The premiere of Around the World in 80 Plates, a fast-paced reality show hosted by Cat Cora and Chris Stone that debuts tonight on Bravo at 8 p.m., pits two teams of six chefs against one another in a highly competitive sprint across continents that will end with one chef strutting away with $150,000 in prize money.
Jenna Johansen, the former chef of Dish in Edwards who now resides in Denver with Mark DeNittis, the sausage sultan behind Il Mondo Vecchio (the two are engaged), is one of the dozen chefs making a run for the money, and tonight's episode unfolds in the confines of several London pubs, where the chefs are required to pound pints and yards, drink Pimm's cocktails and stuff their guts with steak and kidney pie and black pudding hash. The teams are then required to cook a pub meal for a crowd of Londoners, who determine which team loses the challenge.
I recently chatted with Johansen, who will be at the Icehouse Tavern, 1801 Wynkoop Street, tonight to watch the debut, about her around-the-world adventure, the relationships she had with her fellow chefs and the one thing that everyone begged her not to do.
Most chefs who go on reality shows have a restaurant to pimp, but at the moment, you're a free spirit, so why'd you decide to go on the show? And now that you're back from your whirlwind trip, what's in the pipeline?
The show was kind of the impetus for me to step away from Dish. The opportunity came up in August, and I left Dish in September, so it was perfect timing to make a smooth transition. Bravo approached me to see if I'd be interested in being on the show, and when I found out it was an international travel and cooking show, I was instantly interested. I applied -- but they asked me to apply. They checked my credentials beforehand, and they knew that I loved to travel, that I'd lived abroad and had my own own kitchen, so they thought I might be a good fit. Everything I've done in my career has led up to this.
And now that it's over, I'm just taking a little sabbatical. I miss being in the kitchen, but I have guest appearances coming up, events with the Denver FIVE, pop-up dinners at Studio F Thursday, Friday and Saturday of this week, and a lot of great philanthropic opportunities. I'm giving myself a decent amount of time to decide what I'm doing next, but I know the right thing will come along.
The first episode takes place in London, a city that until recently has had a less than stellar food reputation. Any good meals?
Ah...the food scene in London. Londoners are very proud of their food -- and the food there has gotten a lot better, even though we had to eat black-pudding hash made with blood, which was definitely an acquired taste. I'd never tried it before, but I loved it. We went to a lot of local favorites that were off the beaten path, and you definitely want to have some fish and chips. I'm happy to eat those all day long.
You traveled some 60,000 miles during the show. How did you get from country to country?
I took a plane from Denver to London, but if you think of every method of transportation out there, the show includes a lot of those. Every different country offers so many different opportunities: Some places have boats, some places have trains, some have planes, others have taxis.
What new foreign-language slang words and profanities did you pick up along the way?
I'm really fortunate that I speak Italian, Spanish and a little French, and I had the opportunity to speak a lot of foreign words. Speaking Spanish in the kitchen has always afforded me the luxury of knowing a lot of curse words. I used chingadera a lot -- it translates to "fucking thing." I was always asking, "Would you please hand me the chingadera over there, because I didn't know what the thing actually was. It's a great word for everyone, and I used it a lot; it makes things not quite so serious.
You have to cook in restaurants on the show. How did it mimic cooking in real life?
It mimics real life insomuch that they're real, functioning restaurants and not perfect Top Chef kitchens. Sometimes the equipment works, sometimes it doesn't, and we really had to think on our feet. It was very true to life in that we were doing what every small restaurateur and chef does. Plus, the markets that were at our disposal weren't Whole Foods; they were markets that we weren't familiar with, so it was important to have your shit figured out, because guests won't be happy if you don't -- and they were the ones voting. And, like most kitchens, cooking in London was really stressful. If you haven't been to the country, it's hard to know how to make people happy with your food -- even harder if you're in a country that speaks a language that you don't.
What was the chef dynamic? Was everyone a chef with your level of experience, or where you competing against chefs with different backgrounds?
