Dana Cohen, a Season 10 finalist on Fox’s reality cooking series “Hell’s Kitchen,” will be visiting Chicago for the first time this weekend for the Chicago Food and Wine Festival.
As a graduate of the Culinary Institute of a America and an experienced cooking instructor, Cohen will be wielding her “Hell’s Kitchen” signature dish, pan-seared scallops, during a live cooking demonstration at the event Saturday at Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles. For more information on the festival, or to purchase tickets, visit bestoffoodandwine.com.
Kane County Chronicle features editor Kara Silva got a chance to talk with Cohen about food, catching up with former “Hell’s Kitchen” cast-mates and life after nearly winning one of reality television’s greatest cooking competitions.
Kara Silva: Are you looking forward to the festival?
Dana Cohen: Yeah, I’m really excited. The best thing is that [the event] is for a bunch of great causes, a few of which are near and dear to me as well. So, it’s nice to see that [the event] is for some really nice charities, so I’m happy to be part of that. And then anywhere there’s good food, I love to be.
It’s also fun to see how much people want to see [“Hell’s Kitchen” chefs] and learn from us. It’s exciting because I’m doing my demo, and I can finally prove to people that I can actually cook scallops. What people see on TV isn’t always the reality.
So, it’ll be fun to do that and interact with people. I have a lot of fans and followers on Facebook who are always asking me when can they see me and where am I cooking, so it’ll be nice to see a lot of my fans also.
KS: How do you feel about seeing your former “Hell’s Kitchen” cast-mates?
DC: Brian [Merel] I’m excited to see. Brian is hysterical. And I’m excited to see Patrick [Cassata]. And then Clemenza [Caserta] … I don’t know what Clemenza is doing. I haven’t actually heard from him since the show. Brian and Patrick I keep in touch with, so I’m excited to see them, and I’m sure we’ll all go out for dinner and get some drinks, and this time we won’t have a two-drink limit. We can actually have fun together.
KS: So, you’re searing scallops [at the event]. I know on the show, the footage aired made it seem like you had trouble in that area. Do you feel like you’ve mastered searing scallops?
DC: It’s funny because on Hell’s Kitchen, I was one of the few people who got yelled at for seared scallops, and it kind of became a joke. I do private dinner events and then I start to go over the menu with people and they’re always like, “but you’re going to make your scallops, right?’ And it’s funny because I wasn’t a big fan of the show before I was on it. So, when I picked my signature dish, I didn’t even know that scallops were like a huge Gordon Ramsay thing.
So, I picked seared scallops as my signature dish and then everyone was like, “Oh, my god, are you sure you want to do that? [Gordon Ramsay] is really particular about his scallops.”
I think [the show] started out well because he liked my signature dish, but that was summer time, so I’ll change it up a little bit and add some fall ingredients, and I don’t know what I’m going to do yet, but maybe something with butternut squash.
KS: How has life changed for you since “Hell’s Kitchen?”
DC: I get recognized on the streets and when I’m food shopping, and that kind of thing now. So, that’s a little different. I can’t go out with no makeup all the time anymore, but besides that I get to do events like [the Chicago Food and Wine Festival], which is awesome. Right now, I’m just doing private dinner parties. I’m also trying to do something with TV and television that’s not reality-based.
So, I have some exciting things coming up. I’m going to be teaching some online classes. They’re cooking classes and then I’m going to do some cooking and fitness ones together. So, the exposure is great to have, but it’s what you do with it. If you sit around and wait, nothing will come your way. But you kind of have to be proactive about it and keep your name out there, which I’m trying to do.
KS: What is Gordon Ramsay like off camera? Is he as intense?
DC: It’s funny, because if you take him off camera but you put him in the kitchen, he’ll act the same way as when you put him on camera, but when he’s not in the kitchen he’s an awesome guy. I mean, he is in the kitchen, too, but you just have to get used to it. Most people aren’t used to getting screamed in their face when there at work all the time, but for me, I didn’t take the yelling and screaming personally. If you don’t, there is a lot to learn from him. He’s actually, surprisingly, a very motivating and encouraging person. But the thing is, if you make a mistake, you’re going to get yelled at for it. Chances are you’re not going to make that same mistake again. But the thing is, if you turn out a perfect risotto right after you burn a steak, he’ll be the first one to tell you that you did a great job. He doesn’t hold grudges. And if you can get past the yelling, he’s an awesome guy.
KS: Had you won “Hell’s Kitchen,” because you got very close, do you think things would have turned out better for you, or do you think that this is the path you’re meant to be walking?
DC: Now that the show is over, I’m not going to say, “I’m glad I didn’t win,” but Christina [Wilson] and Justin [Antiorio, former “Hell’s Kitchen” cast-mates who battled it out in the finale for a shot to be Gordon Ramsay’s head chef at his Las Vegas restaurant] both wanted to have restaurants.
That’s not what I want to do. The learning experience definitely would have been great; there’s so much to learn from Gordon Ramsay and from his restaurants and the staff there. I kind of wanted to take a different path.
My thing is more teaching, cooking in smaller groups. I was a cooking school instructor for five years, and to be able to work with people, hands on, side-by-side with people who are just learning the craft is what I like to do best. I’m glad that I know have opportunities to do other things.
KS: When did you first know you wanted to be a chef?
DC: When I was a teenager, I used to get bored really easily. And I would try to take whatever was in the kitchen and make a meal out of it. I liked keeping busy and getting my hands into stuff. My mom always cooked for us every night, and for the big holidays I would always help my grandparents cook. My family always cooked, but it wasn’t like anyone was a chef who made me want to become a chef. They actually all convinced me not to. There was this one restaurant that my parents used to take me to every year for my birthday and the one thing I wanted to do was meet the chef. And then suddenly, I got to meet the chef. And then I told him that I wanted to be a chef one day, and he was like, “Don’t do it.” And I was devastated. He was like, “It’s just too much work – do something else.” But if you have a passion for it, you love what you do, I think that I’m lucky that I’m one of not very many people who actually love what they do for a living.