5/31/2013 03:09:00 PM

Russell Jackson Talks Food Network Star and Reality TV

Image via Food Network
By Tamara Palmer
After battling over rhubarb on a recent episode of the Food Network show Iron Chef America, Russell Jackson is now vying for a shot to develop his own TV series called The Next List, which is about the cutting edge of the food world, by competing on Food Network Star, which premieres on June 2.

The chef now divides his time between San Francisco and New York, but has ramped up the West Coast edition of his SubCulture Dining concept and hints at something large to come to the Big Apple. We grabbed a cup of coffee with Jackson near the Food Network headquarters in Manhattan to hear about his adventures in - and surprising affection for - reality television.

Zagat: Food Network Star, even more so than Iron Chef, tests more than your cooking abilities and delves into your personality and how you relate to people. What have you learned about yourself from doing these shows?

Russell Jackson: Iron Chef America is like going to the UFC and having the big fight. There are things you learn about how to operate as a chef within that environment. It's very different and it's extremely intense. You learn a different way to work there. As a chef, you're normally thinking a couple of steps ahead but this is like a jazz shorthand that you create with two people on your team. It's a unique experience. On  Food Network Star, you're alone. I was very fortunate that I had that level of experience from Iron Chef about how to prepare myself to efficiently do what I needed to do. It was helpful in putting the challenges in perspective.

And as much television as I've already done and as many interviews as I've already given, it's a completely different world. There's a very different way to talk about food than if you are just a chef talking about your food and fumbling through talking about the techniques and the technical aspects - that's all dry for television. Learning how to just even describe a simple thing like a cup of coffee, describing what the flavors are like and enticing people to just want to jump in the screen and taste it, feel it - it's just a different way. It's a skill you have to learn, because it's not inherent to what chefs do. I've had to retrain myself, and it's a skill that I constantly practice now. Even if you read my Instagram now [laughs], I describe my food differently.

Zagat: What do you think about reality TV in general? Are you somebody that watches it?

Oh my God, now here's the downside of the interview - admitting to my really bad habits! Yeah, I'm like a full-blown reality TV junkie. I mean, I hate to admit it. But think about it, as a chef, we beat ourselves into submission and work these ridiculous hours and sometimes you just have to have some silly, mindless fun that you can enjoy. There're genres of reality TV that I can't deal with, then there are ones that have jumped the shark that I've had to detach from.

Zagat: What are the ones you can't deal with at all?

RJ: Unfortunately, I've lost interest in a lot of Bravo's shows and I've had to detach from them. I will watch Real Housewives, but only Orange County. Because there's a history there, it's old-school.

Zagat: The O.G.s!

RJ: But there are other things, like, I've become a superfan of a lot of the Food Network stuff. I don't think I ever really watched an episode of Chopped until I finished with filming [Iron Chef], and now I'm a Chopped superfan. What's bad for me is that I suck everyone in around me, they all get sucked into watching.

I like the parodies of stuff, like Burning Love. And I'm a Bachelor fan; better yet, I'm a Bachelor Pad fan. Bachelor Pad is still, hands down, the best and finest of trainwreck TV.

Zagat: So with all that watching, you are probably pretty savvy to the commonalities among these shows and how they're structured and sometimes even set up to breed drama. Did that prepare you to be combative on Food Network Star?

RJ: From my own experience, it wasn't what I perceived it was going to be. Certain aspects were so contained and exposed to certain elements that allowed us to compete in certain ways that you're really in the moment and doing your best. You're living it. I know for myself that from the start, everything drops away and you are 100% in it. And it's an experience.

Having now spoken to other FNS alumni from other seasons and even talking to [Top Chef Just Desserts winner] Yigit Pura [I've learned] that each one of us had really unique experiences from season to season. You can't explain it to people or your loved one what you've gone through, but cast mates get it. It's a very unique club. Acclimating back to the real world after "TV time" is a major adjustment. I think it's changed everybody's relationships, it's changed everybody's lives and we all genuinely like each other.


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