Earlier today, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a conference call with the winner of Food Network Star Season 8 – Justin Warner.
For those of you who might have missed it, this season the format of Food Network Star was pretty radically reworked. Instead of competing individually, the competition was divided into three teams, each mentored by an existing Food Network star. The three teams were lead by Alton Brown of Good Eats and Iron Chef America, Giada DeLaurentiis of Giada at Home and Everyday Italian and Bobby Flay from Iron Chef America, Three Days to Open with Bobby Flay and numerous other shows.
Justin Warner, a.k.a the Rebel with the Culinary Cause, was on team Alton Brown and has been one of the most interesting and unique personalities to appear on the Food Network Star competition. This popular Bed Stuy chef, who is co-owner of the gastro-pub Do or Dine, seemed like a long shot at the beginning of the season, but quickly became a fan and judge favorite.
One of the most surprising things about Justin, and a fact that seems to be reinforced in many customer reviews of his restaurant, is how warm and personable he is. On Food Network Star, he seemed a bit cocky and stand offish at times, but he was very warm, funny and intelligent during our conference call.
Here’s the group interview I took part in. I’ll start with my questions at the beginning, followed by the questions asked by the other bloggers and media in attendance. Rather than butcher everyone’s last names, I opted to note their first name and who they were representing, except for the first lady who didn’t state who she was interviewing for.
Coming in to the competition, which contestant did you think would be your toughest competition?
I thought it was probably Malcolm or Michelle or maybe Ippy?
Was that based on their cooking skill alone, or on the total package, including their personality and everything?
Malcom and Michelle were very….adamant about letting everyone know they were the best cooks. Ippy was not so much, he was a little more humble about it. I tasted Ippy’s food and I think Ippy was the best cook on the show, all told.
I was very intrigued by your story about how your father influenced your cooking career. I particularly enjoyed the bit about how no one wanted him to bring anything to the party, because they didn’t think he could cook, but he decided to do it anyway. What’s your advice to people who want to improve their own cooking skills?
Don’t be afraid to eat your mistakes. It’s food, it can’t be that bad. Even if something is a complete failure to you, you have to figure out what is right about it, even if it’s just the aroma. It’s basically the scientific method. Make a hypothesis, say this is the way I would like it to come out and then see how it comes out. Then repeat and repeat until you get the results you want. It basically starts with you have to not be afraid to make mistakes.
Do you have any plans to expand your restaurant in New York or is that on hold for now?
I think for 2012 I’ve done enough. I think we’ll probably reassess later in this year. There are a lot of people interested in what we are doing, now more than ever. We’ll just kind of play it by ear.
What is the number one thing you’d like viewers to take away from your television show?
The bottom line is that almost everyone who lives in a house has a kitchen, but everyone complains that they don’t have a lab a studio or a workspace. The kitchen is the lab, the studio the workspace. It is your creative zone that every house is equipped with. It should be a place to have fun. It shouldn’t just be a place to vaguely walk through and pull something out of the refrigerator. It should be a place where you can feel creative.
I really loved his responses to the questions about improving your own cooking skills and what he wants viewers to get from his show. As a computer nerd, I’ve always been frustrated by people who were afraid to try anything new on their computers, because they thought if they pushed the wrong button the whole thing might explode or something.
His comments made me realize that I have taken a similarly dim approach to cooking. Since I’ve become addicted to lots of cooking shows, I have become a bit more adventurous in the kitchen, but Justin has really inspired me to take more risks and not be afraid to screw things up too badly. I thought he made a great point about the kitchen being a place almost all of us have access to where we can be creative. I’m really looking forward to his show.
Questions from the other Interviewers:
Was there a moment in the competition when you realized you could really win this thing?
I would say the Fashion week challenge. I knew the process my brain was going through was dynamically, drastically different from all the other competitors. I knew this would either be my ticket to victory or a quick ticket home. I got to go as crazy as I wanted to and everyone seemed to dig it.
You and Martie grew so close during your time on the show. What was it that drew you to her?
Everybody knows she’s a nice lady, but what they don’t realize is she’s also the most intelligent person on the cast. She’s a brilliant woman. We have a similar sense of humor I guess.
Is your show still going to be called Rebel with a Culinary Cause and how are things going with that?
That’s kind of a mouthful. I don’t know. That’s all still to be determined at this point. I’m excited to be welcomed to the Food Network family, who has experts at what they do, and hoping to crank out a hit regardless.
Rodney from the Atlanta Journal Constitution:
Tell me a little bit about your first impressions meeting Alton and how your relationship developed over the period of the taping.
It’s kind of strange because I had a relationship with Alton Brown before he had one with me. I was a big fan. It’s pretty inspirational. It was difficult to put that fanboyness aside, but Alton Brown has an interesting way of being disarmingly comfortable. For example, I walked into the studio wearing a shirt with a skeleton on it and I was kind of nervous. He said “come on rest your bones!” I was like “man this guy is quick and funny.” I realized he’s a regular guy and I could vibe with him. We were cut from the same cloth.
How did things change over time as he began mentoring you?
We had a pretty quick connection. The way the mentorship would work is that he would say “what are you doing for this challenge?” I would say “I’m doing this” and he would say “make sure you do this” and really just step back. I think that was smart, because he could have come in and micro-managed everything, but really what I think he knew was it was important for me to make him proud. By kind of endorsing me and letting me go on and do it my way, I think he knew he could get the best results from me.
