Job interviews are stressful enough, but add TV cameras, a head-to-head competition and the watchful eyes of two of the most successful people in your field evaluating your every move, and you've got Chef Hunter, the palm-sweater of a cooking competition show that premiered last night on the Food Network.
Last night's episode was set at Border Grill's downtown location, with owners Susan Feniger, Mary Sue Milliken and co-owner Andrea Uyeda, (who has the best hair we've ever seen) looking to replace executive chef Jaime Covarrubias, who'd been with the company a whopping 25 years, starting as a dishwasher, and working his way up to kingpin. Certainly these were big shoes to fill.
"It's important for us, for the culture that we've created in our kitchens, to choose someone's who's a good fit," Milliken told us this morning. "It was interesting and helpful to see how the candidates interacted with our existing staff."
That was the twist on this interview process. It was more than just the typical resumes and a tastings. On Chef Hunter, the two competitors -- Monique King (formerly of NineThirty at the W Hotel) and Jason Fullilove (formerly of The Gorbals, Da Vinci, Desert Rose, and now at The Tar Pit ) -- each had to run the kitchen for the night, serving up two original appetizers, two entrees and a dessert alongside the regular Border Grill menu.
Both chefs encountered a few pitfalls. Fullilove, for example, created a beautiful vegetable terrine that unfortunately took way too long to make, causing orders to back up. Feniger actually had to jump in and start cooking. A cringe-worthy moment, to say the least.
King not only burned the cajeta she intended to use with her dessert, but actually forgot to properly train the pastry chef on how to make it, causing the whole course to flop.
But each had their strengths as well, the main one for winner Monique King being the way she ran the kitchen. On the show, she talked about making the kitchen staff "family as fast as possible," which fit well with Feniger and Milliken's management style. "Our relationship with the team isn't adversarial," Feniger told us. "It's supportive, it's teaching. We want people to learn and grow."
King actually got her very first job from Feniger and Milliken 22 years ago at CITY as a pantry cook, then later worked at Border Grill about 12 years ago, and she says their management philosophy rubbed off on her by osmosis. King says she runs kitchens with a personal touch and that, "[Feniger and Milliken] are all of this as well. They like to know the staff. They consider the staff family."
But we didn't get the impression Feniger and Milliken's familiarity with King from years before gave her the edge. They told us it was her ability to collaborate, as well as her unique style of cooking, that ultimately sealed the deal.
"I think Monique has a very strong sense of rustic and homey flavors that are very attractive, but playful and not fussy," Milliken said. "She's bringing a fresh set of eyes and tastebuds, and very heartfelt sort of food that's just in line with what Susan and I love."
Feniger added, "There are many great chefs who don't love the Latin kitchen. They're great chefs, but they don't see the Latin kitchen as being sophisticated and exciting. I think what we really need is an executive chef who embraces that cuisine. In that way, I think Monique really shone."