'Next Iron Chef' winner Jose Garces talks harsh judges and stinky tofu

josegarces_nextironchef_290.jpg"The Next Iron Chef" winner Jose Garces has begun his first duties as an Iron Chef by doing a whirlwind of press interviews the day after he laid the Kitchen Stadium smackdown on Chef Jehangir Mehta.

The two rivals met Sunday night on the Food Network over ribs and racks of lamb, buffalo and beef to create five dishes in the space of an hour. When the dust and steam from the pressure cookers cleared, Garces was named the latest member of the elite group of American Iron Chefs.

Garces was kind enough to take a few minutes out of his busy schedule to talk to Zap2it Monday morning. Check it out:

What was your biggest challenge for you during the finale competition?
Jose Garces: Just getting done on time. Ribs and racks. Ribs can be kind of tough and to get them tender in 45 minutes really -- that is all [the time] we have to cook -- is a tough challenge.

Which of the judges was the hardest/fear-inducing?
Jose Garces: I think it was pretty obvious that Jeffrey [Steingarten] didn't want me to win. I think he was the toughest. I didn't really understand his point of view on the judging. I felt everything I served was delicious and great and showed a lot of technique and fundamentals.

What was your reaction to hearing the judges call your food "boring" or "monotonous"?
Jose Garces: I think the chefs [Iron Chefs Morimoto, Bobby Flay and Michael Symon] actually stood up for me pretty well. I don't know. I guess if you're not a chef, and [the judges] are not, it's hard to understand what it takes to prepare those meals in that amount of time. Did I stay safe? Maybe a little bit, but I think with that ingredient I was able to really focus it and highlight the secret ingredient.

What do you think about the criticism that Chef Jehangir Mehta was too competitive, that he'd do whatever it took to win?
Jose Garces: Yeah, that was his approach. I can't speak about him on that. If that's what his strategy was, then you know, obviously it didn't work in the end.

What was your strategy?
Jose Garces: My strategy was just to do what I do best: Cook solid food, be consistent throughout the competition and just put together a solid product at the end.

When will your first official episode as an Iron Chef air?
Jose Garces: We've taped some episodes. My first episode will air Jan. 17.

Did you have a different strategy going into these new episodes versus how you approached "The Next Iron Chef" competition?
Jose Garces: Yes, I don't want to say there's less pressure, but I can definitely innovate a little more in that I'm not going to be eliminated at the end of the battle. It's definitely going to free me up and I hope to focus a little more on Latin cuisine. I really didn't do that throughout the competition because there was so many Asian-inspired battles that I had to stick within those confines most of the time.

How does this feel to compete now that Kitchen Stadium is your home turf?
Jose Garces: It feels great. I'm looking forward to digging in a little spot for myself at Kitchen Stadium there. It feels wonderful to be an Iron Chef, to be amongst some really talented individuals: Chef Batali, Chef Flay, Chef Symon, Chef Cora, Chef Morimoto. It's an elite class. That makes me feel really good.

Is there any bad blood between you and Chef Flay after you schooled him last time on "Iron Chef America"?
Jose Garces: No, he was very gracious, and I look forward to being a teammate.

Were you privy to the judges' scores?
Jose Garces: I was not unfortunately and I'm ok with it. For me, the end result is what counts.

Is there a possibility of a rematch between you and Chef Mehta?
Jose Garces: I think that's up to the network, but yeah, why not?

How did you pick your special Iron Chef pose for the intro sequence?
Jose Garces: They're pretty liberal with that, so you just strike your fiercest Iron Chef pose.

If you had to wield a vegetable, as the chefs did in the original Japanese "Iron Chef," what vegetable would you choose?
Jose Garces: If I had a vegetable, it'd probably be an artichoke, one of my favorite vegetables. It can be kind of tough to handle if you don't know what you're doing. That would be my veg. I have several go-to recipes for artichoke. In its simplest form, I clean them and blanch them in acidulated water, sear them and serve them with parmesan cream and a little lemon.

Did you and your competitors do anything special off camera to help relieve the stress of competition?
Jose Garces: Not much. During the show we'd go out for a drink or grab dinner. It was a good way to kind of reflect on the day. Although we were competitive on the show, probably off camera there were some bonds and relationships that were developed.

What friendships did you make on the show?
Jose Garces: Chef Trevino was a pretty good friend. We definitely bonded. Chef Mullen, he actually joined me for the viewing party last night. So it meant a lot to have him be there last night. It showed his graciousness. Even though he lost, he was there to celebrate my win. I feel like he could be a close friend in the future. I had [the viewing party] at one of my restaurants in Philadelphia, Distrito. We had about 400 people that showed up. It was pretty wild. We had some televisions already but rented some more. The space definitely lends itself to a big, festive party.

How late did the partying go?
Jose Garces: Relatively late. I don't want to disclose. Late enough, but early enough so I could be on the phone with you.

Do you have a dream challenger you would love or fear to face?
Jose Garces: (laughs) First, the battles are so tough that really anyone that gets in there has a shot. Yeah no, I'm not plotting against myself, that's for sure.

Any secret ingredient you would love to use or prefer to avoid?

Jose Garces: Well, I could say one from the show: Stinky tofu. I wouldn't want to get that for sure. Something that stinks is going to be hard to make taste good from the onset.

Why did you pick the Revuelto de langosta as your first recipe to share as an Iron Chef?
Jose Garces: I think I chose it for the of ease of making it and the flexibility of the dish. It lends itself to breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night. It's one of my favorite egg dishes, and I thought it was a good representation of my style.

What's your commitment to the show and how are your restaurants going to be run in your absence?
Jose Garces: My commitment to the show is whenever they ask me to film or do promotion. My businesses have been running pretty well. I have a good director of operations and a good infrastructure that helps me operate the businesses while I'm not there and while I am there.

What's the most interesting reaction people have had when they recognize you now from the show?
Jose Garces: Well, I made it through a long line at security when I traveled the other day by being recognized as one of the finalists on "The Next Iron Chef," so that was a pretty interesting perk that has already occurred. I think people in general are very excited for me and I think getting used to that attention is going to be a process for me.

Do you always check your chef's knives before reaching airline security?
Jose Garces: I check them, yes. I made the mistake of not checking them once and I got in trouble.

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