Chef Celina Tio Represents Kansas City on ‘The Next Iron Chef’

The tough and talented owner of Julian competes against some of the best chefs in America on the Food Network program starting this Sunday

Some months ago at 6:30 on a Friday evening, Chef Celina Tio of Brookside eatery Julian, received a very important phone call. As this was nearly the height of the dinner rush, she was slightly taken aback. “They were obviously working in a different time zone,” she said, referring to the California-based casting company on the other end of the line. Much to her surprise they asked Tio if she would be interested in auditioning for the next season of the popular Food Network program, The Next Iron Chef. ”It kind of came out of the blue,” said Tio, “I was wondering if it was a joke.”

Celina Tio

Chef Celina Tio

She accepted the offer and wound up interviewing with two people over the telephone before she was invited to Los Angeles to perform on-camera. This interview involved a series of questions, partially to ascertain how Tio came across onscreen but also to evaluate her personality. “They asked me if I had a tattoo,” she said, “I’m not really sure what that had to do with anything. I guess that’s the new hot thing I guess if you’re chef you have to have a tattoo.”

Soon after the interview she was informed that they liked her and wanted her for the show. “That kind of worried me because I wondered what personality they cast me as…am I the bitch? I don’t know.” Recently the Food Network magazine came out with a spread of the contestants, listing Tio’s “competitive edge” as her “likability,” which probably means she comes across pretty positively on the show.

They did all the filming in one stretch but she won’t say how long it took so no one can draw any conclusions about her success on the show. The better you perform, the longer you stay after all.

Taping took place primarily in the West which meant that Tio was far away from her family for a time. “That’s certainly part of the mental game, for sure,” she said. “If you are pining for home I think you are not going to do as well.” For that reason she elected not to call home on battle days to keep herself sharp and determined. “Not that I didn’t miss my family but you just have to focus. It’s a short amount of time in the grand scheme of things and potentially what it could lead to is far going to outweigh that small amount of time.”

In the vein of other reality competition programs, The Next Iron Chef asks its contestants to perform under extreme pressure. The nature of the challenges, the ingredients available and the time of execution are typically a mystery. Fans of the show know that the ability to think on one’s feet is just as important as technique or training. “Being an iron chef is being adaptable, being innovative, having all these different qualities so cooking is just kind of a background.” Because of the wacky challenges and high-pressure atmosphere, being on the show allowed her to try out some new techniques. “You need to be able to take risks,” said Tio.

Celina Tio attended college at Drexel University in Philadelphia where she majored in Hotel and restaurant management. “I always wanted to be a chef but at the time it wasn’t really acceptable to go to culinary school right after graduating high school, at least not widely popular.” After school she went to the Ritz Carlton where she worked her way up from breakfast cook to chef of one of the dining rooms in less than two years.

Before coming to Kansas City, chef Tio worked at Walt Disney World for five years, opening three of their eleven specialty restaurants which were among the country’s best-regarded including one aboard a transatlantic cruise ship. This took her to Italy for a two month stretch. “It sounds far more romantic than it actually was,” she said, “I was living in a ferry boat in a shipyard.”

She was was not looking to relocate from Disney but still tried to keep abreast of culinary scenes around the country. An Internet job posting for the American Restaurant led her to Kansas City where she served as executive chef. While there she won Best-Chef Midwest from the James Beard Foundation in 2007. “That family was great to work with and it was the venue that I thought it would be.” Missing the friendly personal interaction with guests that is nearly her trademark these days, Tio left The American to open Julian in 2009.

More than her experience however, Tio feels that her personality is what gave her an edge on the show. For example, she wanted to familiarize herself with television production enough to make her comfortable on the show. “Out of probably sixty people on the production crew, I probably knew forty of their names and said hello to them every day. My first battle I introduced myself to the camera guy and then it was really easy for me to deal with the cameras which hinder some people I think.” Tio even felt comfortable giving camera and sound operators mild instructions so that they didn’t interfere with her performance.

Still, the atmosphere during taping was high-pressure and tense. “I’ll be curious to see if the camera shows me as anxiety-ridden as I was,” she said. As for the notoriously harsh judging, it did not bother her to be evaluated. “I didn’t take anything personally because it’s their job to do that, she said, adding “the level of cooking was so high, it really does come down to ‘this was not salted or this was too spicy sweet or whatever.’”

Tio had met nearly half of the other contestants including Ming Tsai, generally considered the favorite (if there is such a thing in reality television). While competing with other luminaries in the business she did pick up a few ideas and techniques, but mostly stayed focused on her own performance. “Most of the things you learn,” she said, “you learn about yourself in that environment.”

Beginning with the premiere this Sunday at 8 p.m., Julian is hosting a series of watch parties for all eight weeks of this season of The Next Iron Chef. For each episode in which Tio appears, guests can order a meal comprised of the dishes she created on the show for $35. The word has spread and most of the spots are accounted for, but interested folks should still call the restaurant.

Julian is located at 6227 Brookside Plaza, Kansas City, Mo

originally published on KCFreePress.com, 2010

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