There were definitely different backgrounds. I'd just come off five years of owning my restaurant, and there were two caterers and a guy who cooks for the Red Sox, so there were many different walks of life and levels of experience -- and cooking with people without a lot of experience can be frustrating. For example, on the first episode, I rally wanted to make a dessert -- I have an arsenal of dessert recipes -- but a lot of chefs didn't want to make their own desserts. Maybe it was their lack of confidence, but making my own desserts comes naturally, and I understand what it takes to make a successful meal. I'm not sure everyone else on my team did. Let's just say that I'm really grateful for the years I have under my belt.
What was the teamwork dynamic like?
On the very first day in London, we kind of organically formed our teams. It was, literally, ready, set, go, and we didn't know anything about the game. We saw the hosts, they told us the rules, how much we were going to win and what the challenge was, and we all started running -- and that pretty much describes my whole time there; we just ran our asses off. I work well in a team, but it's an unusual dynamic insomuch as you work together as a team for two days, cook together, and at the end of the day, if your team is the losing team, you all have to decide who you're going to vote off. There's plenty of strategy involved, and you have to stand up for yourself at the end of the day. And it's a bit like Survivor, where it behooves you to form alliances. The teams change in every country -- and in every country, the challenges are different. As you get to know everyone better, there are more natural teammates. Others are not a good fit. At all. Period.
Was there any major drama?
When there's $150,000 at stake and chef egos, there's always going to be drama, and when people are voted off at the end, it gets really personal. People know that I'm emotional, but I think I held it together pretty well. I didn't cry on camera -- that's the one thing people told me not to do.
Now that you've been on a chef reality show, would you recommend the experience to chefs who are just getting their feet wet?
No, absolutely not. You've got to have a lot of confidence, a huge arsenal of recipes and the right techniques, and someone without a lot of experience would be shooting themselves in the foot. Had I not known what I was doing, I would have been in a lot of trouble.
What are the primary differences between Around the World in 80 Plates and Top Chef?
This show takes place all over the world -- and when it comes to going home, it's about self-elimination; the best chef doesn't necessarily win. There's a lot of strategy involved, and other skill sets are really important, like knowing how to navigate streets and directions and understanding other languages. There are lot of different things that contribute to your success beyond cooking. The food is different, too; you can make dishes that you've made before, but you're shopping in markets that you've never seen, and you're asking for completely different ingredients and required to understand the complexity of international flavors.
What was the highlight of your journey?
Being able to travel the word on someone else's dime was an experience of a lifetime, and the game itself was so interesting, because it's such an unusual thing to have people plan all of these unfamiliar challenges that you have to work your way through -- or around -- to complete. I've never had the opportunity to live a game, and you never know what kind of game you'll be playing that day -- I loved that. And I got to speak other languages, make the best food of my life and work with a team, which I'm good at doing. Still, as soon as the challenges were over, I'd lay in bed and think about all the things I could have done better -- the things I could have done differently.
Being away from home was really difficult. I had just moved in with Mark two days before I left for London, so that was tough, and communication was really difficult.
There's a video clip of you floating around, where you say you don't deserve the boot. We'll clearly have to wait and see what happens after London, but the chef who said that to you -- what's your relationship like with her now?
That's Avery Pursell. She's a great strategist, very competitive and a great chef. But at that point, I wasn't ready to go home, and I was ready to fight tooth and nail. But you want to play the game right, because at the end of every challenge, you might have to be on the same team as the person who wanted to vote you off. Once I got to London, the prize money wasn't as big of an incentive to me as just getting to the next country. And once I got to London, I knew that I didn't want to go home.
Did you form any lasting friendships?
There are definitely some people that I'll be friends with forever and people that I'm looking forward to cooking with again. And there are others who I really hope I never have to cook with again.
Why do you think you should win?
I have a lot of culinary cred, I speak a lot of foreign languages, and I worked really hard to have this opportunity. I'm thankful and grateful...and I can cook my way out of my kitchen.
I know you can't tell me if you won, but...
I'll say this: I'm proud that I was chosen, and I'm absolutely proud of how well I did. You never know how you're going to do until you're in the thick of it.
This Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, Johansen will be the guest chef at three pop-up dinners at Studio F, 1801 Wynkoop St., all of which start at 5:30 p.m. with a cocktail reception; the dinners begin at 6 p.m. Tickets are $100 per person, and reservations can be made by calling 303-226-9460 or visiting studioflodo.com.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.