Australian chef Curtis Stone developed his love of cooking from his grandmother when he was just 5 years old. Now 36, he has been featured in several of his own television shows in Australia and the U.S., and has done guest shots on numerous others including NBC's "Today," "Oprah," "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and "Celebrity Apprentice." He recently wrapped up Bravo's "Around the World in 80 Plates." He is currently hosting Bravo's "Top Chef Masters," which features 12 established chefs competing for their charities. Season four is "Smokin in Las Vegas" and airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m.
You started out cooking with your grandmother. Did she get to enjoy your success?
A little bit of it, yeah. She saw me cook in the U.K. and then in great restaurants. Not so much as a television star, but a little bit, yeah. She was great, my granny.
You have done a lot of television both here and in Australia. Was there a learning curve?
Goodness yeah, absolutely. I always say to people who are just starting out that it's just like anything else, you know? Whether it's playing golf or standing up on a surf board or standing in front of a camera, it just takes time. The first few times you try [laughing], it feels all unnatural and strange. It doesn't work the way you want it to and eventually you get used to it enough that you can sort of do it with your eyes closed.
Cooking on television has to be very different than cooking in a restaurant or at home.
It sure is. I mean, the fundamental difference is when you are on television you've got a time limit depending on if it's live or not. So you need to have everything done and sort of stage it in the correct manner. You need to interact with the host and still tell the audience enough of what you are doing, and you've got to do it fast. Cooking at home is much more relaxing.
Have you had any cooking disasters in front of an audience or in a restaurant?
Well, I've had a few. I nearly burnt a restaurant down in London. I had moved into this new place and there was a wood fire oven. I got it super hot -- you know, seeing how hot I could get it to cook the shellfish. It hadn't been used for a couple years and I got it going, but there wasn't an appropriate fire void above it between the ceiling and the oven so the ceiling caught on fire. It was a full-scale evacuation, I mean a total disaster. Very embarrassing. But I guess not necessarily my fault. That's a cooking disaster.
Now that you have enjoyed the spotlight, do you think you could ever be content just going back to being a chef in a restaurant?
I love cooking. I am just as happy on a day off when I get to cook for my family or occasionally we'll have a big function and I'll spend the entire day filleting fish and I won't speak to anybody. You know horses are horses. I'm a lucky man. I feel blessed. I get out of bed every morning and look forward to getting to work.
What do you make of the "Celebrity Chef" thing? Is it healthy for the restaurant business?
I think it does two things. Firstly, of course, it shines a huge spotlight on the business. It has sort of created this appeal and desire for young people getting involved in the industry. If you look at the industry 15 years ago, there weren't enough apprentices becoming chefs. The cuisine was being dumbed down to the point of ridiculousness. We'd buy everything in portion control. It was really a horrible time within the industry.
Now there are more people attracted to it, but unfortunately they are attracted in some ways to the glitz and glamour of it, which in many places within the industry doesn't exist. You know, the reality is peeling box after box of carrots and chopping box after box of onions and it isn't as attractive to people once they get their feet onto the kitchen floor. A lot more sign up but there is also a higher drop-off. But I think, all in all, it has been healthy.
So what is it about cooking that you like so much?
Look, I love to eat. I think with that sort of passion for good-flavored food comes the passion for understanding where it comes from and how you do it. Each time you do it you do it a little better, so there's that sort of refinement. You carry on and eventually you can cook beautifully. I think it just comes from that drive to want to eat good stuff.
As far as creating a new recipe, do you build off established ones or do ideas come when you are driving or doing other things?
It's a little bit of both. You know, sometimes you cook something and you think: "I want to try this kind of a dish with a pork chop instead of a steak and I want the vegetable to be carrots instead of Brussels sprouts."
Then there's that sort of creative thing where you walk around the farmers market and you look at the ingredients and think, "Oh gee, that looks good right now. The asparagus looks fantastic. What can I do with that?" You play on that track until you have a dish in front of you and you taste it and change it and refine it and before you know, away you go.
Do you think buying organic and fresh foods is sustainable for large populations?
You know, I think the move to organic and natural stems from an understanding of actually what you are putting in your body. What does it mean to be "conventionally grown"? Does it mean it was sprayed with pesticides? How is this chicken actually produced? Does it have antibiotics? Does it have growth enhancers? Once you start hearing some of the answers, I don't necessarily want to put that in my body.
I think when it comes to food, we should be growing naturally. The production needs to slow down a little bit or take a little bit longer. We need to have a look at how much we consume and how much we waste. In America alone we throw 50 percent of what we grow into the garbage. It's a hideous fact.
It's not just consumers being wasteful. It's the industry being wasteful. They are too selective and trying to make sure every single apple looks exactly the same without blemishes. That's not reality. When you grow vegetables, they do come in different shapes and sizes. That's normal and fine.
Fifty percent is thrown out?
I think it is slightly over 50 percent, actually. That's crazy, isn't it? Look at all the places where we waste. We waste in the field. We waste in the transportation of food. When it gets to a market there is some wasted there. If it gets to a household, you know we are all guilty of throwing things away out of our fridges. Then in the cooking process there is some waste and when you are actually serving the food there is more waste again.
Being a chef, do you find you have to watch what you consume so your waist doesn't expand?
It's all about balance. Sometimes your balance gets thrown off because you're filming "Top Chef Masters" and you are eating rich, delicious food every single day. But you can sort of equalize that by increasing your workout or taking a run in the morning. You get back on the straight and narrow, having green juice first thing in the morning, and cut out the carbs and stop drinking alcohol.
Quite honestly, I don't eat processed food. I look at the calorie count and the fat content and all the stuff in processed food -- that's a huge problem right there.