As a youngster growing up in Cazenovia, southeast of Syracuse, Anne Burrell enjoyed her mother’s delicious, adventurous cooking.
But it wasn’t until she began working at Jimmy Mac’s on Elmwood Avenue in the late 1980s that she fell in love with the restaurant business, a path that has led her to stardom on the Food Network.
Although she earned her bachelor’s degree in English and communications from Canisius College, Burrell didn’t go into college with a profession in mind, she says in a phone interview. “When you’re 17 and from Cazenovia, you’re supposed to go to college, it’s not really why or for what. So I kind of figured it out while I was in Buffalo, and I got my first restaurant job at Jimmy Mac’s. I waitressed there for three years starting when I was 19, and I loved it! It’s where the restaurant bug bit me.”
Burrell went on to graduate from the Culinary Institute of America, then moved to Italy and completed studies at the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners. She worked in several respected restaurants before appearing as Mario Batali’s sous chef on Food Network’s “Iron Chef America.” She starred in the series “Secrets of a Restaurant Chef” and wrote a 2011 best-selling cookbook, “Cook Like a Rock Star.” The fourth season of “Worst Cooks in America,” in which she and Bobby Flay mentor clueless home cooks in a culinary boot camp, premieres Feb. 17 on the Food Network.
The second season of “Chef Wanted With Anne Burrell,” is broadcast at 10 p.m. Thursdays on the Food Network.
The plain-speaking Burrell, immediately recognizable from her spiked, platinum, cotton-candy hair and the skirts she always wears in the kitchen, says she grew up eating fresh, creative dishes prepared by her mother.
“My mom was a great cook, and also a very creative cook,” she says. “We always had a garden, a big garden. I adore my mother, and I am probably a chef because of my mother. She was adventurous.”
In each episode of Burrell’s show, which is almost finished filming its 13-week season, she visits a different restaurant where the owner is seeking a new executive chef.
“We present the owners of the restaurants with a slew of resumés, and the owner picks out their top four choices,” she says. Those four candidates are given a cooking challenge “designed to weed a couple of people out right away,” she says. Each chef may be asked to prepare a dish featuring, for example, chilies, Iron Chef-style.
The final two competitors, says Burrell, “get to go on to the toughest part of the job interview, the dinner service.” In the course of a single day, each chef applicant “has to run the restaurant, run a menu, work with the kitchen staff, feed the customers. It’s really, really intense and really difficult, and we know that.”
During this high-pressure, real-life tryout, “I’m running around the kitchen, running around the dining room,” says Burrell. “The owner is in the kitchen, making sure the food is up to their standards, talking to the customers, making sure everything is how they want to be.”
Burrell, who has been a judge, a coach and a competitor on reality cooking shows, says “Chef Wanted” is “absolutely 100 percent real. It is truly a job interview, and quite honestly, it’s not my choice who gets hired, it’s up to the owner of the restaurant. They are the ones who are actually doing the hiring and potentially have to live with this person they have chosen to hire. I facilitate this stuff, I kind of drive the boat, but ultimately my decision and my opinion do not weigh in.”
Burrell says that the coveted post of executive chef – the person who runs the kitchen, plans menus and trains and oversees the kitchen staff – is one with significant challenges.
“They’re extremely high-pressure situations, emotional, and physically hot and demanding,” she says. “They are incredibly intense situations.”
Depending on the layout of the restaurant, the diner may know little of what goes on in the kitchen. “The diner only knows what comes out on their plate, whether it took a long time or a little time, whether it’s sloppy and doesn’t look nice or it’s great, all of that plays from what happens in the restaurant kitchen,” says Burrell.
And, just like on television, because timing is critical and people are passionate, she says, “sometimes there’s some yelling involved. Not every chef is a yeller, but I have to say that even a chef who is not a yeller might have a time when that rule might get broken.”
The pressure is on because a few off nights can make or break a restaurant. “The margins for restaurants to make money are very, very narrow,” she says. “It’s a tough business, and to be a chef is a little bit masochistic. [People work] nights and weekends, it doesn’t pay a lot, it’s not glamorous. Wherever the idea of a chef being a glamorous job came from, that cracks me up. It’s anything but. But if it’s what’s in your blood and what you’re meant to do, you can’t do anything else.”
Burrell does her work, whether in a kitchen or on TV, with style. Unlike many other female chefs, she always wears skirts in the kitchen. She says she fell into the habit in Italy. “All the ladies who work in the kitchen, and there are a lot of them, all wear dresses and skirts. I thought if they can do it, why can’t I? To me, it’s more comfortable than wearing pants, and it’s also a way for me to maintain my femininity in a very difficult, masculine world.”
Her other trademark is her exuberant, halo-like hair. “It’s amazing how much attention my hair gets,” she says when she is asked about it. “To me, it’s just my hair, but people seem to really be kind of fascinated by it.” Unlike working chefs, she doesn’t cover it with a toque, bandanna, hat or net. “Most of the time, I am not in restaurant kitchens, but even when I am it’s hard for me to wear a hat.” She’s not worried about flying hair, though: “Believe me, there’s a lot of product in there!” she says.
“Chef Wanted” has been filmed all over, from Hawaii to Puerto Rico, but so far hasn’t visited any restaurants in New York outside of New York City.
“I still have friends in Buffalo that I talk to on the phone every once in a while, and I always say I am going to come back to visit, so maybe we can do a ‘Chef Wanted’ there. I would love that,” Burrell says. “Quite honestly, I’ll go anywhere to help someone find a chef.”