The Journey to the Gauntlet: Chatting with Challenger Jason Dady from Iron Chef Gauntlet

Get to know Chef Jason Dady, a challenger competing on Iron Chef Gauntlet.

Photo by: Eddy Chen, Eddy Chen

Eddy Chen, Eddy Chen

This. Is. It. The fight to become an Iron Chef is unlike any other culinary competition, with the demands for precision, expertise, intuition and downright excellence the most rigorous in the business. On Iron Chef Gauntlet, seven of the country's most-elite chefs will come together to prove that their skills are the sharpest — but ultimately just one will earn the right to the run the gauntlet for the chance to join the ranks of the great Iron Chefs.

Before the competition begins on Sunday, April 16 at 9|8c, we're giving you, Iron Chef fans, the first introductions to the crop of challengers ready to do battle. Today we'd like you to meet Jason Dady, a chef from San Antonio. Read on below to get to know his style in the kitchen, and be sure to come back to FN Dish all week long as we present a new contender every day this week.

What's your style of cuisine, and do you have a signature dish?

Jason Dady: I think that my overall style of cuisine would be considered Modern American cuisine, so it’s pretty well versed in a lot of different techniques, whether it’s French or Northern Italian, but really focused on farm-to-table, fresh, local ingredients. My signature dish would probably be a dish called Nutella Times Three, which is like a flourless Nutella torte, chocolate Nutella mousse, Nutella ganache. It’s pretty delicious.

What's your proudest culinary achievement to date?

JD: That I have built a restaurant group with my wife and my brother, and we’ve been in business for 16 years, and we still all like each other.

What's your strongest skill in the kitchen, be it something technical or mental?

JD: I think it’s organization and just being able to stay calm under pressure.

Why do you have what it takes to be an Iron Chef? What makes you worthy of joining such esteemed ranks?

JD: I think my drive to be great is very high, and I think that my overall versatility and cooking styles will definitely pay big dividends.

Tell us about a day in your life. What are some of your primary responsibilities and roles?

JD: Well, I have six restaurants, and my roles are pretty different and crazy, and [they] rotate on an every day basis. But a normal day would be get up at 6:15, get my kids up, get them dressed, get them breakfast and take them to school. I try to work out, and then I go to the restaurant, check e-mail, and then from there, the day will develop. Basically, I have to go wherever I need to be, versus where I want to be, most days, whether we have a catering and I need to help prep for a catering or we have a private party at one restaurant or we’re doing a wedding for another. So, my goal, typically, would be to hit two restaurants in a day just to say: "Hi. How’s it going? What can I do for you?" And then hopefully be home by 9:30 and have a glass of wine.

How did you prepare for this competition?

JD: I tried to not overthink it. I watched quite a few episodes of The Next Iron Chef, just to kind of get a feel for the way that the show worked, but I didn’t really do much Secret-Ingredient-, mystery-basket-type of challenges. I worked with a pressure cooker quite a bit just to get a little bit more [of an] understanding of using pressure cookers; I wasn’t overly familiar with that. But that would be overall what I did to prepare.

If you had the chance to battle one Iron Chef, who would you choose and why?

JD: I think that I would like Michael Symon. I think that he and I have similar personalities, similar cooking styles, and I think he’s at the top of his game and is one of the best there’s ever been. And so if you’re going to be an Iron Chef, you want to go up against the best of the best.

What would be a Secret Ingredient that you'd dread finding on the altar, and why?

JD: I watched one episode that the Secret Ingredient was bagel, and I was like, "I don’t know how the hell you cook five dishes with bagel."

Is there any dish or ingredient that you don't care for or will not eat?

JD: I’m not a big fan of offal. I’m not the chef that gets excited about eating kidneys and tripe and braised lung. I leave that to other chefs.

Beyond a knife and a tasting spoon, what’s one of your favorite kitchen tools?

JD: I would say now the pressure cooker would be the number one. I just picked one up a week ago, but I was trying kind of a couple different techniques, and I was like, "Oh wow, I can’t believe I’ve never done this." I don’t cook at home a lot, and in the restaurant, our style of cooking, we don’t really have a need for it, because we do more slow braising. But I did have quite a bit of fun and found it to be pretty interesting, the different things you can do with it.

