Stephanie Goldfarb is making me dinner.
I’m at her house, sitting at her huge butcher-block table, watching her knife flash as she deftly chops up sweet potatoes into identical, perfect pieces. She scoots back into the kitchen, the ends of her red apron flapping behind her, fluffs the basmati and jasmine rice pilaf with a fork, and dips a small spoon into the curry simmering on the stove, nodding to herself over its spices.
I follow her from room to room like a puppy, drooling and making whimpering noises. “You’re going to love this,” she promises me. “Everything is gluten-free — I’m even gonna make you bread.”
Ten minutes later, Stephanie serves me: coconut curry with sweet potato arugula and garbanzo beans, basmati and jasmine rice pilaf with pigeon peas and fresh labna, hot homemade socca flatbread, and homemade spicy pickles with Fresno chilies and red onion.
I wolf it all down, so happy I’m nearly in tears. I have seconds. I clean my plate. Without asking, Stephanie serves me thirds, watching me eat with a fond expression. I love her.
It’s wonderful when someone cooks for you.
You know what’s better than that, though? When the person who’s cooking for you is literally, actually America’s Best Cook.
You guys, my close friend Stephanie Goldfarb JUST WON a Food Network reality show called America’s Best Cook, and OH MY GOD IT WAS SERIOUSLY INTENSE. Did you watch it? I watched it. (Every second of it, in a room full of gays, once a week on Sunday nights, biting my nails down to the quick and screaming obscenities at the TV.)
Why should you care? Because not only is Stephanie the COOLEST and an amazing cook you can learn a lot from, she is also hot and sooooo ghey (and a food writer for Autostraddle)! After I digested my meal (I looked like this), I lounged around Stephanie’s living room and talked to her about being on America’s Best Cook.
Me: So Stephanie, can you explain America’s Best Cook? What is this show?
Stephanie: (laughing) Well, it’s exactly what it sounds like — basically the opposite of a show that’s been running for a couple of seasons on the Food Network called Worst Cooks in America. This show was a competition to see who’s the best home cook in the country.
How did you decide to audition?
A coworker of mine who knows I love to cook forwarded a link to the audition webpage to me, and I saw it, and got kind of excited about it. So I asked my partner if I should do it, and they said YES, ABSOLUTELY, you don’t even have a choice, you HAVE to audition for it. Well, that freaked me out, and I was threatening not to audition for a long time. It’s nerve wracking, having someone judge your food! I take my food very seriously, and I didn’t want to be judged.
But then you went anyway. And they loved you.
Yes! After they tasted my dish (you had to bring a dish — I made a savory cornmeal tart with caramelized onions, curry butternut squash, and goat cheese, and whole slices of lemon on top) and talked to me, I saw them smiling and nodding, and at the end of it, they said they loved me, and I needed to go home and make an audition tape. So I made my audition tape, and I sent it in, and at that point, it was just waiting to hear back. I thought it was a long shot, but about every week, someone from the show would call me, so I knew there were people talking about me and I was still being considered. And then I got cast. And freaked out.
What did you do to prepare for the show?
I spent the weeks leading up to the show studying every cookbook I could get my hands on, especially cookbooks that dealt with cooking meat, because I knew I wasn’t going to get away with cooking vegetarian on the show. I crammed. Tons of meat books. You saw me.
Fuck, I’m just realizing I missed the greatest opportunity of my life — the chance to come over and eat steak at your house every day as you learned to cook meat.
You still have that opportunity.
Oooooh. What were the other contestants like?
There were 15 other contestants on the show from all over the country, and everyone was so immediately nice. And it was clear why some of them had been chosen for the show — big personalities. Big. There was a huge age range, too, from 23 years old to a contestant in her 70s.
When you say ‘big personalities’, do you mean… bitchy?
No! So nice! We all immediately started talking about food, and I was like, Oh my god, these are my people. Total nerd-fest. And I was a wreck, because they all seemed so knowledgeable, and because I have a total inferiority complex — I couldn’t believe I was even there until the very last second I was there.
Were you the only gay contestant?
(laughs) I was the only gay in the village. And the only Jew.
My little chefmo! Can you explain how the show actually worked?
There were four teams of four, and each team represented a different region of the country: North, South, East, and West. I’m from Chicago, so I represented the North. Each team got a celebrity chef-mentor, and those were Alex Guerneschelli, Cat Cora, Tyler Florence, Michael Symon. Michael Symon was the chef-mentor for my team, the North team, and I was a little nervous, because guess what he specializes in?
Umm… meat? *(Note to readers: Stephanie was a vegetarian for 12 years prior to going on the show)*
YES. For our first challenge, to stay on the show, we had to make him a meat-and-potatoes dish, so I was like “Fuck, I need to impress him.” I made latkes— hello, very comfortable with latkes — and, even though I had never cooked a steak, I had studied how to cook a steak so much in the past few weeks that I felt ok doing it. But studying something is very different than actually doing it. I burned the fuck out of my steak, called it “blackening spice,” and it ended up being awful-looking but super-juicy. And Michael Symon took a bite and liked it. He saw something in me.
He took a chance on an unknown kid.
Yes! I was like, “Listen, I can cook literally anything… EXCEPT meat. I’m a really good cook — please teach me. If you give me a chance, I will learn everything. ”
Were there any, um, hot people on the show? Besides you, darling?
Ok, so all the celebrity chef-mentors were beautiful, and I have a crush on one of them: Cat Cora, she’s gorgeous, and she’s gay in real life. There were definitely some smokin’ hot contestants — there was this woman named Hannah Gruber, and she has this amazing vintage style. You would fucking adore her, Krista — she’s the nicest person.
