Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: Domenica Catelli of Catelli's

Yesterday on part one of our chat with Domenica Catelli, we discussed how she left Houston to reopen her family restaurant in Geyserville, California. Today, we discuss her work as a Food Network personality, a cookbook author, and a late-adopting Twitterer.

EOW: What was it like being a judge on Iron Chef America with Keyshawn Johnson and Maggie Rodriguez?

DC: That was my second time as a judge and it was so much more fun; the first time I was on with Ted Allen and Jeffrey Steingarten and I was really nervous. They do it all the time and they're so strong, and Jeffrey called me a Pollyanna because he thought I was being too nice. It was still a lot of fun, but when I went back the second time, I felt more comfortable, and Maggie and Keyshawn and I had great rapport. I didn't know who Keyshawn was, but I could tell that he probably played sports. I teased him a lot and told him that he had the palate of a five-year-old boy. I think the clip ended up on ESPN.

People always ask me if the chefs know the secret ingredient. No, they don't. Also, the chefs cook in real time -- they really get all of that done in 55 minutes. Even if you knew the secret ingredient, to prepare that type of food in that amount of time is phenomenal. The judging, however, takes way longer than you see on tv; we eat for well over two hours and talk about each dish, but they edit that down to a really small clip.

EOW: Your cookbook is called Mom-a-licious: Fresh, Fast, Family Food for the Hot Mama in You! How do you decide to write a cookbook specifically geared toward health-conscious mothers?

DC: I'd always wanted to write a cookbook, and with my daughter in school I was around lots of other moms who were always asking me questions and wanting to know, what's the recipe for this and that. So I said, okay, I need to write a book. My business partner in Mom-a-licious is my cousin, who isn't a foodie; she's a PhD and a busy mom. I had her recipe test everything, because I needed to know that people who aren't foodies, people who have busy lives, can do this and that it works for them and their families. The feedback's been fantastic. I love hearing that people can feel comfortable with healthy food and vegetables and have it taste great. Stuff -- like kale -- that they may not have ever fed their family, but now they love and their kids are eating too. And that was my hope and goal.

EOW: When I first heard about your book, I thought it was something like Jessica Seinfeld's Deceptively Delicious.

DC: It's the antithesis of that. And that was brutal for me, because our books came out at the same time. I was doing a pantry makeover for one of the executive producers at Oprah, and you know, the dream is that you're going to get on the show. So she saw my book and she said, oh, one of our first things of this season is going to be Jessica Seinfeld and her book. I was like, you have got to be kidding. The Sneaky Chef was also at the same time and that is what I abhor. Anything built on deception and lies is a house of cards that's going to fall apart. You're giving your kid a teaspoon of spinach and a brownie and then you're like "Eat that brownie! Eat that brownie!" And then they walk out the door and go eat brownies somewhere else. Ugh. It's so frustrating. I was on a book tour and people would come up to me and say, "Oh, I saw you on Oprah" or "You're that writer." I said, no, this is a totally different book. You're going to give your kids brussels sprouts, you're going to call them brussels sprouts, and your kids are going to love them. You're not going to have to lie. Take accountability.

Sore subject, sorry.

EOW: How does your cookbook's philosophy manifest itself in what you do at Catelli's?

DC: It's in the way certain things are cooked. For instance, on our kids' menu, we have the nutritious nuggets from my cookbook, and our dipping sauce is usually made with kefir. Another things is that every dish on the kids' menu comes with vegetables, and you cannot substitute fries. You can buy fries for your kids, but you can't say, oh, I don't like vegetables, give me fries instead. I think that kids need to have a fresh vegetable with their food.

EOW: Potato's a vegetable!

DC: (laughs) Yeah. Exactly. That's why there are so many fat kids.

EOW: So you're a celebrity chef--

DC: (laughs) Uh huh. D list or G list.

EOW: Is that something you set out to do? Do you think that someone could set out to do it?

DC: Here's the deal. There are people who are equally if not more talented, but the reason I get to do the things I do is because I'm pushy and I'm a person who likes to meet people and do things, and my goal for a long time has been to teach and educate on a bigger level. Part of it has been opportunity and part has been me pushing through, knocking on doors and pursuing jobs. Take Iron Chef. I wanted to be on that show, and it did not happen. It eventually came by me pursuing and pursuing and pursuing them, and finally one day I got this email that said, "Welcome to I.C.A.." Maybe they just wanted to shut me up, but I didn't care.

There was definitely an intention. Someone didn't come find me and say, oh, you should do this. I had met with Food Network a billion years ago, right before Giada De Laurentiis was on, but I didn't know they had already filmed her and so I had a couple meetings and even though my angle wasn't about being Italian they said, "We already have an Italian chef."

EOW: "We have one of you already."

DC: Pretty much. I've interviewed with them a few times for different things, but I don't have a big personality like a lot of the people who are successful on that network, who are naturally that way. That's why Paula Deen and Guy and Rachael and all those people do so well, because that's authentically who they are, and it resonates on camera, and their audience is drawn into that. I'm a little bit more dry; if I pretended to be like them it would never work.

EOW: Do you find that being a celebrity chef is a double-edged sword, in that it opens doors but at the same time some people don't take you as seriously?

DC: Absolutely. It's the yin and the yang. Because of the exposure, some people will check us out or buy my book. And other people, for the same reason, will say, oh, she doesn't know what she's doing, or it's just a gimmick, or whatever.

EOW: On your Twitter account, you wrote that you hoped to outdo your record of two Tweets from last year. You're still at two. Do I sense a little reluctance to engage with social media, or are you just too busy?

DC: Well, I blog for WebMD twice a week, and I have my own website that I don't write for as often as I should, and then I'm so busy here at the restaurant. I have a Twitter account, but the name bugs me and the concept bugs me. I have a Facebook page that I don't update regularly and we have a Catelli's page that my brother does. I know I need to be better about it. Guy just the other day was saying, "Just every day Tweet what the special is." So I was like, okay. I have an iPhone and I have it set up. I don't know what it is. I gotta get over it, I know. I'm just bad.

EOW: So it's a little of both, then.

DC: It's also that I associate it so much with a generation of people who write every stupid thing in the world. "Oh, I'm getting my favorite toothpaste right now." It's just an overload of nothingness, and I don't see how you differentiate the useful from the useless because it's always streaming. When I signed up for Twitter I followed Ashton Kutcher and if I ever go on there, all day long he's writing stuff but so much is so random. It's like, really? How would anyone ever find the good stuff? If I do four Tweets a year I'll beat my record.

Tune in tomorrow when we try some of the dishes at Catelli's.

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Matthew Dresden
Contact: Matthew Dresden