What's your favorite ingredient to work with these days? Anything new you're obsessing over right now?

JD: An ingredient castelfranco, which is like a white radicchio. Pretty unique. You find it a lot out here in California, but we don’t really see it a lot in Texas. We had somebody bring some in, and it was delicious. Kind of sweet, but bitter. I think there are a lot of applications that would be interesting to use that for.

What do you like to cook on your days off?

JD: I have three kids at home, so that’s kind of a challenging question, because a lot of times I have to cook what my kids will eat, but we love to cook. My kids love Chinese food, and they love Asian food in general, so we cook a lot of Thai food at home. Simple stuff whether it’s some sort of Thai-inspired noodle or pad Thai. They’ll even eat curries. We do a lot of that.

Who do you consider to be your culinary mentor?

JD: It’s been 16 years since I’ve opened my own place, but growing up as a young chef, I had two mentors. One was a chef named David Frakes, who was my chef at Beringer Vineyards when I worked there, and then Christopher Fernandez, who was the chef at Stars when I was there in San Francisco. So those are the two guys who kind of took me under their wings and gave me the opportunity to learn quite a bit of stuff as a young cook.

What makes you unique in terms of your culinary expertise or your approach to food?

JD: I think the versatility. I have two Northern Italian restaurants. My first restaurant was a modern American tasting menu — five course, main course tasting menus — and then I had a Spanish-inspired small-plates restaurant. From there I opened Tre, which is Northern Italian. Then I opened a barbecue joint. Now I have a seafood shack. I had a restaurant called Umai-Mi for just over a year in San Antonio that didn’t really go over that well in the market, but that was basically Thai and Chinese inspired, and so for me, I think the versatility. I’m not a guru in Thai food and I’m not a guru in Chinese food. But I understand the principles of it, and when pressed, I could cook it pretty easily.

What do you think fans at home might not realize about what it takes to cook at such a high level?

JD: The understanding of organization and heat manipulation. I use the words heat manipulation a lot, understanding how hot something’s supposed to be, how long it’s supposed to be that hot, whether that’s a live-fire grill or a saute pan or an oven or steam. Understanding the components of heat manipulation are one of the real cores and keys. Once home cooks understand that, then they become better cooks.

Besides cooking, what do you like to do?

JD: I love to go camping. I’m a big outdoor camper. Me and my family love to pack up our tents and our gear, and head out to a state park in Texas and sleep out under the stars and enjoy nature. That’s probably my No. 1 thing. I love to fish. I like to sit by a fire put and smoke a cigar.

What's the first dish you think an aspiring Iron Chef should master?

JD: I would completely change gears. I think making a Thai curry at home is one of the easiest dishes to make — if you’re using a store-bought curry paste, which, if you’re a home cook, is what you’re going to do. It’s super easy. It’s fairly inexpensive. It’s chock full of flavor and spice, so it’s something that is exciting for you to eat. Or if you’re entertaining people, they’re like, "Oh my god, you know how to make curry." I love that dish and teaching people to do it, because they’re like, "Oh wow, that wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be." And it tastes really great.

What do you think is the most-underrated ingredient or dish these days?

JD: Chicken thighs I think are über underrated. They always stay moist, you can’t overcook them and they taste great. You can grill them, you can saute them, you can braise them. You can make a braised sauce to go with pasta .You can do a paillard and do it with a little salad.

Any guilty food pleasures you'd like to reveal?
JD: Taco Bell, I guess. I love Taco Bell.

Is there anything you want to say to introduce yourself to new audiences?

JD: I think the thing that I’m stressing about the most is that I’m probably one of the most-unknown chefs in the competition, because I’m in a small market in San Antonio. Even though it’s the seventh-largest city in the country, we’re kind of fourth in line when it comes to media, as far as Texas is concerned — after Austin and Houston and Dallas — and so I’m striving really hard to put San Antonio on the culinary map and to help guide our city to get the recognition that it deserves, because we have a lot of great chefs and restaurants. We have great tacos and enchiladas, but there’s a heck of a lot more out there too.

Tune in to the premiere of Iron Chef Gauntlet on Sunday, April 16 at 9|8c.

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