Next Iron Chef Contestants Alex Guarnaschelli And Marcus Samuelsson Dish On Season 4

Season Four of The Next Iron Chef premiered Sunday on Food Network at 9 p.m. and got off to an exciting start. The new format puts the two worst-performing chefs against each other in an elimination challenge every episode. It set up a close battle between D.C. chef Spike Mendelsohn and chef Marcus Samuelsson of Red Rooster. This will remain spoiler-free in case you haven't watched the episode yet, but Spike once again had to face his nemesis: scallops.

Promos for upcoming episodes illustrate why Food Network's chef challenge is one of the best in the genre right now — it's exciting to think that one of these stars just isn't going to make the cut each week. In this interview, two of the show's big names, cheftestants Alex Guarnaschelli (Butter) and Marcus Samuelsson (Red Rooster) discuss what it's like to be on the other side of the judge's table.

Chef Guarnaschelli, how did it feel to be on the other side of the judges' table?
I'm a cook by trade, so to cook as opposed to judge feels true to my experience and also informs my judging.

Did you feel like you had an advantage since you are familiar with Kitchen Stadium?
I've done everything short of being a floor reporter and host of that show, but there's nothing that really prepares you. You can tell yourself you have an advantage, but when you enter the competition you feel like you're alone in the wilderness with your knife and recipe books.

Do you remember any ingredient that you had real difficulty with or that you gravitated towards?
Some ingredients you see and you just want them to vanish and you never want to see them again and some ingredients you go, "cool." Most of the ingredients I thought were cool. 

Did you use any dishes/recipes from your arsenal at Butter?
I used parts of dishes, I used things that...I think it's important to go with what you know and go with your gut, there are aspects that are part of restaurant that are so true to who I am and what I do that they kind of made their way I suppose, but no actual dish, just some sauces, vinaigrette, or a certain technique, but no actual dish. (Photo courtesy of Food Network)

Going in, who did you think was your stiffest competition?
I'd say my biggest competition is me. I think that a lot of other contestants would probably say that as well. You struggle more with yourself and your choices.

What is the main thing that you will take from this experience?
It doesn't matter how long you've been cooking or doing what you've been doing, there's always room to learn something new and when you get in a position where you've been cooking for a long time, you get to learn a lot about yourself, never mind the other people that you cook with or the challenges, but when you just get back to cooking with yourself and taking a fresh look at your own experiences, even though it's a high pressure situation, you really learn about yourself and it's really cool and I didn't expect that and it was a pleasant surprise.

Chef Samuelsson, you have restaurants, attend food festivals, post on Twitter and your blog, and you compete in challenging TV food competitions. Do you have a clone? How do you do it all?
We have a big team and we work together. Twitter is great because I feel like people can travel with me, but with the blogs we collaborate.

How did it feel to be on the other side of the judges' table? Did you feel like you had an advantage going in since you are familiar with judging cooking competitions?
Sometimes you're a buyer and sometimes you're a seller. It was a great experience and it was fun. It's always good to sit on both sides of the table, to know how it feels. 

How was your experience on The Next Iron Chef different from your experience on Top Chef Master's?
It's completely different. For Top Chef Masters, we were in L.A. the whole time and with The Next Iron Chef, we're back and forth. The characters are totally different. Waxman and Susan Feniger are incredible people. With The Next Iron Chef, it was fun to hang out with Alex, Beau Mac, and Geoffrey. The challenges were also different.

Do you remember any ingredient that you had real difficulty with or that you gravitated towards?
I love cooking with salmon so, of course, I really enjoyed that. The first challenge was difficult, being jet-lagged and a little sick and having to pull through. I had come in from an 11-hour time difference. (Photo courtesy of Food Network)

Use anything from your restaurant Red Rooster's arsenal?
It was really about responding to the challenge and utilizing my kitchen repertoire from the last 15 years.

Going in, who did you think was your stiffest competition?
They're all very strong competitors. Anne is a strong challenge and Zakarian has a ton of experience.

On Top Chef Masters you once said that you hope that African food becomes as widespread and inculcated into the American landscape as Chinese food  — how far along do you think this goal is from being reached from when you initially made this statement?
We're in the beginning phase of that process, that journey. It's about getting people to visit Africa's countries and becoming familiar with the culture. Ethiopian and Moroccan food, falafel, peanuts, wine, and foie gras — these are foods that come from Africa and are already here.

What is the thing that you will take from this experience?
A good time and my colleagues turning into friends. The experience was great.