Judge's Tables: Next Iron Chef's Donatella Arpaia, Pizza and Prime Time

By: Debra Puchalla

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No matter how you slice it, this is an exciting moment for New York City restaurateur Donatella Arpaia. Doors opened this past week to her eponymously named pizzeria, Donatella, and Sunday starts her reprise run as a judge on the new season of The Next Iron Chef. "Donatella is my most personal project to date--it's the first to carry my name. I wanted to create a rustic but glam environment and to use authentic ingredients," says the attorney-turned-culinary-mogul and author of Donatella Cooks. "For some time I've wanted to go back to my roots, so I traveled to Naples and had in mind that I wanted to make the most authentic Neapolitan pizza possible."

Donatella and her chefs traveled to Naples, where she spent summers in her youth, returning with tried-and-true artisanal techniques, ingredients (Caputo flour for the pies), and volcanic salt, sand and rock from Mount Vesuvius for the gilded wood-firing oven. It's early, but her efforts are paying off with a big dose of attention to her plate-sized pies and antipasti (see for yourself at Zagat, Eater and Slice). "I didn’t really understand that other people are as obsessed with pizza as I am," she says.

For the moment, she's enjoying the flip side of her role on Next Iron Chef. For this season, premiering Sunday night at 9 pm ET, each judge comes with a different perspective: Chef Michael Symon, a former contestant, is focused on the rivals' technical abilities, and Simon Majumdar critiques the dishes based on his worldly travels. For her part, Donatella brings balance. "I’ve been on both sides," she says, reviewing dishes for Next Iron Chef and receiving feedback for her own restaurants' cookery. "I really take my job seriously as a judge, because one wrong bite can take them home."

"I can usually see who's going to be on the top and bottom, but this season the competition is extremely fierce," Donatella says.  Even skilled chefs, she says, need words of wisdom. Here are some of her suggestions to the hopefuls:

  • Strive to be better all the time.
  • Remember that taste is the most important thing.
  • Taste your food—be sure it's seasoned properly.
  • Use the ingredients in creative ways.
  • Pay attention to the way your dish looks—we eat with our eyes first.
  • Cook outside the box; bring your own voice but take it to the next level.

Why not take her own advice, put down the pizza peel and jump into the competition? "No way! A judge in that seat? I don’t think so," she says. "You can be an incredible chef in your own kitchen but they're competing under a lot of pressure. They're put through trials and tribulations under difficult time constraints—you have to be a fierce competitor and a warrior." No, no, she says, for now she's good, immersing herself in helping get the best out of the rivals--and out of her sparkly pizza oven.

Tune in Sunday at 9 pm ET for the premiere of The Next Iron Chef.

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