Even if you don't know how to boil water, odds are you've caught celebrity chef Curtis Stone making one of his frequent appearances on the Today show, schooling The Biggest Loser's contestants about the keys to healthy cooking or presiding over a pantheon of his peers as the host of this season's Top Chef Masters, wrapping up June 15. We met the Aussie epicure in the kitchen at NYC's Bar Americain — on loan for the morning from Stone's buddy and fellow gastronome Bobby Flay — for a heaping helping of flapjacks with a side of straight talk.
TV Guide Magazine: How'd you get into cooking?
Stone: I was always mum's little helper. When I was 13, I was at an all-boys' school, and my best mate and I came up with a plan to get over to the girls' school — they had home economics lessons there. That class got me interested.
TV Guide Magazine: So how'd that lead to culinary school and becoming a chef?
Stone: I was a bit rebellious. My dad was an accountant. My buddy's dad was a chef who would roll out of bed at 10 in the morning and come back at midnight. Chefs were these rock stars with long hair. I was attracted to the lifestyle as much as the food.
TV Guide Magazine: You spent eight years working for the legendarily mercurial chef Marco Pierre White. Any juicy stories?
Stone: How long have you got? He used to fire people before they started sometimes. He's very eccentric. Marco would go hunting and then show up at the restaurant in the middle of service holding handfuls of dead geese by the necks. He'd scream and push us around. To get that third Michelin star, you give it every single last ounce of energy.
TV Guide Magazine: After starring in a food travel series in the U.K., you landed TLC's Take Home Chef and moved to America. What was that like?
Stone: It was total culture shock. I came to the States not knowing a soul — I can remember my first day: I got the keys to an apartment, a rent-a-car and a cell phone and I thought... There's no point. I don't have any numbers to put in it! But I got this amazing introduction because I got to travel around and meet different families every day.
TV Guide Magazine: You're very vocal about using organic, seasonal and locally sourced ingredients. Why is that so important to you?
Stone: It's really sad how people understand so little about their food. If someone said, "You could have a $10 steak that's been naturally raised, or you can have a steak that costs $9, but they put growth hormone in the cow. It grows 20 percent larger and faster, causing the proportion of muscles and bone to be slightly off, putting stress on the cow and making the meat tougher." You'd be like, "F---, I don't want to eat that steak! I want the other one." But most people go to the grocery store, pick up their meat and don't read the fine print.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you have a signature dish?
Stone: I make these big fluffy raviolis with a lobster mousse — it's full of this flavor of crustaceans and a bit of saffron — which is just beautiful. I've served that in every restaurant I've worked in. It's a pain in the ass to make.
TV Guide Magazine: How do you keep coming up with new recipes?
Stone: I once wrote an entire book on a flight from London to Australia. Sometimes you're in the zone and it happens and sometimes it's like, "I can't come up with a soup." I work backward from what I'd like to see on a plate.
TV Guide Magazine: Hosting Top Chef Masters seems like a pretty great gig, huh?
Stone: It's a bloody dream — you literally have 12 of the best chefs in the country, and the meals they've made have been up there with the best food experiences I've ever had. We give them ridiculous challenges — cook something in 12 minutes, use grasshoppers — and it pushed them to their absolute limits.
TV Guide Magazine: Any pet favorites?
Stone: Mary Sue Milliken from Border Grill — her food's great. I was really keen on her. Traci Des Jardins has a huge reputation. Alex Stratta, from Las Vegas, has two Michelin stars. Those were the three who I was like, "My God, how is this gonna turn out?" But some of the guys who were less recognized ended up doing just as well as the ones who've been big for years and years.
TV Guide Magazine: You've also been a guest on Top Chef. How does it compare to Masters?
Stone: In one way, Masters makes for less interesting television because they're so composed; they're not screaming around the kitchen like maniacs. They've got 20 years more experience under their belt. On Top Chef they can cook fantastic dishes, too, but it's more hit or miss.
TV Guide Magazine: Are these shows an accurate gauge of talent?
Stone: You could be a great chef but not be good at this competition — some chefs love to cook with luxury ingredients and plan and be very structured. But more often than not, a good chef is a good chef and they have similar qualities: to be able to think on their feet, to be able to work under pressure and to be able to multitask, compete and rise to a challenge.
TV Guide Magazine: Ever wish you could compete?
Stone: Yeah. I think I'd do well. I'm competitive! I really wanted to cook for the contestants, so I did in the last episode. I cooked for the critics as soon as the show wrapped.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you get constantly harassed when you're out grocery shopping now?
Stone: A little bit, yeah. People will ask me how to select the right melon. Quite often they'll ask me to go back to their place and cook for them. Once I was on vacation in Brazil with a buddy and we were in a market and this woman comes and says, "Oh, my God! You're the Chef Domicilio! You have to come to my house and cook." So we did, and it was great.
TV Guide Magazine: Your girlfriend is 90210 alum Lindsay Price. Here's a cheesy question: What's the recipe for a good relationship?
Stone: [Laughs] The key to it is to give time and love and take care of each other. The more you let life get in the way, the more you argue. And I think you've gotta find somebody that's pretty close to you in terms of how you treat other people. You have to appreciate the way somebody behaves, and the morals have to be kind of similar.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you typically use food to charm the ladies?
Stone: No, not really. It's a bit obvious, like [goes into a husky voice], "Let me cook for you..." You know what I mean?
TV Guide Magazine: What about the other way around — is Lindsay brave enough to cook for you?
Stone: Sometimes. But no one cooks for chefs. It's bizarre. They say it's too intimidating, and that's crazy because chefs are just happy someone else is doing the hard work. You don't sit there and analyze the food. It's a beautiful thing to cook for somebody else, whether you're good at it or not. I say this to my girlfriend: "I don't care if it tastes bad — it's just nice [you] go through the effort."
TV Guide Magazine: Um, is that what you say right after you've finished her dish?
Stone: No, no, no, no, no! Oh, she'll kill me!
Bonus Recipe: Curtis Stone's Hotcakes with Delicious Blueberry Compote
18 ounces fresh blueberries
1/4 cup sugar
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh mint leaves (optional)
1 cup fresh ricotta cheese
4 large eggs, separated
3/4 cup buttermilk, shaken
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
Pinch of salt
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup fresh blueberries
About 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
Butter, for serving
To make the blueberry compote: Combine the blueberries, sugar, lemon zest, and 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice in a medium saucepan over medium heat and cook for 2 minutes, or until the sugar dissolves. (Don't let the berries cook too long or they will become mushy and lose their beautiful shape.) Remove from the heat. Gently stir in the chopped mint if using. Keep warm.
To make the hotcakes: Whisk the ricotta and the egg yolks together in a large bowl; then whisk in the buttermilk. Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt into the ricotta mixture. Stir with a whisk until just combined.
Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites and sugar in a large bowl until stiff peaks form. Using a large rubber spatula, gently fold the egg whites through the batter in 2 batches. Gently fold the fresh blueberries into the batter.
Melt some butter on a hot griddle pan over medium-low heat. Ladle the batter onto the griddle (you should be able to fit 3 hotcakes at a time) and cook for about 3 minutes per side, or until the hotcakes puff, become golden brown, and are just cooked through.
Transfer the hotcakes to plates. Spoon the warm blueberry compote over the hotcakes, and then top with a dollop of butter. Serve immediately.
From Relaxed Cooking With Curtis Stone, courtesy of Clarkson Potter