Q&A With The Next Iron Chef’s Donatella Arpaia

Donatella Arpaia is one of the most influential women in the world of food. In 1998, she left a successful career in law to pursue her passion, opening her first restaurant Bellini. Since then, she has opened a string of successful and highly-acclaimed New York City eateries including Mia Dona, Anthos, and Kefi. Recently, Arpaia opened her ninth restaurant Donatella and her first bar Dbar. As a recurring guest judge on Iron Chef America and The Next Iron Chef, the Italian aficionado has proven herself to be an all-out culinary connoisseur. We recently chatted with the restaurateur about Naples, pizza, sea cucumbers, and other interesting ingredients.

What does it take to become an Iron Chef?
An Iron Chef has to have a really sound mastery of the techniques. You have to have the mental building blocks. You have to be competitive and have your own voice as a chef because you have to have your own distinct point of view. You have to be fearless and creative. And you have to be able to work in front of the camera.

As a judge on Iron Chef America and The Next Iron Chef, what do you look for when evaluating a dish?
I’m very fortunate to judge a lot on Iron Chef America so I know what it takes to win in Kitchen Stadium. Points go to taste first and foremost. I’m a big stickler for presentation because these are chefs competing at a higher level. It has to look beautiful, and you have to constantly be pushing the envelope. You have to have your point of view and voice, but also be able to expand your horizons.

What can a home cook learn from watching the Iron Chefs in action?
I hope it gets the home cook out of his rut by introducing new ingredients and techniques. You should be willing to take certain risks. Try a new spice. I think these shows create a lot of awareness toward food and it also connects people to food.

If you were competing on Iron Chef, what would you want your secret ingredient to be?
Well, I’m obsessed with coconut. I like anything with coconut — whether it’s savory or sweet.

What do you think is the most difficult secret ingredient?
On last season’s The Next Iron Chef they really had fun with the ingredients — it was like Fear Factor. They gave the chefs a bunch of ingredients that we’re not used to in our culture. So I ate grasshoppers and unlaid eggs. But I would have to say, the most difficult ingredient is probably sea cucumber.

Is there a favorite dish you’ve ever tasted on Iron Chef America or The Next Iron Chef?
Yes. But I don’t want to talk about it just yet because it’s in episode three or four on this season. It was really, really good.

Tell me about your brand new restaurant?
Donatella just opened a couple of days ago and DBar — they’re two places connected by the same kitchen. It’s a very personal project. My father is from Naples and I spent my summers there and I was always obsessed with making the most authentic pizza and food. And the oven which is the centerpiece of the restaurant is blinged out in gold – everything was imported from Naples, Italy. I had a third generation oven-builder come to make it from Naples, and it’s really the only one in the country. It’s been a bit of an obsession.

If I came to Donatella, what would you suggest I ordered?
I would suggest that you start with the marinated seafood salad. I have a selection of fried foods – I love the potato croquet. And for the pizza: The Donatella, of course.

Before you got into the restaurant business, you were a lawyer. What inspired this big life change?
My parents were both born in Italy and that informed so much of who I am. My father was a restaurateur. I was never even allowed to work in his restaurant. It was the one business I knew I wouldn’t be in. I became a lawyer, but food was so much a part of me. And people that choose the restaurant business discover that it’s more of a way of life than a job. It was so much a part of my soul, and it just became the obvious answer one day. I opened my first restaurant about 11 years ago — and nine restaurants later, I haven’t looked back.

Photo: Caroline Owens