Mix "Top Chef" and "Amazing Race," throw in some world-renowned kitchen masters as hosts and guest advisors, and you've got the recipe for Bravo's latest reality competition, "Around the World in 80 Plates," premiering May 9. From "Top Chef" and "Project Runway" creators Jane Lipsitz and Dan Cutforth, and hosted by Curtis Stone ("Top Chef Masters") and Cat Cora ("Iron Chef America"), the series sends 12 chef contestants to 10 countries in 40 days to compete for cash and prizes, starting in London, where Nigella Lawson is the guest advisor. Divided into two teams, competitors race to source local ingredients and then take over a restaurant, to be judged on food and service by the diners.
"A lot of it was sourcing from the Earth," notes Lipsitz, recalling several vegetarian dishes. Cora does, as well. "The way they eat in a lot of these countries is going to the market and getting local produce, fruits, spices or meat straight from the butcher." Dishes sampled ranged from the acquired taste of English steak-and-kidney pie with blood sausage to the sublime white truffle salad that Cora and Stone agree is the best thing they ate.
"Of course the chefs have to have incredible cooking skills, but things like being worldly or speaking different languages, having street smarts and thinking on your feet really well are an advantage," notes Stone. "It's like no other show I've seen or hosted before. It doesn't get much tougher than cooking local cuisine in a restaurant you've never seen before. Sometimes we would think it was a great dish but it would miss the mark for the locals. It's a real insight into regionality and how the locals think."
For Stone, who'll host a new edition of "Top Chef Masters" later this year, sustainable cuisine is very important. "We've always had a veggie garden," he says. He just returned from a trip to his native Australia — his baby son Hudson's first flight — where he works with the Coles supermarket chain as a spokesman and advisor. "We've partnered with the World Wildlife Fund to do an assessment of the seafood that they sell, of all the fisheries, and we have three different grades: low risk, medium risk and endangered, which are off the [sales] list. We encourage people to pick the low-risk seafood with higher sustainability."
While being away from home, her partner, and their four boys for six weeks was a little tough on Cora, she had a blast traveling for the show, especially to Morocco. "I love Mediterranean cuisine," she says. She's now home overseeing a culinary empire that encompasses a cookware line, a line of olive oils, vinegars and sauces with Gaea, and several restaurants, including Kouzzina at Disneyworld, CCQ in Costa Mesa, California and Cat Cora's Kitchen at the Houston and San Francisco airports, with new outposts in Salt Lake City and Atlanta coming soon. She's working on a new book (not a cookbook) but won't reveal the details just yet.
At home, Cora cooks every chance she gets and keeps her kitchen green. "We're big on recycling and composting. We have a small garden. We have some tomatoes going, peppers, eggplant and lots of herbs."
Photo: Justin Stephens/Bravo