As one of the top contestants on Season 5 of Bravo’s Top Chef, Ariane Duarte is both a top chef and a top mom. Celebrity Parents Magazine recently sat down with Ariane at her restaurant CulinAriane in Montclair, New Jersey. Ariane spoke exclusively about Top Chef, her infamous lemon meringue martini and being a cougar in the kitchen!
Did you always like to cook?
Yes, ever since I was little. The joke was that my mom didn’t cook, so I did! I stayed with my grandma a lot who cooked. I was always under her feet. She had a garden that we used to pick fresh fruits and vegetables from. When I got to high school I knew that cooking was the only thing I wanted to do. I applied and was accepted into the Culinary Institute of America, and I’ve been cooking ever since.
Your husband Mike is also a chef.
Mike is a pastry chef. Coincidentally, he went to the Culinary Institute of America, too, but we weren’t there at the same time. Mike has the patience to be a pastry chef; I don’t! He will measure ingredients and make everything look pretty, whereas I don’t. He cringes when I make cookies. You’ll never have one the same! Some are flat, some are thick, but they taste good!
Where did you first cook?
I worked at different restaurants and then started catering. We did big parties, for HBO and Seagrams. Mike’s mother had a successful restaurant in Chicago, and I helped her to build up her catering business. I had my daughters, Rory and Jolie, and we moved back to New Jersey after that. I became a stay-at-home mom.
That must have been a big change for you.
It was hard. I loved being home with the girls but I definitely missed the cooking. I started working a couple of nights a week, and it was great to be back! I worked on television sets like The Sopranos and Third Watch, and then began catering on the weekends. At first, we were doing it out of our house. It took off so Mike and I decided to open our own restaurant.
And so CulinAriane was born. It’s such a cool name.
Thanks! We opened in 2006, and never realized what the response would be. It’s going amazingly well.
Now’s let talk about Top Chef!
Bravo sent out an email to many restaurants and chefs looking for people to apply for the 5th season. I filled out the questionnaire, and one day sat down to watch the show. I thought, “Oh, there’s no way I can go on this show!” and threw out the application!
Why did you do that?
I’m very nervous, and I don’t like the spotlight. I couldn’t picture myself being thrown into a challenge. I like to know what I’m doing, how much time I have. I’m 41, I have my comfort zone; I like my kitchen!
My girlfriend, who is also a chef, convinced me to fill out the application again. I went to the audition on Mother’s Day. We were all seated in a round-table. Everyone tells something about themselves and I said, “I graduated culinary school 20 years ago. I have two daughters.” They start to wish me a happy Mother’s Day!
I went out to Mother’s Day dinner that night and Bravo called me to come back the next day for an on-camera interview. I found out a few weeks later that I got accepted.
How did you feel?
Nervous! Two days before I had to go, I was crying. I never prepared myself for the show; instead I got my hair and nails done! I never thought, “Well, maybe I should try to learn something new to prepare for the show.”
How was the experience overall?
Now that it’s over, I know that I did well. I’m proud of myself and my family is proud of me. In the beginning, though, it was really rough.
You’re away from home. You can’t think about your family, or how your business is doing. It adds a whole new level of pressure. And on top of it, I was on the bottom two for two challenges! No one wants to be that first chef to go home. My friends and family said to me, “Don’t get off on the first show!” and there I was on the chopping block. When it happened on the second challenge, I thought, “You gotta be kidding me?!”
(laughing) But then you really turned it around after that.
I did. The third challenge was a group challenge and none of the other cheftestants wanted me on their team. I was the last one picked, like that kid no one wants! It was the Thanksgiving challenge and I said, “I will do the turkey!” but no one was listening to me. My team was the underdogs, but we worked great as a team. It’s funny because you keep hearing them say, “Cougs, turkey in the oven?” “Turkey in the oven?” I was the favorite in that challenge, I had the best turkey. It was the beginning of my comeback.
It was also the beginning of “Cougs”.
(laughing) I don’t think anyone knows my real name! Stefan did a lot of the nicknaming. We all got nicknames. Alex would always call me “Cougs”. I would work out in the morning, and I guess just being the older woman with children, they decided to call me The Cougar. Then it became Cougs. It was a compliment, and I thought it was funny.
And they gave you the “I’m a Cougar in the Kitchen” tee shirt on the reunion episode.
I think everyone should have one. It should be the Christmas gift for the season!
Let’s talk about some of your other highlights.
I won the Today Show challenge, which is ironic since I’m terrible at doing the demos. I had to do a 2 ½ minute on-air presentation. I made a tomato, watermelon, feta cheese salad with basil oil. Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb picked it as their favorite, which was so exciting! If I had gone home winning just that, I would have been just fine.
But then you went on to win the Martha Stewart challenge!
She loved my cauliflower puree, which was awesome. I’m from Jersey, and so is she. So from one Jersey girl to another! I also won with my lamb for Gail’s bridal shower. I was really on a roll.
It’s so cool that you went into the competition being afraid, and then you were able to conquer that fear.
Oh, definitely. Now I can talk to anyone, anytime!
I have to ask about the lemon meringue martini incident…
(laughs) I made a lemon meringue martini dessert, and Padma found it too sweet. She spit it into her napkin. It was pretty disturbing to watch, and when I came home, I told Mike, “We have to take it off the menu!” It’s a favorite here, though. We had so many people come to the restaurant after seeing Top Chef to try it and they loved it.
I had one while Alyssa was doing your makeup. It was freakin’ delicious!
Thanks! We decided to keep it on the menu.
What other dishes are popular at CulinAriane?
There are a few. Our signature oysters, scallops, and sashimi tuna flower are very popular. As for desserts, the bread pudding and, of course, the lemon meringue martini are in demand. Our menu is American and very seasonal. I change the menu at least 5 times a year. There are so many farms around here and I love using them.
How has life been post- Top Chef?
Life has been great. Coming home was great. Business is booming. The phone rings constantly. People have emailed me from all over the country; kids want to go to cooking school because I influenced them. That’s a reward in itself. And having people making reservations three weeks in advance is great. I’ve also been doing a lot of work with the Culinary Institute, competition judging and speaking at schools. I was also on The Tyra Banks Show!
Are Rory and Jolie showing any culinary tendencies?
They are. Rory made a grapefruit salad the other day, and texted me that she might want to be a chef. Jolie already cooks; she’ll make her own breakfasts. She is very hands-on in the kitchen. They already help out at least 2-3 days a week. We have a lot of regular customers and they like seeing the girls here. Rory helped me dip my strawberries in chocolate for Valentine’s Day, and Jolie will do the credit card machine. I think the restaurant business is in their blood. CulinAriane is definitely a family business. And it’s great that I can have my family with me and still do what I love.