L.A.’s Iron Chef Dishes On The Mount Everest of Food Competitions

His restaurant Maude in Beverly Hills was awarded a Michelin star in 2019, and his Hollywood hotspot Gwen Butcher Shop and Restaurant has landed on too many Best Of lists to count. The top-selling cookbook author has been on a slew of popular cooking shows a mile long and was named Chef of The Year by Eater in 2016. So why is it so bloody important to Curtis Stone to win Iron Chef: Quest For An Iron Legend?

In the flashy new Netflix reboot of the Food Network show that originated in Japan, five returning Iron Chefs are pitted against challenger chefs in a bolder and more dramatic kitchen stadium filled with top-of-the-line equipment in a larger space. The celebrity chef lineup includes Stone, Ming Tsai, Marcus Samuelsson, Dominique Crenn and Gabriela Camara. Stone kicks off the series with a lamb kissed by fire challenge against Louisiana chef Mason Hereford. Chefs Alton Brown and Kristen Kish co-host the tense cooking competition.

Andrew Zimmern and Nilou Motamed serve as series judges, along with guest judges Francis Lam, Nancy Silverton, Justin Willman, Danny Trejo, Lorena Garcia, Loni Love, Wolfgang Puck and legendary Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto.

“When someone gives you an opportunity to compete against the best, of course you’re going to do it,” Stone tells L.A. Weekly at a recent chocolate challenge luncheon, at the London West Hollywood. He made venison loin served on top of sunchoke puree with a spice mix of mustard seeds, coriander and black pepper, black and white sesame and cocoa nibs, finished with a sauce of venison stock and 82% chocolate.

Curtis Stone

Iron chef creme de la creme at Boxwood from left: Curtis Stone, Dominique Crenn, Marcus Samuelsson, Gabriela Camara and Ming Tsai (Netflix)

“I’m a boxer and can’t resist a challenge, even if I think I might get my ass kicked. When you get to a certain level and can fight against someone amazing, then of course, you take the chance because you want to know where you stand. It’s intimidating when you have to walk up to the judges and put yourself before them. Alton always looks a little angry.”

Light on his feet and famous for a signature swoon-worthy smile that lights up the kitchen, Stone admits to getting serious at the grill in the precious 60 minutes he has to deliver a masterpiece worthy of the coveted golden chef’s knife during the battle royale.

“You see this tall studly dude, he’s like the cooking version of Thor,” says Mark Dacascosa, who reprises his role as The Chairman in the new show. “He’s even got the accent. He’s an imposing, attractive figure who is eloquent and can cook.”

The toughest part of the competition for Stone is the clock, which he’s convinced actually runs two minutes per actual minute. He even set his own timer against the official clock because the time flew so fast.

“I’ve cooked in my restaurants thousands of times, so I know where everything is, but the producers put the spices on the other side of what makes sense, so we have to dart back and forth. There’s something about the stress of being in there that slows down your tempo. Things go wrong. I made a pie on one of the shows and you had to make the crust with cold butter, and that day it was too soft. You make that decision to push on instead of running back to the fridge, in and out of camera, which takes time. Those are the hiccups that happen.”

Curtis Stone

In the new Kitchen Stadium on Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend. (L to R) Marcus Samuelsson, Gabriela Camara, Mark Dacascos, Dominique Crenn, Curtis Stone (Patrick Wymore/Netflix © 2022)

But when he’s in the kitchen at Maude, named after his paternal grandmother, or Gwen, his maternal grandmother’s namesake, Stone is the judge. And he’s a very discerning one.  

“I can get cranky in the kitchen,” says Stone, who recently launched Gathar, a private chef and catering platform offering unique dining experiences where highly skilled chefs come to you.

“The key to it is to be really fair. But when you’re trying to achieve something wonderful,  you can’t accept mediocrity, and I quickly explain to people when they come to work with us, you’ll either make it or you won’t. I’m not going to decide it, you’re going to decide it. You either want it bad enough, or you don’t. It doesn’t matter if you fit the skills or not, because if you don’t have the skills or you’re not  quick enough, but you’ve got the right attitude, you’ll get there and we’ll be patient with you. But if you’re lazy in your work and sloppy, it won’t work. If I said to cut it into squares and you’ve cut them more into triangles – NO! When that happens, we throw it away and start again. It’s all attitude. We have a talented team that can teach you the technique, but you have to have the right attitude, and that’s harder and harder to find these days.”

