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An Interview with Chef Anne Burrell of Worst Cooks in America

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Tonight, the finale of the show Worst Cooks in America will air on Food Network. In the show, contestants who've been voted by their friends and family as the worst cooks compete to win $25,000 by representing Chef Anne Burrell and Chef Beau MacMillan before a panel of food critics. Their meal must fool the critics into thinking that the chefs and not the worst cooks made the meal.

I had a chance to chat with Chef Anne about her experience on the show, being a chef, and, of course, food.

How did you decide to become a chef and were you ever as bad as the contestants on Worst Cooks in America?

Happily, no, I was never that bad. Well, I'd like to think that I wasn't that bad, although I definitely had some serious mistakes in my career. But I always decided to consult a cookbook, which rarely any of these people do. I got into the restaurant business when I was in college. I started waiting tables because I wanted to buy a car, then I realized how much I loved the business and how much I cooked on my own and then I married it into a career. And decided to go to culinary school after I graduated from college and I've never looked back.

On the show, you throw the contestants into a boot camp method of cooking and they have to cook some really hard things right off the bat and some of them don't even know how to boil water. Do you think that's an effective way of teaching people how to cook?

Well, clearly, getting a formal education is a much longer process than being thrown into "Here, cook shrimp and clams on your first time ever cooking." It makes for good TV. The recipe that I teach my team I have written. They are deceptively simple dishes. The end result is a big payoff, but the process to get there is pretty simple.

If you want to become a professional cook, I recommend getting yourself to culinary school or getting out there and working a lot, but if you want to be a home cook, just have fun with it. Practice. Pick up a couple of good cookbooks, a couple of basic books. Understand that you're going to make mistakes. Get in there and try it.

What's the biggest challenge in working with these true novice cooks?

I think they get in their own way. They get in their own heads and psyche themselves out and they get nervous and they don't stop and synthesize all the information you're telling them. Because we do give them everything. And then they get . . . you know it's a stressful situation. In boot camp with other people, it's a competition, there's cameras everywhere. You can see how you can stress yourself out rather than think, "Okay take a deep breath. Let's relax and see what we're doing here." But they do actually do a good job of overcoming a lot of these challenges. On the pasta challenge the other night, I was really proud of how well these people did.

What's your favorite meal to cook and eat?

That's a hard one. It depends on the time of year. In the summertime, I'm all about fresh summer produce, like tomatoes and corn with grilled fish. But in the winter, braise me a big lamb shank. I love to dig right into that. Or a dish of bucatini all'Amatriciana. Amatriciana sauce is one of my favorite tomato sauces. It has guanciale, which is like bacon, and you render it with lots of onions. It's a tomato sauce that's a little spicy. With big chewy fat pasta. It's really good.

There's been a lot of attention to sustainable food in the media. What are your thoughts about that kind of movement, sort of related to Worst Cooks, getting people to cook at home and then maybe taking the next step of getting them to cook with better kinds of food.

I'm always a proponent of cooking with better quality food. It's why fast food infuriates me. The quality of the food that's being offered is so poor. It's why we have such a problem with obesity and diabetes because the food is such low quality. It's disgusting. What I can recommend to people is eat seasonally. Go to the farmer's market. Buy what's in season at the farmer's market, first of all. It tastes the best and it looks the best. You really don't have to do that much to it. It's kind of hard to do in upstate New York in the winter time. Go spend time in your produce aisle rather than the junk food aisle. Bend down and look at the pretty, pretty vegetables. It just gets you excited!

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About Laura Blankenship

  • Albert

    What is your finishing oil. I see you use it often. What’s in it?

  • Elaine, my husband liked it too. And he always rolls his eyes over my watching Top Chef. But he settled in and said, “This is gonna be good.” I hope the show is longer, too, and maybe a slightly different format.

  • Elaine

    My husband, who doesn’t care too much for cooking shows, really enjoyed this show. He even made comments on what he would do to multi task. Very interesting. We liked it and would want to see another episode. However, it should have more cooks and be a longer show. Kinda like the project runway show.

  • Yeah, that’s what I was trying to get at a bit with that first question, but you know, sometimes, people learn quite a bit when they’re in crisis mode.

  • Angela

    While I understand that this show is “entertainment” it still seems a bit unfair. They are down to semi-finals and lost in the grocery store, because these people don’t shop for food. I would think to really help them, they should have been taken to a grocery store and market to learn about ingredients. I feel sorry for people at home who can’t cook. I don’t know how this could help them.