Exclusive: Geoffrey Zakarian Previews the New Season of Cooks vs. Cons

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Fresh off a hit first season, Cooks vs. Cons — the game that asks if a professional chef can be outcooked by an amateur home cook — is set to return for Season two on Sunday, July 10 at 10|9c. Recently we caught up with Geoffrey Zakarian, the host of this culinary whodunit, to get his take on the success of Season one and what to expect from upcoming battles. Read on below to hear from him in an exclusive interview, and find out the pro-or-joe hunches he develops while watching each contest unfold.

Fans really gravitated toward the first season. Why do you think this is such a craveable game?

It’s on everybody’s mind that they all want to be a chef. So it’s very fun for people to imagine trying to trick someone like myself and two judges into [believing they’re] a chef, so I think it really sets up their interest first. And then the premise is great. It’s very quick. It’s easy to understand. You get it right away. And you’re just hooked because the chefs and the amateurs are both very interesting people. Pros are interesting, and the amateurs are interesting. It’s really great casting.

We’ve seen cooking competitions before — many, many times. How and why is this show different?

Well, there are really people who don’t know what they’re doing. They’re just basically amateurs. They’ve never cooked in a kitchen before. And there really are people who really are professional chefs in their everyday lives. And it’s very embarrassing if you’re a professional chef to lose to an amateur. So it’s a bit different. … You’re just trying to show your skill set off to someone who is obviously an amateur, and you don’t know who is next to you. So you really have to give it your best, and you know, we’ve had a lot of people that have been pros that have lost.

What can we expect to see in the new season? What are you looking forward to?

Season one [there] was just such a great reaction. I just don’t want to mess it up. … I know we’re going to get great contestants and great amateurs. … It’s a mystery, because you don’t know how things are going to happen. It’s ad hoc and it just builds like that. And so that’s the fun part of the show is you really don’t know, I don’t know, the judges don’t know. … It’s very hard to tell. … I’m looking forward to a lot of new, exciting amateurs conning us.

You and the judges don’t know the identity of the competitors, right? Do you find that you’re often right in your hunches?

I don’t know what our season is. I think we’re 50-50, which isn’t bad. But we go back and forth. … I’m one of those people, like, “Judge a book by its cover right away.” … I think I’ve been wrong, like, five out of six times. Because I think I know. I think I got it. … A lot of them are actually schooled in how to get us: “OK, so, if you really want to show them you’re a con, like, pick up this kind of clumsily.”

Who do you think has it easier on Cooks vs. Cons: the cooks, because they’re pros, or the cons, because they have nothing to lose?

The cons really have nothing to lose. The cooks really have nothing to lose and it’s really dignity. If you lose, you walk out of there with nothing.

There’s no hard formula for being a chef — we’re seeing cons pull chef-y moves all the time. But in general, what are a few traditional chef techniques or skills, things that are often telltale signs that someone is a pro?

I thought I knew. The first six shows we did, I thought I knew. First of all, I think a lot of it is physical, meaning, how you move in a kitchen. Do you run, do you walk, do you saunter? Are you confident, are you efficient in your movement? That’s what a chef is. You have to go back and forth between ingredients. And then there’s knife skills. Do you know how to hold a knife? Do you know how to hold a chef’s knife, a paring knife? Where do you place the finger, where do you place the thumb? There’s a lot of very technical things. When you grab something and you’re really busy and you’re behind in time, it’s a natural thing for you. It’s a reflex. Cooking is a reflex, especially when under the clock. So you watch their reflexes and you can pretty much tell whether they’re experienced in the kitchen.

But a lot of the cons — they worked a season or two in a summer shack somewhere, and they can fake it. And that’s the problem. And because of the internet and Food Network and YouTube and all these different videos, if you hit, like, “how to make carbonara,” there’s 5,000 videos of how to make carbonara. So if you study a few of them, you can pretty much fake carbonara. So it’s like “fake it till you make it.” It’s really difficult with one single challenge to find out whether you’re an amateur or a professional cook.

Have you been impressed by the skills of the amateurs?

I’m very impressed.

For current cons who want to make the move to professional cooking, what’s your greatest piece of advice for beginning that transition?

If they really want to be a pro, they have to find the best chef in their area and go work with him or her on weekends and just get in there in the ring and step and ride the bull.

Tune in to the season premiere of Cooks vs. Cons on Sunday, July 10 at 10|9c.