Donatella Arpaia: “I’m A Cross Between Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul.”
The ‘Next Iron Chef’ judge chats with Betty about judging, switching careers and dressing like her food.
BY BROOKE SAGER
The Next Iron Chef’s ‘tough-but-fair’ judge, Donatella Arpaia, is back for round three. When it comes to her style of judging the chefs, “I’d say I’m a cross between Simon (Cowell) and Paula (Abdul),” she tells BettyConfidential. Luckily these chefs will not be breaking into song during the competition.
What’s Donatella up to offset? “I’m a very busy girl!” she says. And she’s not joking. This New York-born foodie just opened up her first bar, and her ninth restaurant (yes, ninth.) She also just released a cookbook, Donatella Cooks. There’s even buzz about a TV show of her own that’s in the works.
We’re hungry just thinking about all that.
You’re returning for the third season as a judge for The Next Iron Chef. What should we expect to see?
I think the popularity of the show has really raised the stakes. The stakes are also higher because people have seen what has become of the past winners. We have an extremely interesting group of contestants this season. It’s a big rollercoaster ride, but that’s what I loved—I was surprised every week. Whatever direction you think it’s going to go, it goes somewhere else. It’s very engaging.
How would you describe yourself as a judge?
I’m fair but tough. That’s what the contestants need. Each judge brings a different prospective. It’s interesting to have Iron Chef Michael Symon judging, because he went through the process and can give a chef’s perspective. I focus a lot on technique, and I look at the presentation more than the others do. I’m a stickler for that.
What really make it or breaks it for you when deciding if a contestant moves to the next round?
There are times when it is really tough deciding between two people. One wrong bite can send someone home. Honestly, it comes down to who I want to give another chance to. When I judge a dish, I ask myself, “what’s the ‘it’ factor?” It’s a tough thing to quantify, but because I’ve been in the industry and have eaten around the world, I have that skill. A chef needs technique or they can’t move further. You also need a certain soul and point of view to make yourself stand out.
How was opening your first bar, Dbar, different than opening a restaurant?
It was very different. Opening a bar is a unique process. While Donatella has a rustic-glam look with bricks and golds, Dbar has a nocturnal, fun and sexy feel. There’s an internal passageway from the kitchen. I also worked with a great mixologist to create a wonderful cocktail list. It’s only been open a week, so I’m still learning. Ask me again in a few months.
You’re an attorney-turned-culinary mogul. That’s quite the switch.
I made the switch ten years ago. I passed the Bar and started practicing. It turned out the idea of law is much different than actually practicing. I grew up in a restaurant-oriented family. I used to work in a dishwashing station at my family’s restaurant because my mom couldn’t afford a babysitter. My dad never wanted me to go into law. The food business is what’s in our family and blood. So one night while I was eating at my brother’s restaurant when he was understaffed, I just got up and started hosting. Immediately I thought, “this is what I should be doing.” I secretly began looking for a space for my own restaurant. Three months later, I found one and never looked back.
How was it putting out a cookbook? Was it tough to decide what recipes made the cut?
Yes, it was very difficult. In the end, I took a lot of recipes that were favorites from my restaurants over the years. Then I added my mom’s home recipes to glam it up. I wanted to demystify the basics that people aren’t taught. I put a ton of online references in the book—that’s important because we’re all busy people. I wove a lot about presentation into the book. I got great feedback on the book, so making my second one should be even easier.
You always look so well put together. How would you describe your personal style?
TV really is a great medium for learning how you look. It’s a mirror for everyone to see. I’d say I’m classic in a lot of ways. I stick with solids. And I’m not too trendy, but I like to add a few dramatic accessories. I do the same thing with my food—a little addition takes things to another level.
You’ve made several appearances on The Best Thing I Ever Ate. So, what is the best thing you ever ate?
Oh boy, that’s so hard! I do have a few memories of extra-special foods. One time in Rome, I had this amazing [dish] with sea urchin sauce. Oh, and my mother’s meatballs. I grew up with the smell of not bacon and eggs at 7 a.m., but my mom’s Ragu.
Do you have any special tricks in the kitchen you’d like to share?
Home cooks often spend money on things they shouldn’t, like fancy gadgets. Instead, everyone should invest in a really good chef’s knife. And get the best salt, pepper and spices. No one ever really thinks to do that.