The Journey to the Gauntlet: Chatting with Challenger Sarah Grueneberg from Iron Chef Gauntlet

Get to know Chef Sarah Grueneberg, a challenger competing on Iron Chef Gauntlet.
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 Sarah Grueneberg, a chef from Chicago. Read on below to get to know her 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?

Sarah Grueneberg: My style of cuisine is Italian, pasta focused. Signature dish would be something with pasta. But what everyone knows me for in Chicago is called Ragu alla Napoletana, and it’s like an Italian grandmother cooked it. It’s the big Sunday sauce, but it’s in a big bowl and it has a big pork shank, housemade meatballs, sausage and then we make a pasta with all the sauce and the meat. And it takes four days to make, and it’s like a big bowl of love basically.

What’s your proudest culinary achievement to date?

SG: Opening a restaurant that is successful and where people like the food, and finding myself in my food and feeling confident in the kind of food that I cook.

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

SG: I think my strongest skill is that I cook with gut, and so I try to make wise decisions that will help the ingredients shine.

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

SG: I don’t know. It’s a pretty daunting task. I would say that I have a true love for the food, and that I love to create and I love to make great dishes. I like to think on my feet and I like to be challenged with ingredients that maybe I’m not as used to. So I think you have to have the passion for it and you have to have the chops to do it.

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

SG: Probably marshmallows might be challenging. I mean, not any natural food. I think anything that’s in a natural state would probably be good. It’s when it’s the cereal or Nutter Butter cookies or something that’s, like, "Oh, great, how do I put that in the dish?"

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

SG: I’m the chef-leader of the restaurant, so I check in with the team, I write the menu, cook alongside the guys, mentor the team. I’m kind of just all over the place. It’s hard to stop me. It’s hard to track me down, cause I’m all over the place. I think my role at the restaurant is really to ensure and encourage the product to be what it is and to stay on that track, and influence and inspire the people around me to want to believe in that. I feel like that’s what I do a lot of the time — working with front-of-the-house team, back-of-the-house team. How do we push the ingredients, how do we make the dishes that are maybe signature dishes better? You can’t ever just rest on your laurels.

How did you prepare for this competition?

SG: I prepared for this competition by just making myself well. Opening a restaurant the past year was really a lot, and I felt like I hadn’t slept in a year. So I did some sleeping, which was great, some acupuncture, which I enjoy, and I just kind of cooked around the house and did some of those things. I really want to kind of take it a day at a time and not get too far ahead of myself. So I just really tried to make myself the best that I can be right now.

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

SG: I don’t know. I did buy some blood clams to play with and not my thing. You open them up, they’re red, like blood inside and you eat them raw. So I guess those. And then SPAM. I’m not really into the canned meat. Canned veg, even the seafood, I can do. But canned meat — I’m not interested in that.

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

SG: I use a mandolin a lot, but I know that’s not necessarily a new tool. But a Japanese mandolin is my friend. I love to have different textures. If it’s an ingredient on the plate, having it in a few different way — so if it’s radishes, maybe they’re shaved and quartered and pickled.

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

SG: My friends always ask me, "What spice is Sarah into this week?" Because I’ll pick something off the wall, and they’re like, "What? Why are you using that?" One time it was turmeric and one time it was sumac. I really like sumac, and now I really like caraway. You don’t see those flavors that much. Country ham too — I use a lot of country ham in my cooking now instead of prosciutto. It’s a cold smoked ham. It’s made in Kentucky and Tennessee. It’s really delicious.

What do you like to cook on your days off?

SG: I cook pasta, because it’s in the pantry and usually I don’t want to get up off my couch. So I do a pantry throw-it-together pasta. Or, I’m from Texas originally, so my family would send me home with a suitcase of frozen game meat, so usually I’m making a quick pasta sauce or something, and then I like to make steak at home. I think steak is an ingredient that is simple. Any kind of meat like that. And I do eat a lot of vegetarian at home too. I don’t want to sound like I just eat all this meat. But eggs — I cook a lot of eggs. Rice with eggs. Or toast — an avocado toast with a poached egg on it or something like that. It’s all about what’s in your fridge that you can have for a few weeks that doesn’t go bad.

Who do you consider to be your culinary mentor?

SG: There's a few of them. I mean, number one is Tony Mantuano. He was my chef at Spiaggia, and Missy Robbins was also my chef there, and she is killing it running Lilia in New York. I worked under her for three years, and then Chris Shepherd in Houston.

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

SG: I think what makes me unique is that I truly love and know a lot about regional Italian cuisine and what ingredients come from where. I’m very ingredient driven. Staying true to the region and knowing the different dishes — you don’t have Bolognese in Southern Italy. There’s different dishes that are only of an area. It’s not like this umbrella Italian that I think we’re used to in this country. And now there’s restaurants popping up with more smaller, regionally focused dishes and concepts. So, I would say my love and respect for regional Italian cuisine, and then the fact that I’m not scared to cook kind of homey. ... I tell my cooks, “How would your grandmother do it?’ For me, being in the South, I feel like if you’re going to fry it in something, it better be bacon fat or pork fat. How can you extract the flavor out of an ingredient that makes the diner be like, "Whoa. I haven’t had a tomato like that" And sometimes it’s in different techniques. So, it’s taking the ingredient and really elevating it but through non-technical things. I don’t do a lot of sous vide; I really don’t know how to do that. I’m not good at it. I guess I cook kind of humbly but also elevating the ingredient.

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

SG: I think it takes a lot of humility to cook at this level. I think you have to go into it wanting to do your best and not beating yourself up too much. Any chef that tells you they don’t do that, they’re probably lying, because that’s like what we live through every day. I think, for me, it’s more about being mentally prepared than it is being like, “I know how to make every single thing.” Cooking is organic and cooking is something that happens. It’s not like something that you do.

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

SG: Eggs. eggs are hard, that’s for sure. I would say butchery too. As far as a dish, maybe pressure cooker. Learning how to cook with a pressure cooker is something to start with, because you have to cook things fast.

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

SG: Buttermilk is a great ingredient that I use in a lot of my cooking. And then I’d also say true balsamic vinegar from Italy is so different. Good vinegar is so different than all the vinegar at the grocery store. There’s a huge difference, and I think it’s maybe not bringing it back, but it’s making the status quo have a level of quality so it’s not industrial.

Besides cooking, what do you like to do?

SG: Eat. Drink. Is that a hobby? It’s really my hobby. I think you start cooking because you love to eat. That’s the first thing. So, a chef that tells you they don’t love to eat ... I don’t know why they’re cooking then. I like to go on vacation.

Any guilty food pleasures you'd like to reveal?

SG: Yes. I am a sucker for fruity tart candy. If it’s a Starburst, a Sour Patch Kid, a jelly bean, doesn’t matter, as long as it’s fruit. Chocolate I’m usually okay with, but those tart things I have a problem with. I have to cut myself off.

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

SG: I’m a chef that cooks Italian food with respect and grace, but also isn’t scared to change those dishes into ways that I cook. Basically, cooking always with the tradition in mind, but always changing it to my experiences or growing up. Right now in my career, I truly cook Sarah food, and it took a long time to get there. I’ll share all of the great Italian things that I know, but also throw in a few extra things.

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

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