Lunch with Lydia

Mixing it up


Chef Ralph Pagano has a new TV series and a new restaurant venture on his plate

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.’’

Pagano got his culinary start as a kid, working every lowly position at a small Italian joint in Staten Island.

“The chef wolves kidnapped me when I was 13. I worked in this place that was owned by two young brothers. They had inherited it when their father passed away. It was kind of a wise-guy neighborhood. I really got into the fraternity of these cooks, waiters, bartenders. There was something romantic about it all. I started out as a busboy and salad guy and left as a waiter and cook.’’

Pagano tried college for a spell — he was thinking about going to law school so he could work as a sports agent. But the kitchen kept calling. So he switched gears and enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

“I never planned to be a chef on TV. That was unheard of when I was at CIA. There wasn’t a Food Network when I graduated. The advent of the celebrity chef started soon after that,’’ he says.

“My idea of being a successful chef was getting a story in your local paper or something like that, not going on the Today show. I just knew I was in for a lot of hard work. Anybody who tells you being a chef is not hard work is lying to you. Don’t lend money to that guy.

“I was told once that being a chef was like being a prostitute. You work when everybody else is having fun — weekends, nights, holidays, your birthday, my birthday. It takes a certain passion and a certain character.’’

Do the contestants from the Fort Lauderdale cooking school have what it takes to stay in the game?

“They’re still in school. And succeeding is about more than just making a good béarnaise sauce,’’ says Pagano, whose new restaurant focuses on fresh seafood and showcases the space’s broad ocean view.

“But they’re all going to learn something from this show. And they’ll all have opportunities. I have friends all over the place. You want to work in Hawaii? I know somebody there. I can make a call. You want cook in Belize or Costa Rica? You want to go to France? I know some people.’’

So how tough is it to receive scrutiny from Pagano while the cameras are rolling and the clock is ticking?

“What I learned from him is to expect the unexpected,” says first-round contestant Cameron Bevan ” He threw a lot of wrenches our way. But that’s what happens when you’re in the kitchen every night. The stove goes out or something. You have to learn how to improvise because something always goes wrong during rush.’’

“Ralph was tough, but he was very encouraging,” says Krystal Battle, also in the first round, who hopes to work as a pastry chef when she graduates. “I think the biggest thing I learned from being on the show is that being a chef is always going to be hard work. But I love it. I’m ready.’’

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