Co-host and longtime fan of the Aussie transplant, Kish has witnessed that obsession with perfection on plenty of occasions.

“I started watching him on Take Home Chef, a long time ago,” the Korean born chef tells L.A. Weekly at the big chocolate showdown. “He’s this charming, strapping Australian man and what I learned the most from him, from that show that I’ve carried with me since his career has evolved, is that he is an incredible teacher. He can teach anybody about anything without that person feeling intimidated. It’s a skill and an art for a personality to be able to do that. Being able to watch him in Kitchen Stadium, I knew he could cook, but he can really cook anything, and lean into any theme seamlessly and tell a full story. He is probably one of the most versatile and knowledgeable chefs I’ve ever seen.”

Curtis Stone

Maude Beverly Hills (Clay Larsen)

Married for nine years this month to Beverly Hills 90210 actress and Arcadia native Lindsay Price, the couple has two children and one is a picky eater. When they’re not in Hollywood, they are cooking on their 60-acre Agoura Hills ranch. Stone and his brother and restaurant partner, Luke, were first exposed to livestock farming on their grandmother Gwen’s farm in Australia. The brothers each started their career in a butcher shop and also co-own Georgie’’s Restaurant and Butcher Shop in Dallas.  

He’s adopted L.A. as home because Price’s family lives here, but as he has seen the city undergo changes, Stone wonders how long they will stay.

There’s a lot to love here,” he says. “The funny thing about L.A. is you love it for all the wrong reasons. You love the weather, you like how simple and easy everything is.  It’s an easy city to live in. Then there’s stuff that annoys you about it. I can’t stand the homelessness and really have a hard time with it. I come from a place where the minimum wage is about double. I see people’s paypackets and wonder how on earth do they survive on that if you’re the breadwinner in the family with kids?”

The Iron Chef thrives under the pressure of Kitchen Stadium and loves the challenge of  living out of a box, both in life and in cooking.   

“The worst thing in the world is when someone says we want you to do a dinner and we eat everything and we like all sorts of cuisine,” he says. “But if someone says to you they love Mexican food or seafood or have food allergies, I can come up with some ideas. It’s hard when the parameter is so wide. It’s a challenge. I like picky eaters.”

Curtis Stone

Curtis Stone at Gwen (Sonya Teclai)

A tougher challenge is the current state of the restaurant industry. After two years of pandemic-related closure, Maude reopened this year. Gwen pivoted from fine dining to neighborhood market during Covid. As costs rise, the challenges continue.

“It’s a funny business,” he says. “People ask why restaurant workers get paid such a little amount. Because that’s the economics of a restaurant and it sucks. We hate it. But then we also can’t lose money and we’re not trying to make a fortune, but we’ve got to break even. If you pay your dishwasher 25 bucks an hour, you can’t make the business work. It’s a tough part of it.

“I read a study that said 72% of people looking for a job right now want to work from home. That means I’ve got 28% of the people to talk to. Unfortunately, if you want to work at a restaurant, you can’t do it from home. In this new world where nobody wants to go to a workplace, so many people in this industry have decided to move on to something else. That just makes our world smaller. Does it do something to the macroeconomics of it? Maybe it means we have to charge more and pay more. Maybe people will be open to that, maybe not.”

But despite the hurdles and long hours, Stone says that the chef community is stronger than ever with camaraderie and support you won’t find as easily in other workplaces.  Whether it’s in Kitchen Stadium or on Sunset Boulevard, they are in the trenches together, and it takes a certain breed and passion for the plate to push on.

“When I started cooking, it was a very uncool profession,” says Stone, who unapologetically credits social media to much of his success. “My buddies used to tease me when I put on my gingham pants and my white jacket and the big goofy hat in a five- star hotel. I walked up to the mirror and saw myself, and had to laugh. Was I ready to wear this for the rest of my life? Yes. It’s a silly looking uniform, but the industry has  become pretty since then. Food has become more accessible to people through digital media, and it’s amazing. I love seeing people with their cameras out enjoying the food.”

Curtis Stone

Chocolate challenge luncheon: venison loin served on top of sunchoke puree with a spice mix of mustard seeds, coriander and black pepper, black and white sesame and cocoa nibs, finished with a sauce of venison stock and 82% chocolate (Netflix)

LA Weekly