In August 2015, Punta Gorda chef Jeanie Roland beat world-famous Bobby Flay with her signature moules-frites (that’s mussels and fries). Let’s say Flay got filleted by a petite, now 51-year-old chef in a fairly sleepy waterside Florida town not known for its gastronomic moxie. (I would never have bet against her.)
And now she’s in battle again, this time on Food Network’s Iron Chef Gauntlet, the second season debuting at 9 p.m. Wednesday.
I first met her and husband, James, more than a dozen years ago at their restaurant in charming Punta Gorda, halfway between Sarasota and Naples. With its rigorous sourcing and envelope-pushing presentations, it was impossible not to ask, "What is this restaurant doing here?" A 1992 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Roland was resolutely making just about everything in house before anyone in these parts was doing so. She went on to be a seven-time James Beard Foundation nominee for Best Chef: South and a nine-time Florida Trend Golden Spoon winner.
Their gourmet-shop-turned-165-seat restaurant opened in 2001; their second restaurant Ella’s Food and Drink in Westerly, R.I., launched in 2012, the Rolands shuttling between. I caught up with her in Florida to talk about her strategies for battling incomparable Iron Chefs Alex Guarnaschelli, Stephanie Izard and Michael Symon (not to mention her six fellow competitors). She wasn’t allowed to say precisely how she fared in the Kitchen Stadium in the six-episodes overseen by Alton Brown, nor whether she joined the Iron Chef pantheon, but I’m reading between the lines.
Why did you go on Beat Bobby Flay?
I’ve been cooking a long time and I’d never done anything like that, but the Beat Bobby Flay show is pretty legit, no stop-and-go, there’s a real timeframe. To prep, I went through the task: Thai curry mussels with French fries and three dipping sauces. I had never made an authentic curry before. Three years later I got the call go to on Gauntlet.
Why did you decide to become a contestant?
I knew the Iron Chef brand and thought it was something I could do. It’s a big production, with a couple hundred people on set. It’s one of biggest programs, and no one can apply — they come to you. I’m willing to take a risk and put myself out there, to think outside the box. They want you to make things that you don’t make in your restaurant. And I figured I could do that on the show.
What’s the format of the show?
It’s a seven-week production, each week one chef is eliminated. Each segment has a winner and a loser, and Alton Brown picks the timeframe and the nature of the challenge. Then you go in the next battle, which is an hour with three dishes, and you make three of each dish. The best chef wins. I timed myself and challenged myself with things that I don’t normally cook. I used a pressure cooker for the first time and ingredients like pork blood.
What was the biggest challenge?
The thing that gets in the way of doing your best is ultimately yourself and how you handle the pressure. It’s made for drama and excitement, so you have to be able to execute under those circumstances. There’s no time to be starstruck. You’re going up against some of the best chefs in the country and then getting judged by even better chefs. Win or lose, it’s a great thing.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.