Anne Burrell and her signature spiky blond hair first caught America's attention when she started out as Mario Batali's sous chef on "Iron Chef America" several years back. Since then, the classically trained chef — who describes her cooking style as "creative authentic Italian" — has become a Food Network staple and bona fide celebrity chef herself in her own right with her cooking show "Secrets of a Restaurant Chef," and as co-host, along with Bobby Flay, of "Worst Cooks in America," an eight-week "boot camp" series focused on turning the culinary incompetent into solid cooks. As the series kicks off its third season, Burrell shared with omg! her advice for novice cooks, her thoughts on the Paula Deen controversy, and why she believes burgers don't have to be bad for you.
What's the biggest mistake "bad cooks" make on the show?
I've found this across the board in three seasons and it shocks me still to this day: These people know that they're bad, they know they don't know how to cook yet, but they would never dream of consulting a recipe and they just try to wing it. If I know I don't know how to do something I always go someplace to try to educate myself on how to do something. And you'd think with how many books there, how many websites and things like that, they'd consult them, but no.
What's the first thing somebody should learn if they want to get into cooking?
Well, there are a few basic rules and they're the low‑tech ones and the ones that are not that fun, so nobody likes to do them. It's just to read your recipe before you start. Make sure you have all the ingredients. Do your prep work and then start cooking. But people just want to tear into the cooking part because they think that's the fun part. But it doesn't become that fun when you're always trying to play catch‑up or every dish you own is dirty at the end of the process. It's also start to with some basic stuff. Don't start with the hardest recipe. Build a little confidence and have fun with it.
Is there one recipe beginners should master first so that they have a go-to dish?
I always think a roasted chicken is a great thing. You season it. You lube it up. You toss it in the oven and in about an hour or, you know, 17 minutes a pound or something like that — however many minutes you need for how big your chicken is — you have a roasted chicken dinner. It doesn't have to be difficult and it can be really delicious.
Who's been the most memorable celebrity you've shared a meal with?
I'm trying to think. I mean I have had dinner with lots of celebrities.
Well, I used to work for Mario Batali and he has lots of celebrity friends. So whenever Mario will call and say "What are you doing? Let's have dinner tonight," you never know who you're going to wind up with at the dinner table. It ranges anywhere from Michael Stipe to Bono to ["Good Wife" star] Josh Charles. It's always exciting and lots of fun.
Who's been your biggest career mentor?
Mario is a mentor of mine, definitely someone that I have worked with, appreciated and looked up to, and who has been incredibly supportive of me in my career with his time, with his advice. He's just been very, very generous and good to me. That's how I got started on the Food Network. He asked me if I wanted to do "Iron Chef." In 2008 my own show started, but that would have never happened if it hadn't been for "Iron Chef."
Another Food Network star, Paula Deen, who's famous for her rich Southern dishes, got a lot of criticism recently when she announced she had been diagnosed type 2 diabetes and was becoming a spokesperson for a diabetes drug. What's your take? Is she getting a bad rap?
I haven't had a chance to talk with Paula about it. And so I'm sort of just in the stage that everyone else is. All I can do is wish Paula well and hope that she's healthy. She's a smart lady so I'm sure she has a plan for what she's doing.
America is trying to get its obesity epidemic under control and we also have a subculture very focused on food via dozens of TV shows, websites, food blogs, celebrity chefs. Is there any link, in your opinion?
Food and eating are entertainment far more than they have ever been in the past, so people are exposed to so much more. I always think: Everything in moderation including moderation. In terms of obesity, what really is heartbreaking to me — [especially with] kids — is when people's diets consist mainly of fast food and chicken fingers and stuff like that. That, to me, is tragic. It makes me crazy — the quality of food that is served in some fast food operations is really poor. And I really believe that that has to do with that obesity problem. You know, high fat, high salt, but really low quality food. If you eat a burger that you make at your house it's very different than something you would get somewhere else.
So it's about which ingredients go into what you're making?
If you cook from scratch at your house with fresh food and not processed or frozen or poor quality food, you can make a lot of delicious food that doesn't have to be difficult. It doesn't have to take up your entire day. That's much, much healthier for you than, you know, going through a drive‑thru.
What do you think you'd be doing if you weren't a chef?
I think I'd probably be a therapist. It's amazing how much of that kind of goes along with food anyway, if you think about it. People have a lot of issues surrounding food and a lot of those issues have to do with things like families and going back to traditions and communities, and childhood memories. And eating has a huge influence upon everybody's life.
The third season of "Worst Cooks in America" premieres Sunday, February 12 at 9 p.m. ET/PT
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