Celebrity chef Donatella Arpaia is perhaps best known to Food Network fans as a judge on the high-stakes cooking competitions “Iron Chef America” and “The Next Iron Chef,” but she’s also a mom in search of ways to get her young son Alessandro to eat healthy meals. Examiner caught up with the busy restaurateur on Aug. 13 for an exclusive chat about how she sneaks vegetables into meals, her short-lived career as an attorney, and the toughest part of being an “Iron Chef” judge.
Sherry Wight: The start of another school year is coming. What can parents like myself do to cook healthy meals when we’re short on time?
Donatella Arpaia: Even though I’m a chef, I’m also a busy working mother so even I struggle with getting meals on the table in a fast time. That’s why I’m so excited to be partnering with Libby’s because they came up with something genius, which is the individually portioned, microwaveable veggie cup. Corn, peas and carrots, string beans. This is a great product, and [it] makes your busy life easier because you can sneak vegetables into a lot of recipes.
SW: So give me some ideas. What are you making?
DA: Sure. I start with breakfast, because most parents think they can’t sneak vegetables into breakfast, but you can. I [make] an incredible pea and pepper egg scramble on toasted ciabatta [and] it’s delicious with a little ham. My son [Alessandro] loves eggs, so I thought ‘let me get vegetables into breakfast,’ and he loves it. He wouldn’t eat peas at dinner time but now he’s eating [them] at breakfast time.
Kids usually love meat sauces, so instead of your typical sloppy joe, I [make] a healthier version, a turkey Bolognese [with peas and carrots]. Kids love it and it’s great for dinner. You can add it to a whole grain pasta, and the great part about it is a day or two later, you can [use it to make] a slider. I also make a Mexican chicken corn salad, which I love for me for lunch, [using] grilled chicken, a Libby’s serving of corn which I’ve drained, black beans, a little bit of bacon because I think bacon always makes things better, some cherry tomatoes…, and a really simple vinaigrette.
The key is have you prepped? Is there a lot of work involved? When you have something like the veggie cups lying around… all the sudden [preparing meals] becomes a very easy task. I also like getting my son involved… because it encourages him to eat the final product. [Note: For a look at all of Arpaia’s recipes, check out the Libby’s website.]
SW: So your son, he’s about four years old right now, right?
DA: Yes, yes. Mr. Chocolate.
SW: I have four kids and my youngest one is four.
DA: You have four kids?
SW: I do, yeah.
DA: Wow! Good for you.
SW: Thank you. How do you think your son’s birth has influenced the way you think about food?
DA: He’s influenced me so much. First of all, I do appreciate being a working mother and finding time-saving solutions because I used to feel a little bit snobbish about these things. But now that I’m a mother, it’s all about getting your child to eat vegetables and getting dinner on the table, so I’m much more empathetic toward the working mother. But I take my experience as a chef and I have fun with it.
SW: Good! I think that’s a huge part of being a chef, don’t you?
DA: It really is. But I also understand that when my son methodically picks the peas out of the mac and cheese how frustrating that is and how you have to keep at it and make sure that you don’t get discouraged and let your child win the war against vegetables [because they may] end up eating chicken nuggets and mac and cheese every day and they’re going to grow up eating that. You really want to instill a love of fruit and vegetables early on.
SW: Absolutely. Okay, let’s switch gears. We love the Food Network at our house, so of course we’ve seen you on TV. What’s the biggest challenge for you of being an “Iron Chef” judge?
DA: All the eating [laughs]! It’s just such an honor to have been exposed to so many talented chefs. I think the difficult part is, honestly, there’s a tremendous amount of eating going on and your palate gets fatigued…. I always say it’s the most real of reality TV because the chefs take it very seriously, I as a judge take it very seriously, they work so hard and they’re cooking at such a high level that sometimes it’s really hard to determine the winner.
SW: How do you hope that America views you as a judge?
DA: I hope that they view me as fair but truthful. I’m not looking to be the good judge or the bad judge. I work with chefs for a living every day and I really respect what they do and how hard they work. At the “Iron Chef” level, you’re dealing with really talented people [who] own their own restaurants, many, even several. So I just hope that I’m considered fair and I really just judge what’s in front of me. Everyone has a bad day sometimes, but I am a judge. That’s my job that day.
SW: I think of you as fair. From my vantage point, you always seem pretty objective.
DA: Thank you! I try to be.
SW: Of course I think of you as a chef and a restaurateur, but you also have a J.D., which I didn’t know until I read your bio a few days ago. What made you pull the plug on that career?
DA: I grew up in a restaurant family surrounded by the restaurant business and food, spending my summers in Italy. My father, being a first generation immigrant, wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor, so I thought I wanted to be a lawyer or a doctor and I became an attorney. About two to three weeks [into my law career], as an adult, I was like ‘hmm. I don’t want to be an attorney. I did this because my dad wanted it, and now I want to get into the restaurant business’ because it was my first love. But maybe that allows me to be a good objective judge on “Iron Chef.”
SW: It probably didn’t hurt. All of the work that goes into getting that J.D..
DA: Yes. It trains you to be organized and to prepare. And that’s the key to back to school: having lots of fruits and vegetables around so kids don’t go for the bad stuff.
SW: Okay. I have one last question, and it’s kind of random. I feel like I might know what the answer is already, but I’m going to ask anyway. If you had an hour all to yourself and you could do anything, anywhere, what would you do?
DA: I would get a massage. I would get like a whole body scrub massage. I would get pampered. I think moms need to pamper themselves a little more. I think we’re always trying to do everything for everybody else but if you don’t take care of yourself, then you become impatient with your child and… your husband so you’ve got to take care of yourself so you can take care of everyone else.
SW: I love that. That’s the perfect answer and I’m going to use it for myself now. Usually people say ‘I want to go to sleep.’ But I like the massage better.
DA: You can always sleep in the massage anyway. But then I feel like I’m getting cheated out of the massage [laughs].