It was a nail-biting finale on the Food Network’s The Next Iron Chef as it came down to calm, cool and collected Chef Jose Garces battling it out with confident and cocky Chef Jehangir Mehta. Their final challenge was to create dishes that showcased the ethnic melting pot of American cuisine using ribs and racks as the secret ingredient. Even though Judge Jeffrey Steingarten was adamantly on Team Mehta—Chef Garces ultimately prevailed! He takes his place amongst the other Iron Chefs (including Bobby Flay and Morimoto) in January. But for now, Chef Garces took a minute from preparing his Thanksgiving feast (“It’s one of the most important holidays to me,” he says) to fill RadarOnline.com in on how he never let the pressure get him down and why he thinks that The Next Iron Chef has more prestige than Top Chef!
RadarOnline.com: Congrats on your win. How does it feel?
Garces: Pretty amazing. We had a viewing party [on Sunday night] with 400 of my closest friends at one of my Philly restaurants.
RadarOnline.com: How did you make it onto The Next Iron Chef?
Garces: I interviewed in 2007 for the first season and didn’t make that cut. They called me again for this season and made it. I was excited but I had to weigh my options and think about where my career and businesses were at. I have six restaurants but felt enough confidence in my managers and directors to leave and do the show.
RadarOnline.com: How did you mentally prepare for the challenging nature of this competition?
Garces: I had a high level of confidence going into show but as the weeks went on, I felt like it got harder and harder. But just maintaining my focus and knowing things were being taken cared of back home made it easier for me to stay clear and stay focused on the cooking.
RadarOnline.com: What was your strategy?
Garces: A lot of it was just relying on my 15 years of cooking experience and knowledge. You really can’t prep for this show because you need to have already lived a lot of cooking experiences and had that pressure.
RadarOnline.com: Were you nervous to go up against Chef Mehta in the finale?
Garces: After spending several weeks with Chef Mehta – I learned his style. He’s a fierce competitor. During the first few episodes, we shared a stove. So, from the beginning we got to know each other up close and personal. To finish the show with him was not new at all. I knew his strategy, I knew how he cooked and I knew he was going to be tough.
RadarOnline.com: Were you disappointed to learn that Judge Jeffrey Steingarten wasn’t rooting for you?
Garces: It was pretty obvious that Jeffrey was on Chef Mehta’s side. And watching the finale, it was really apparent and that’s really unfortunate. All the food should have been judged based on what it was and I don’t know if that necessarily occurred when it came to Jeffrey.
RadarOnline.com: As the host of The Next Iron Chef, Alton Brown seemed like such a great cheerleader for all the chefs. What was he like?
Garces: Alton Brown was great to have on show – he’s a wealth of knowledge and felt more like an ally than a critique. I looked to him for support at times. He wasn’t giving away too much but you know he was a little more sympathetic to the chefs than the judges.
RadarOnline.com: We hear that you’ve already filmed some battles for Iron Chef America. How has that been different than competing on The Next Iron Chef?
Garces: The biggest difference on Iron Chef America is that I’m not going to get eliminated after a particular battle. So that definitely frees me up to be a little more creative and let things go. But the other aspect is I am an Iron Chef now and the pressure of holding that title is pretty intense. I’m looking forward to being a good—no great—Iron Chef – that’s really my task and goal.
RadarOnline.com: Is there a particular secret ingredient that you’re looking forward to working with?
Garces: I’m a fan of all ingredients and my challenge is to make something taste good and unique out of what I was given. So, I just really look forward to the surprise—that’s one of best parts of being an Iron Chef.
RadarOnline.com: Do you watch any of the other cooking competition shows out there like Bravo’s Top Chef?
Garces: Typically I don’t watch the other shows but I’ve been tuning into Top Chef this season because I have a few friends on it.
RadarOnline.com: Which do you think is more challenging—Next Iron Chef or Top Chef?
Garces: How do I say this nicely? Next Iron Chef is a little less kitschy. I think the contestants on Top Chef are talented but the Next Iron Chef contestants are a little more accomplished. You have restaurateurs and people with multiple restaurants as contestants where on Top Chef they’re not all restaurant owners or executive chefs.