How long were you there?
We filmed for about two weeks.
Did you cry?
Not during the cooking competitions. But I’m very sensitive, and I take criticism very seriously, and I knew that would be one of my strengths on the show— I can take criticism well and learn from it. I do cry, though — I just made it my goal never to cry during a cooking competition.
But wait, I saw you cry once! You totally cried!
They were asking me all these really difficult questions! And I was really tired!
You almost never got in trouble on the show. In fact, it seemed like you were almost… a pet? Did you get the sense that you were a favorite of the judges?
Well, I was definitely put in my place after a pretty intense shakeup with Michael Symon where he yelled at me for ignoring his instructions. I’ve always had a bit of an authority problem, but I have watched enough Food Network to know that you never ever question a judge’s comments, and that it’s always a good idea to agree with them. It wasn’t hard for me to do that though. I was there to have fun and to learn, and I soaked up all the criticism I could. I knew it would only make me a stronger competitor and a better cook.
What was it like when you realized you were in the final four? And then the finale?
Krista, it didn’t occur to me that I would be competing for the cash and the title until it was down to one other competitor and me. Every single week, all I wanted to do was learn, and survive to cook again in that incredible arena. But then it was down to just two of us and I was like “Holy shit… shit just got REAL.” For the first time in the entire competition, I had game face.
How did the final round go? What did you make?
So we were allowed to make anything we wanted for our final dish, and there was no question in my mind about what I was going to choose. I knew I had to make meat, and I knew it had to be perfect. I spent the entire competition learning how to cook meat from one of the greatest chefs in the country, and the final round was the perfect chance to show exactly how much I learned. Michael Symon is Greek, and I really wanted my dish to be an homage to him so I chose baby lamb chops as my protein. But I paired it with tabbouleh and pomegranate sauce because those flavors represent who I am as a cook. It was a mentor/mentee fusion dish, if you will.
What were you thinking as they were announcing who America’s Best Cook was? Did you think, “I’m gonna win this?” or were you thinking, “This is it, I lost” ?
If I’m being totally honest, I was waiting to hear Bobby Flay say my name. I felt so damned good about my final dish, even though it wasn’t cooked perfectly. But once he actually said “Congratulations, Stephanie,” all the confidence went out the window and I just lost it. I’ve never been a particularly confident person. I got picked on a lot as a kid and always struggled to be comfortable in my skin. And Bobby-freaking-Flay announced to the entire country and a room full of Iron Chefs that I did something better than anyone else. It just didn’t seem real. It didn’t seem possible.
What did you win?
50 Gs, fool! Well, and a lifetime of braggin’ rights and forcing my loved ones to refer to me only as “ABC” (America’s Best Cook).
You and your chef-mentor Michael Symon seemed… close. YOU GUYS HUGGED A LOT IS WHAT I’M SAYING. Were you friends off-camera? Are you best friends with Michael Symon now? …Do you guys text each other things like “Luv u” with the knife and food emojis?
Ha! I’m so glad that the camera picked up the connection we had. But yeah, we totally hugged a lot! It was just so emotional for everyone involved, and he was just as wrapped up in it all as I was. When something good or bad happened, I looked at him first. I know it’s sort of corny to say, but I really saw him as a mentor. I probably always will. And we made each other laugh a lot on set.
What’s it like, being filmed all the time?
Let me tell you — each person gets their own camera crew, and IT’S HORRIFYING at first. You’ve got these, like, predator-cranes, always a team of them, on you all the time. And I know it sounds weird, but honestly, I forgot they were there within the first 30 seconds. You just do it—when you’re in a timed competition, you can’t pay attention to them. I actually liked being on camera. I felt an enormous amount of confidence while I was actually cooking. Once I got my hands on a knife and the ingredients, I was fine — I knew what I was doing.
Oooh so in charge! Hot. So what would you make me for breakfast if we had just slept together for the first time, but you already knew you loved me and wanted to impress me and feed me into becoming your wife? Hypothetically.
Well, Krista. Considering that we’ve already slept together and we know we’re in love (note to readers: our love is platonic, alas), and I know you’re gluten-free, I would make you savory cheesy gluten free waffles topped with fresh fruit, something colorful…
And then we would be married!
Are you ready for thousands of queers who are obsessed with food to fall in love with you because of this show?
I was born ready.
Will you be sleeping with your fans? ASKING FOR A FRIEND.
I am a happily taken woman.
Mmkay. Crap. Ok, well, what’s the one kitchen utensil (besides a good knife) that you couldn’t do without?
Hmmm… a bench scraper. Definitely.
A bench scraper. It’s this thin metal scraper with a handle. I use it to scrape dough when I’m making bread. If you’re working with pastry, you can’t work without one. And I make a lot of pastry.
If someone wanted to approach you and talk about the show, would that be okay?
I would love that.
So if someone saw you and actually freaked out all over you, that would be fine?
Absolutely. (laughs) You know I thrive off of constant affirmation.
If someone was in Chicago, and wanted to taste a meal cooked by you, what could they do?
I do a monthly supper club at my apartment—just steps from my bedroom, incidentally—and it’s always a seven-course meal, and all of the proceeds go to support the Chicago Women’s Health Center. You can find me at my website, sevenspecies.org, and from there, you can sign up for my monthly newsletters, and get tickets for my supper clubs.
Y’al l —Stephanie 100% deserved to win America’s Best Cook. I have never screamed so hard in my life as I did the moment she won – I still can’t believe it! Fall in love with her, BBs. Fall in love with her so hard that you make the trek to Chicago to eat her food in person — I kid you not, it’s worth the trip. THE BEST COOK IN AMERICA OMG!!!