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Sonoma’s Duskie Estes Keeps It Real, Farm-to-Table-Wise, on The Next Iron Chef

Photo: Food Network

A new season of The Next Iron Chef premieres on Sunday on the Food Network, and appearing in the new crop of Iron Chef hopefuls is Duskie Estes, chef-owner of Zazu Restaurant and Farm (which the Food Network site is currently listing as ‘Zaza’), and Bovolo, both up in Sonoma. Duskie might seem on the surface to be an unlikely competitor in the cut-throat world of reality TV chefs, being a mellow Northern Californian with a strict farm-to-table ethos. But as it happens, she took to the battle easily. “I was an athlete in high school,” she tells Grub Street, “And I was intrigued to return to my competitive spirit.”

Duskie spoke to Grub Street this week from her farm in Sonoma County.

What ever made you want to go on a reality TV show?

Funny you should ask… In one of the first interviews in the casting call, they asked, ‘Why do you want to be the next Iron Chef?” And I said, “I don’t know.” Of course I thought I blew it. I actually don’t have a TV and haven’t had one in nine years, so I had never seen this show, or Iron Chef, prior to agreeing to 22 legal pages about it. It’s my daring personality, I guess, who wants to take on any challenge. I’m throroughly a competitive person, and I was an athlete in highschool, and I was intrigued to return to my competitive spirit, but this time with my passion: food. And I’m on a mission to get people to support local farmers and not support commodity farming, so I saw this as a platform to rally support for that cause as well.

[on phone] Are those chickens in the background?
Yes, there’s a lot of them. We live on a farm. We have about 90 chickens at this point, two turkeys, four pigs, two goats, one sheep, four rabbits, and behind the restaurant we try to grow about 25% of our produce, at least in the big growing season.

So would you say you’re now a fan of competitive cooking genre?
I went down there assuming I would hate everyone on the show. I saw one of the earlier DVDs and saw everyone hugging each other, and I was like “I’m never going to hug any of those people.” But it turns out I gained nine friends for life. I would say I learned that I could let go of some of my competitiveness when it came to working in the kitchen, and came to see us all as part of a team in some ways. And I enjoy how it stretched me to cook in a different way.

Can you say who one of your toughest rivals was on the show?

Everybody was a rival, really, and whoever lost each challenge was more determined by who had the worst day. Everybody had to get cut, even though they were awesome. But the most nationally recognized contestant was Ming Tsai, so all of us had a bit of a Ming Tsai issue. We called him ‘Uncle Ming.” and there were times when we thought the whole show was just a set up for him to win. And he was on my station, kind of like my partner.

The weirdest thing was I’ve worked for Food & Wine, helping to organize their cooking stations at the Aspen event, and I’ve been, like, Ming Tsai’s lackey for years. And when I first ran into him at the hotel on the first day, I thought he was a judge, and I was shocked to find out he was actually competing.

But there was an interesting thing with men and women actually - this was the first season that started with four women – the previous seasons had two or three – and there was a definite division of the sexes. There were these two chef holding rooms where we waited between shoots, and as eliminations started, the sexes divided. There became an us and them thing. Competition does weird things to people.

What was the hardest thing to adjust to, given your style of cooking, when it came to the challenges?
The judges were primarily East Coast people - one from New York, one from London, Michael Symon who’s sort of from the East Coast. One of the judges, Simon Majumdar, in his book Eat My Globe, writes about hating Chez Panisse, for instance. So it was an interesting challenge, trying to make them happy. I try to use a snout-to-tail philosophy in everything, even vegetables. A minimum of waste. That comes from being a producer as well as a chef – I try to use chard stems as well as the leaves. Cooking styles on the East Coast tend to be sort of wasteful, like presentations with perfect circles and everything. I had a very strong internal battle in trying to please judges in terms of plating – I’m not willing to cut things in order to make them look beautiful. I think you should see them as beautiful because they are. I tried to do some of both, fancy plating and my own style, trying to maintain some of my philosophy while trying to please the judges, and it was not always easy.

Do you think cooking in NoCal helped you be familiar with a number of ingredients?

The thing that I noticed the most was my commitment to seasonality. If I was a judge, I would have judged partly based on that. But the judges didn’t. It was never part of the conversation and – if it wasn’t seasonal I didn’t use it. I’m also pretty adamant about protein sources. There was definitely product they offered me that I would not use. I would choose the weirdest protein because I figured there was a better chance it would be non-consignment and therefore more sustainable.

Who are some name-brand chefs working today whom you admire?
Obviously Thomas Keller is considered the greatest chef in the country. I totally admire Alice Waters for getting all chefs to give credit to the farmers. Tom Douglas, who’s my mentor up in Seattle and his executive chef Eric Tanaka. Fergus Henderson, for his snout-to-tail stance. Traci Des Jardins who was on the show in Season 1, who’s definitely a role model. Nancy Oakes I think is incredible, and it’s funny how she’s stayed absolutely away from reality TV and yet is so successful. And someone who I think is incredible, who’s not a chef, is Mac Magruder, who has a ranch up in Potter Valley with free range cows and pigs, and I feel like he’s totally doing the right thing and producing the best protein on the West Coast.

Introducing the Next Next Iron Chefs: Marco Canora, Ming Tsai, and More [Grub Street NY]

Sonoma’s Duskie Estes Keeps It Real, Farm-to-Table-Wise, on The Next