the time to learn. They get excited at the prospect of cooking and tear into something and then it doesn’t come out well. Instead, they should have taken the time and followed the recipe. Sadly, that’s not the fun part of cooking but it’s the most important part.

Is it entirely up to the contestants to prove themselves?
It’s up to them, but it is up to me to give them tools and information. I break down that information into little pieces to keep it manageable. If you look at this giant project at once it becomes overwhelming. It’s all about baby steps. We do one baby step at a time; at the end of the baby steps we’ve made huge strides.

What’s it like working with Bobby Flay? I know you’d trumped your other former competitions Beau MacMillan, and Robert Irvine. But Bobby beat you last season.
Bobby has proven himself to be a tough competitor. I’ve gotten to know Bobby very well and I’d describe him as a formidable competitor.

Does that mean you’re worried you’ll lose?
I’m counting on another incredible victory.

What’s different about season five? Any surprises for audiences?
We went on some field trips and kind of shook things up a bit to keep recruits on their toes. We didn’t take it easy on them at all.

Is there like a 12-step equivalent to what recruits go through? For example, they must first accept they’re the worst cooks.
They manage that on their own by even being there in the first place. It goes back to the baby steps and how we handle things. It’s a modular approach. I teach them, and I don’t just say here’s the recipe. I’m not Gordon Ramsey, it’s important to me to teach them not just yell at them.

You want to yell though, sometimes, right?
Oh, I definitely do. I will tell them when they’re doing something badly and when they succeed though.

Was it difficult to put your teaching hat back on?
Not really, I’m always teaching in the kitchen and cooking is second nature to me. It’s like you have those muscles already in place.

Did you have a family figure that inspired you to cook?
Oh definitely, my mother. I cooked with her growing up. My mom was a really creative cook. We had a big garden and we really lived that farm-to-table existence, or in this case, garden to table, from when I was little.

Since you are working with inexperienced cooks, what kind of bare bones equipment would you recommend amateur cooks have in place at home?
Bare bones equipment is a few decent pans, a good sharp knife. Learn how to sharpen that good sharp knife too. I’d say a wooden spoon, a rubber spatula, a fish spatula, some wet and dry measuring cups and spoons. And a cutting board that can be cleaned easily, that’s large enough to work on, not one that’s made to serve a couple pieces of cheese on at a party.

What are hoping to accomplish this year?
My show Chef Wanted got cancelled so I’m developing some new show ideas. I’m always working a lot and getting out there. I’ve got a few irons and ideas in the fire. I’m hoping to keep on getting my message and voice out there.

After so many shows, and the recent cancellation, tell me what is it about food television that you enjoy so much?
For me, it’s when people come up and tell me I’ve inspired them to cook. Or when someone tells me the only way they can get together with teenager is watching show and cooking. It’s a responsibility but I really enjoy it.

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