Celebrity chef and successful restaurateur Antonia Lofaso first burst onto the reality TV scene as a contestant on the fourth cycle of Bravo’s “Top Chef.” Since then, the affable Italian and French Culinary Institute graduate has continued to impress by blending her kitchen chops with a passion for family. Examiner spoke exclusively with Lofaso on July 15 to get the scoop on her partnership with Breyers, the lessons she’s learned from appearing on reality TV, and what she’d do with just a single hour of free time.
Sherry Wight: I know that in addition to being a chef and a restaurateur, you’re also a mom. What are some things that you like to do with your family?
Antonia Lofaso: You know, I have to say: ever since I was younger, cooking has always been the way that my entire family has spent time together, and [they’re] kind of my most treasured memories of my family. We were always cooking, we were always having some kind of family get-together that involved food, and I became a chef that way. It was a really natural evolution of this amazing quality time that I spent with my family.
I do the same with my daughter. Just [recently] it kind of came full circle. You… instill these traditions with them, whether it’s Sunday morning breakfast or dinner on Tuesdays together or something. They kind of fight you on it all day long [laughs] and then all of the sudden, something clicks and it’s ingrained in them. Anyway, she was like “I just want to invite all of my friends over for a dinner after we swim all day at the beach. Can we do that?” And my heart exploded.
SW: Now, talking about cooking: obviously there are savory dishes, but then we also have the sweeter things. I know you’re working with Breyers. What makes Breyers your brand?
AL: Breyers has been a staple in my household since I was a kid. My dad used to say that Breyers vanilla ice cream cured all ailments. Stomachache? Have some vanilla ice cream. It actually became a running joke because it was so widely used, like “oh, here’s a little bit of vanilla ice cream with gingerale because you’re not feeling well.”
So it was a really natural kind of partnership. As a chef, creating recipes for them was an honor and so easy because it’s a quality brand, and as a chef and a mother, quality ingredients are really important to me. The brand now is only using cream and milk from cows that are not treated with any artificial growth hormones [along with] sustainably farmed vanilla beans.
A lot of the recipes that I created draw from my background as a chef and as a mother. My mom used to have these amazing ice cream parties when my dad worked late at night where we would stay up all night long. It was melon and Breyers ice cream in her bed, with multiple spoons and bowls. My dad said when he came home from work it would just look like a scene out of a movie with kids sprawled out and remnants of ice cream in his bed. It’s always a sweet memory when I hear him tell that story. So I created a recipe using peaches, toasted pound cake, and Breyers vanilla ice cream in honor of what my mom used to do.
I also do another one that’s kind of more representative of my restaurants. I am a lover of arancini, which is a traditional Italian savory item. I do a dessert version of that using vanilla and almond and amaretti cookies and hazelnuts. And then there’s a great one that I did with my daughter who’s half Jamaican. We spent a lot of time traveling through the Caribbean, so I did a kind of tribute to that with grilled pineapple used as an ice cream sandwich cookie dusted with toasted coconut. It’s a cool summer inspired tribute to her heritage. [To see all of her recipe creations, visit the Breyers website and enter “Antonia Lofaso” in the search bar.]
SW: So I have kids, and I wanted to ask you about “The Busy Mom’s Cookbook,” which I think is a genius publication. So what’s the scoop: which of those 100 recipes is your personal favorite?
AL: Hands down, lemon crepes is my favorite recipe out of the cookbook. It basically talks to my life as a chef and as a mother. I can look at it and say “it’s not just a pancake, it’s a crepe, so let’s talk about where crepes come from. You know, in other parts of the world, this is somebody’s pancake.” So that kind of education. [It’s also] a recipe that’s easy enough that my daughter could measure out the ingredients and it’s fast enough that she’s not bored by the whole process and wants to run to her room [laughs]. The entire book was designed for that because I do feel in this day and age, so much of our time spent with our children is this quantity, quantity, quantity, versus the quality of it, and through those little moments… we [can build] great conversations [about both food and history]. I want people to use the book as a tool to create those memories with their families through cooking.
SW: I think everyone who watches “Top Chef” and “Top Chef All Stars” knows who you are, likes your work, and appreciates you. Give me three words –only three– to sum up what that experience was like for you.
AL: Oh my goodness, just three?
SW: You have to think on your feet!
AL: Okay. [Long pause] Inspirational. Challenging.
SW: I can see that.
AL: [Laughs] I feel like challenging maybe should’ve been first. And life-changing.
SW: Good! That leads into the next thing I wanted to know. How did appearing on those shows change the way that you approach cooking or in a broader sense, life in general?
AL: People don’t see this from an outside perspective because [cooking shows and competitions] turn out to be awesome television, but there’s such a large learning experience that happens as a person, as a chef, as a mother, and there are no words for it, because in our real lives, do we always push ourselves to our highest potential? In our real lives, are we always taking these risks and chances and really putting ourselves out there to be criticized and be vulnerable? In those challenges, you’re exposed and you learn a lot about yourself as a competitor, as a person, as a friend, as a chef. It’s like a giant therapy session. After coming off of those kinds of competitions, you think to yourself “there isn’t anything that I can’t do” because you’ve already done the most outrageous things.
SW: “Top Chef” really brought you into our homes, but now you’re working on “Restaurant Startup” in a totally different kind of capacity. Have you enjoyed that role so far?
AL: I have absolutely enjoyed the role. It is a nice, needed break from the world of competition. Being able to come on as a mentor and as a consultant and really work with people [who are in] a position I’ve been in before: never been on television, throwing themselves out there, how do I do that? I have a wealth of knowledge through my experiences with reality television, competitions, opening restaurants in real life, and all I want to do is give them that information so they can feel that level of success. Sometimes people listen, sometimes people don’t.
SW: But you’re doing it: you’re sharing tremendously valuable information and they’re crazy not to take it.
AL: One-hundred percent. And even moreso, I’m sharing what I know about the restaurant business. We’re in one of the hardest businesses in the world. You have to love this business in order to be in it and to succeed in it. That’s the first thing I say when I start with people: If you love it and you can’t live without it, then you’re in the right place.
SW: You’re working with Tim [Love] and Joe [Bastianich] right now. What other celebrity chefs would you like to work with in the future in some capacity?
AL: That’s a really great question. Walking onto that set, I was blown away [by Tim and Joe]. I worked with Alton Brown on “Cutthroat Kitchen” on Food Network and he is the top of the food chain there. I think he’s so smart and so interesting and has this really dynamic way of looking at food from a chemistry standpoint. Joe and Tim are restaurant people to their cores so it’s like being with family…. I look at Joe’s career and what he’s done and the lineage he comes from. Lydia Bastianich is someone that I grew up [viewing as] a genius. So it’s been such an honor to be in that presence and to soak in all of their years of experience.
I would love to spend some time with Mario Batali. He has been so consistent and I feel like that is the biggest challenge in our work is this consistency over the years, and creating the same product in the same environment and the same experience for years. And he’s done that. I’d like to spend some time with him and find that formula and use it.
SW: Okay, last question. I’m going to go to fantasy land here for a second and pretend that you could actually squeeze out an hour of free time that’s just for you, which I know you can’t really do. But if you could, what would you do with that hour?
AL: You’re going to make me cry. I’m tearing up thinking about the possibilities. But I’ve been saying it all month: I live a half a mile from the beach in Venice, and I would love to just have a towel, a bottle of water, and some music, and I would like to lay on the beach and listen to the ocean for just an hour. If I could just do that before the summer is over, it would make me so happy.