People who have watched chef Kevin Naderi in cooking competitions know that he can get a little mouthy during the heat of battle. He’s a seasoned competitor, though (he won the Iron Fork competition at the annual Houston Press Menu of Menus Extravaganza four years in a row, for example), and can back up that smack-talk with talent and skill. Watch the video below starting at 3:15 to hear Naderi discuss his four Iron Fork wins.
His appearance on Food Network’s Beat Bobby Flay proved no different, securing another Houston win during what’s already been a very good year in national television appearances for local chefs.
When it came to his win, though, Naderi had to keep quiet for the nine months between the competition and when the episode aired on July 28. He described that part as “frustrating.”
In order to actually compete against the Food Network celebrity chef, participants first have to beat a different chef in the first round. Naderi battled Mark Vecchitto of Blue Shallot Gourmet in Niantic, Connecticut, who Naderi says had his whole family with him. The secret ingredient for the first round was cannellini beans, a type of small, white bean especially identified with Tuscan cuisine. Naderi said, “It was literally a secret ingredient. There was no kind of head start or pre-knowledge of what was going on."
Naderi made a play on shrimp and grits with the beans. He cooked the beans in a buttery, Worcestershire-spiked meunière sauce with shrimp stock before topping them with head-on, pan-seared shrimp, bacon and parsley. Judges Geoffrey Zakarian and Donny Deutsch deemed Naderi’s dish superior to Vecchitto’s take on pork and beans. Naderi thinks his competitor lost the emphasis on the secret ingredient. “I think it got a little diluted because he added an arugula salad, sliced tomatoes and all of this crazy shit,” he said. “You’ve got to focus on the main ingredient, and I think he added too much and had too much going on.”
After he won the first round, it was time for Naderi to face Flay. There are similar threads in their backgrounds. In a previous interview, Naderi described himself as a “bad kid” whose parents sent him to military school after he got kicked out of regular school. Flay dropped out of high school at age 17. Both found their true callings in the restaurant industry and had their own establishments at fairly young ages. Naderi opened Roost in Houston just before he turned 24, and Flay became a partner in Mesa Grill in New York City at age 25. (It closed in 2013 after 22 years. Flay told The New York Times it was because “the rent was set to triple or even quadruple.”)
“[Flay] called me out on the show because I thought he’d opened his restaurant at 21 and he said it was 25. I said, ‘Oh, I beat you by a year.’ He says, ‘Okay, smartass, I’ll check in on you in ten years and see where you’re at.’”
Naderi owns only one restaurant, Roost, and has a whole lot of work ahead of him if he’s going to catch up with Flay, who owns six restaurants in addition to 19 locations of his casual concept, Bobby’s Burger Palace.
The competition dish for round two was cabbage rolls. Interestingly, Naderi said Flay had never made them before. “He does Southwest [cuisine] like crazy, but I guess when it comes to other things, he’s off-kilter,” said Naderi. Flay made a fairly traditional take on his cabbage rolls, filling them with ground beef and saffron rice. Naderi’s version featured ground lamb and pistachios. He also cooked the cabbage rolls sous vide for tenderness, then placed them on heirloom tomatoes and feta cheese before topping the dish with a vinaigrette that included fresh tomatoes, herbs and capers.
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The dish secured the win for Naderi, with Maneet Chauhan, Franklin Becker and Dorothy Cann Hamilton judging this time around. “I think mine was more modern and a little more fresh and clean,” he explained, and he also said the show producers complimented him on the composition of the dish and his organized method of working.
Despite the smack-talking during the heat of competition, now that it's over, Naderi has nothing but complimentary things to say about Flay. “He comes in and he really works,” he said. “There’s no bullshit like another chef steps in and finishes his dish. The dude films two episodes a day during the season, so he’s there from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. He goes home, showers and then goes to work at Gato or one of his other restaurants until almost midnight, then does it all again the next day. I really respect this 51-year-old guy just kicking ass and fully immersed in everything he does.”
Naderi’s only prize for beating Bobby Flay is “bragging rights,” although the show did cover his transportation to New York, shuttled him around in a Mercedes van and paid for his stay in a nice hotel.
This may not be Naderi’s last televised competition. There are other shows he’d like to appear on, especially Knife Fight on the Esquire network. For now, his professional focus is firmly on his work in Houston, not only at Roost but at possibly a forthcoming bar as well if he finds the right kind of spot for it.