The Journey to the Gauntlet: Chatting with Challenger Michael Gulotta from Iron Chef Gauntlet
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 Michael Gulotta, a chef from New Orleans. 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?
Michael Gulotta: Well, right now my style of cuisine is Southeast Asia meets Southeast Louisiana. It's my shtick. That’s what I enjoy cooking.
Are you known for executing that style in a particular way? Do you tend to go modern, perhaps, or seasonal?
MG: If anything I think my food always tends back towards rustic, definitely. I know it was sort of a divide where we either go really nice plate-ups that build on great flavors, or we kind of go back to the rustic route. I think I definitely go on the rustic route, because I like really big, exciting flavors, and it’s easier to do when you have one-pot cookery. ... I kind of do a mix of that. I’ll do some play on a traditional dish, but then maybe I’ll add something bright to the top of it so it kind of balances.
What’s your proudest culinary achievement to date?
Your strongest skill in the kitchen, something technical or mental, can you narrow that down?
MG: The biggest thing is I really like to taste. That’s my favorite thing to do — my cooks make fun of me, because when they bring me a dish to taste, I sit there and eat the entire dish in front of them, and they’re like, "Okay." They just stand there watching me eat it. But I’m big into tasting a dish in its entirety. I think that’s important.
Why do you have what it takes to be an Iron Chef? What makes you worthy of joining such esteemed ranks?
MG: That’s one of those tricky questions. Do I think I have what I takes? The reason I’m here is because I want to see if I do have what it takes. I think it’s all in the self-discovery. That’s what this is all about.
Tell us about a day in your life. What are some of your primary responsibilities and roles?
MG: All of it. Everything from fixing coolers to cleaning out the garden to making sure the dumpster gets put away right to tasting the specials for the day to taking good pictures of them and posting them on the internet so we have people trafficking our websites and all of those things. Sitting down and listening to my staff's problems to make sure that they’re happy when they’re at work and all those things.
MG: I didn’t. ... I just opened our second restaurant in our group, so I’ve been in the kitchen every day working on the line and working the pass and being in the food, so I didn’t really have time to practice. But I guess that has to be its own kind of practice — I hope. It is a different style of cooking, having to do it in short amounts of time, so that’s probably the one thing I’m most-apprehensive about.
If you had the chance to battle one Iron Chef, who would you choose and why?
MG: I think Mario Batali, because I like the way he cooks. ... I’ve read a lot of his books, and the way he sees food and his [approach] is all about discovery, just building on the knowledge that he has and just playing around with it until something new and fun comes out. Basing it in old-world traditions, but then finding fun and new ways to do it with the products that you have at hand. And I think that’s the hallmark of a neat, great chef.
What would be a Secret Ingredient that you'd dread finding on the altar, and why?
MG: I think all of us are food geeks, so I think anything we get is going to be interesting. I don’t think there’s anything that’s too far out of all of our realms. ... Maybe geoduck, only because in the Gulf Coast we don’t have [it]. It’s only in the Pacific Northwest, so it’s one of those things that I really wouldn’t know how to work with. So, now I’m scared, because now I’m going to get geoduck because I said that. Now it’s going to happen, and I’m not going know what to do with it.
Is there any dish or ingredient that you don't care for or will not eat?
MG: I used to say black licorice. That’s one thing I don’t like, but I do like anise. It’s just specifically black licorice that I don’t like.
Beyond a knife and a tasting spoon, what’s one of your favorite kitchen tools?
MG: Mortar and pestle. We use mortar and pestles for everything in all our restaurants. We find it’s the best way to extract flavor.
MG: I don’t. I don’t really have off days. That’s not even a joke. I work every day.
Let’s say it’s a regular Tuesday and you get home from work late at night. Are you cooking, are you ordering in?
MG: No. It’s weird. I’m such a dork now, because I have to make sure I get enough sleep. I used to come home and make myself hot sausage po’ boys and big salads with lots of dried fruit and nuts and really awesome vinaigrettes, but I found that that was keeping me up at night. I’m an old dork, so I have to eat things that don’t spike my blood sugar, so I eat crackers and peanut butter, because it fills me up and gives me some nutrients to go to sleep, but it doesn’t keep me up.
MG: The person who taught me the most and who I spent the most time with was John Besh.
That’s where you got your penchant for tasting from, perhaps.
MG: Taste your food and don’t be afraid to be pushed outside your comfort zone.
What's your favorite ingredient to work with these days? Anything new you're obsessing over right now?
MG: I know right now I’m constantly grabbing shellfish paste, either shrimp paste or crab paste, and fish sauce. Those three things are everywhere. I can’t cook without them anymore.
What are some of your favorite ways to utilize them?
MG: I’m a really firm believer in the whole slow-foods movement — so food that takes time — but sometimes when you don’t have the time to take time, then you can use things like [those three ingredients], and they will boost that umami flavor that you get only through cooking something down. You get these instant boosts of deep, rich umami flavor.
What makes you unique in terms of your culinary expertise or your approach to food?
MG: Well, I had a lot of classical training. I trained in Europe and I worked in really high-end classical French restaurants. But then in the past three years, I really flipped the dish on that and opened a tavern ... There are a lot of fine-dining chefs who are doing that, because it’s what people crave, and no matter what, it’s a business. So, nowadays you have to serve food that absolutely blows people away — you can’t afford to do anything else — and I guess I’m sort of a child of these times. So I guess that’s what I have going for me. Right now I have a restaurant that’s stayed open for three years, so I must be doing something okay.
What do you think fans at home might not realize about what it takes to cook at such a high level?
MG: Well, the hardest part — and which is the coolest thing about this competition — is that everyone here has been in the game. ... They've all been in this game for at least a decade, some of us 18, 19 years, if not more. And so it’s like fight time for a pilot. You just learn to be comfortable in certain aspects, and that’s what the difference is, because you can’t push way far out of your comfort zone and do things you’re not comfortable with and do it right if you’re not comfortable with the basics. I think the hard part is that it’s hard to tell how many years of training went into everyone’s hands as they walk into that kitchen.
What's the first dish you think an aspiring Iron Chef should master?
MG: Can you cook an egg? Eggs are one of the hardest things to cook properly.
What do you think is the most-underrated ingredient or dish these days?
MG: The hard part is now, the spectrum is so broad. No one’s not doing something. There’s every restaurant on every level of the spectrum where you can find everything. I can go somewhere and get a paella, I can go somewhere and get a great risotto, I can still go to some restaurant and get a really good Brillat aux Truffes. I can go somewhere and get these amazing dishes. Someone’s doing it somewhere, so it’s kind of hard to say.
MG: All of it. Actually, mint chocolate chip. Ever since I was a kid. Second to that would be peanut butter and chocolate. Any iteration.
Is there anything you want to say to introduce yourself to new audiences?
Tune in to the premiere of Iron Chef Gauntlet on Sunday, April 16 at 9|8c.