Miami chef Ralph Pagano is no stranger to taking the heat. He was a contestant on the first season of Hell’s Kitchen and battled Bobby Flay on Iron Chef before landing his own show, Pressure Cook, on the Travel Channel.
Now he’s the one breathing down the necks of impressionable cooking hopefuls.
Pagano, formerly the chef at South Beach’s STK and Gulfstream’s 10 Palms, hosts All Mixed Up, premiering at 7:30 a.m. Friday on Lifetime.
The half-hour show, by the producers of Designing Spaces, pits students from the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale against one another, with Pagano dreaming up the challenges.
“They’re all young, they’re all gung-ho,” Pagano says. “They’re also very attached to their tools. And yeah, you need the proper tool for the proper job. But you give me a 10-inch knife and I can take care of everything with just that. So one of the challenges is that I find out what tool they’re most attached to and I take it away from them. Because in the kitchen you have to learn to think on your feet.’’
Each round puts three newbies through the wringer, challenging them to create three-course meals incorporating supermarket products such as chocolate chips and refrigerated puddings. The winner of each round comes back to do battle in a final test. The show will tape mostly at the culinary school, though Pagano is already scheming to, well, mix things up.
“I have friends with boats. I think I might get some of the contestants out on the water. You cook what you catch. And if you don’t catch anything, you don’t cook,” Pagano says during a recent party to preview the first episode of All Mixed Up and introduce folks to his new Italian restaurant, Alba, at Solè on the Ocean in Sunny Isles Beach.
“One of the biggest challenges is that it takes time sometimes to coax flavor out of something,” he says. “These students get a 30-minute cook time. How do you make zucchini sing in 30 minutes? You can go with the easiest of preparations: olive oil and salt and put it on the grill. You can get some caramelization, some of the sweetness. But it takes time to take a dish beyond that.
“It also takes time to develop a palate. Cooking school teaches technique, how to make the mother sauces, that kind of thing. But it can take a lifetime to develop the right palate.”
Pagano, long on bad-boy charm, was born in Brooklyn and carries the accent like a badge. He’s working on a book, he says. It’s filled with recipes, but also with personal yarns.
“Food always plays a part in all of my stories,” Pagano says. “So there was a time when I was bringing money back from Switzerland for a friend. Some of the names have been changed to protect the innocent. I was supposed to meet a guy named Jean Pierre, but the whole time I called him Robespierre.
“After I met with him I was in this small Michelin-star restaurant in Milan and on the menu they have something they call Robespierre. It was a grass-fed, dry-aged porterhouse steak from Nebraska. I’m a guy who made his bones working in steak houses. I had to order it. And it was a great steak. Though with a name like that, I would have gotten a kick out of it even if it was a piece of shoe leather.’’