Since there was just one fan vote at the end of the competition, rather than a weekly vote, like on many competitions, did you have any idea what was going to happen?
I was pretty terrified. It’s in general an unknown. I don’t know what’s going on with the viewers in Iowa or Pierre. I checked a lot of stuff on the Internet and I really rocked this Twitter campaign very hard. Based on my findings on the Internet, I thought perhaps I had a good chance, but I wasn’t sure.
Re: previous question regarding how the show is going. You’re not 100% sure how it’s going to look yet?
Yeah, we haven’t laid any official groundwork for how the show is going to be shot yet. We are still shaking hands and acknowledging that we are no longer on a reality competition show where I will be eliminated. I saw Susie Fogleson the other day and I was like ‘Oh No!, Wait she’s just my boss now, it’s ok.’
Do you feel comfortable in front of the camera now?
Yeah. It’s actually going to be a lot easier now that we have time and takes and I don’t have to do a 60 seconds this, that or the other on something that may or may not be alien. We can work a little bit more conceptually, which is good.
I expect this is going to be a really creative show. This is not going to be your average cooking show is it?
I hope so.
Simon from Tomorrow will be Televised:
I saw the finale Sunday night and there were two important things that were missing that I wanted to talk to you about. First, why did the viewers pick you?
I said ‘I never thought I’d be accepted by America.’ I think the bottom line is that we as Americans are ready to be challenged via our T.V. We are ready to see what’s on the other side of the food coin. It’s all happy smiley, yummy food, but I think people want a little bit of shock value of seeing something different. I think America, by electing me, was endorsing their own confidence in their ability to eat and to understand that the food world is huge and that as Americans we’re not really exposed to all of it.
One other thing we didn’t get with the margin of victory….was it a close vote? Was it a runaway? What did you learn afterwards about that?
I didn’t learn much and I can’t confirm it for sure, but I heard a rumor that I had about 2.5 of the 4.5 million votes.
When do you expect to start shooting and do you expect to do it here in New York…or in Brooklyn?
That would be ideal. I don’t necessarily want to have to commute, but we’ll see. I have a few meetings to go to next week where we kind of hammer out the behind the scenes stuff and we will put it together. It’s probably going to air sometime in the fall.
Do you see that there’s a sort of karma in that Alton, who was your mentor and coach, that he got his start on the Food Network with a show that also broke the mold in terms of what a cooking show can do?
It just seems logical to me. I think he sees a little bit of himself in me. Alton Brown has covered almost every facet of cooking in the ten years of Good Eats. His recipes are decidedly perfect in terms of execution, but not necessairly in term of the wacky factor. I think that his recipes are wonderful foundations for people to kind of go off on their own riffs and learn to cook to the tick of their own egg timer. Like Alton Brown things is a guitar and you just have to learn to riff on it.
Mark from Hollywood.com:
How different was your experience from the way you saw it play out on T.V.? It looked like you never failed, never got much critsicm. Is that how it really how it went down?
I realized there were a few things…I kind of studied my competitors. You would kind of start to see them crack a little and then that’s when it would go down. I just made sure that I never showed that. I didn’t want to seem frazzled or stressed. What you see is what you got. It was a conscious effort to try not to look stressed or bothered or bugged. I had more things to think about. Obviously I want to win, so I didn’t have time to think about what went wrong. You just have to adapt and move quickly.
Who’s elimination were you most shocked by?
Most Definitely Emily. I thought she had the complete package. Good look. Good Ideas. I guess there was a couple camera issues, but I think with a few more weeks she would be able to you know, like, rock it.
What was your interaction with Giada or Bobby like?
Giada is a very intoxicating personality. She would come up to me while I was cooking and ask me what I was cooking and it was kind of jaw dropping. Bobby was slightly intimidating, but he’s actually a very, very normal, nice chef. He brings a lot of chefliness to the table. He’s kind of stoic, but all in all super big happy family. We all poked fun at each other. It was a blast
Joanna from USA Weekend Magazine:
How did the competition change you as chef or a person?
I am not the best chef ever. A lot of times I fail. A lot, a lot of times. Especially in my restaurant. On the show I did things I knew I could execute, but in the restaurant, a lot of times I fail. Because of that, I’m good at failing. I think that mentality really helped me on the show. What I learned on the show is that I like teaching and I like getting people amped about stuff and I didn’t really know that I had that in me.
There’s a video of you rapping at a food fest about wine. Do you expect to rap on your show or do any wacky performance things you’re going to pull out there?
Expect the unexpected. I don’t know exactly. If they would like to use my rhyme enthusiasm, they are welcome to, but I think we just need to have a big meeting and see what everyone has to say.
What will make your show different from other food network shows? What should draw people in?
I’m on it first off. Alton Brown is producing it second off. That’s a pretty robust combination there. He started out behind the camera. I think with his camera skills and my wacky food, you’re going to get something that no one’s ever seen.
Overall, I was pretty impressed with Justin’s answers to all the questions and the interview actually made me want to watch his show more than I did before. I also would really love to try out his restaurant. If any of you New Yorkers out there have ever been to Do or Dine or could be convinced to give it a try, please let me know what you think of it!