If anyone else had asked, Wirt Cook would have said no. Unlike many chefs, Cook, the executive chef of the Redding Roadhouse, harbors no desire for stardom. He's more comfortable in the kitchen than on stage. But when his mentor Alex Guarnaschelli faced the finale on the Food Network's "Next Iron Chef," and wanted Cook to be her sous chef, there was only one answer: a loyal yes.
Guarnaschelli and her team of Cook and Ashley Merriman won the battle. Guarnaschelli was crowned the new Iron Chef America. "It was genuinely a shock," Cook says. "We didn't think we'd had a good day."
They were back on the set at 5 the next morning. Over the next eight days, they shot five episodes of "Iron Chef America 2013." The next of five battles featuring Guarnaschelli will air on the Food Network May 5 (check your local listings).
What was filming "Iron Chef" like? "It's a blur," Cook says. Not only because once the clock starts, the stress of creating five or more dishes with the secret ingredient makes one hour go by faster than a three-minute egg timer. Cook also had a new, demanding day job.
"We'd just opened the restaurant in Redding. I was working here until 11:30 at night, sleeping two hours, going to the city for the 5 a.m. call time, then taping until 4, driving back and working at the Roadhouse," he says. "The restaurant was so new. It was going from one totally chaotic environment to another totally chaotic environment. I was so tired and burned out, there wasn't enough time to be in the moment."
He's not even sure what his team made during those "Iron Chef" episodes. When Battle Mortadella aired recently, Cook, thought, "Oh, that's what Ashley was doing." And he got to hear what the judges said about the dishes. During filming, only Gaurnaschelli stood close enough to hear. The studio is vast.
Cook met Gaurnaschelli about 11 years ago when he was a student at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) and she was an instructor. They had an instant rapport. After graduating he did an externship at Butter, where Guarnaschelli was the executive chef. After his 12-week externship, she hired him. He worked his way up from garde-manger (making salads and cold foods) to working the hot line (cooked foods) and then becoming her second-in-command. He left New York City for a few years to work in New Orleans and Maine. But when Guarnaschelli called to say she was opening a second restaurant, The Darby, and asked him to return to New York to be her sous chef, he said yes.
Since then, even after moving to Redding to revitalize the Redding Roadhouse with the team of his wife Karen Cook, and sister and brother-in-law Colleen and Ted Stonbely, he has continued to work with Guarnaschelli. He tested recipes for her recently released book Old School Comfort Food: The Way I Learned to Cook. And now he's on "Iron Chef."
"It was good that we'd all worked together for so long and are so close," he said of the "Next Iron Chef" team. They know each other's skills. He makes all the sauces and vinaigrettes. Ashley is "a prep machine and amazing butcher." Guarnaschelli does pastries and desserts. This year, "Iron Chef" has raised the stakes. The first dish has to be presented in 20 minutes, with a cocktail. The cocktail was Cook's job too.
And there's the "Culinary Curveball." Ten minutes into the cooking, a piece of equipment is presented, and the Iron Chefs must use it in a creative way. (Hint: if it's a muffin tin, don't make muffins.)
"It makes you think and come up with an idea that's good," he says. "And then you have to make it so much better. It's on such a remarkably high level and you've got to figure it out in a few minutes."
That kind of high-speed cooking is, at heart, the opposite of what Cook loves to do. At the Redding Roadhouse, "I make things that take days and months to make." He likes it "low and slow." He cures charcuterie, smokes bacon, makes duck confit.
His respect for Guarnaschelli is the foundation. "She's hilarious and crazy brilliant," he says. She became famous for her appearances as a judge on "Chopped," the popular Food Network show. She seems tough and mean. But that's film editing. And, of course, society's aversion to an ambitious woman. Guarnaschelli has spent many years battling to become an Iron Chef.
Now that's she's doing book signings, "I think people are seeing the unedited side of her," Cook says. "Her real personality is coming out."
Cook's real personality is a shy guy who's most comfortable in the Redding Roadhouse kitchen, or talking to people one on one. So, will he too, become a star chef? After all, Anne Burrell's career was built on her "Iron Chef" appearances as Mario Batali's sous chef. Could this happen to Cook? "I certainly hope not," he says.