Master Chef’s ‘Outcast’ Dishes Kitchen and Reality TV Celebrity Secrets
I recently sat down with Sharone Hakman, a contestant on Fox’s Master Chef, at the Urth Cafe on Melrose. At the time of our interview Sharone was still in the hunt for the top prize of $250,000 and the privilege of having his own cookbook published. He had successfully made it through several elimination rounds on the show and was one of six contestants left. Unfortunately, he was eliminated this past week (Sharone knew he was eliminated but by contract was not able to share this). I enjoyed my conversation and time with Sharone and it was quite obvious to me that he definitely has a real love and passion for creating art in the kitchen. You can follow Sharone on his Facebook page and get updates on what he is up to.
IW – Can you tell us a little bit about the process of applying for the show and making your way to the final selection?
SH – Kind of funny for me specifically. I have a friend who is in production and she just told me about it. I had never heard about Master Chef before. I had heard about Top Chef and couple of other big Food Network shows and I looked it up and I saw it was just this huge hit in Australia, UK and I think 20 other countries. So I said, Ok , I will give it a shot. They had auditions at The Grove, right down the street from where I live and I thought I might as well go check it out. You had to bring a signature dish and I did and they gave me a card and said come back to our production office next week and I did and I just made it through the process. People tried out from all over the country – Boston – New York. You can consider it somewhat like American Idol but it just brings a food vibe.
IW – Was it a matter of a couple of days?
SH – Oh no. It took awhile. It took a month. There were thousands of people and then they cut and cut and cut.
IW – Were there any of the final contestants that you kind of went, “huh”, how did they get here?
SH – That is a great question. I didn’t get the opportunity to see anyone cooking so I was not able to gauge anyone. I can’t judge a book by its cover. We did have that first episode where we all cooked our signature dish (Fusion Lobster Roll with Roasted Corn Chutney and Cilantro Chimichurri) and we would go up in threes. We were all doing our own thing and maybe off shopping for our food so I did not really get a chance to see everyone cooking their dish. I only saw a handful of people cooking at first and some of those people I did go “huh” but some of those people I was definitely impressed with.
IW – Who do you think has been your biggest competitor so far? I know at this point you are down to six.
SH – I have gotten that question so many times and my answer is my biggest competition is myself. What pushes me away from the competition and above the competition and may get me in trouble at times is that I am not afraid to push the envelope. I will step outside of my comfort zone. I am not there to gauge the way I cook compared to other individuals out there. I am not looking at what this person is making and saying “I can do better than that.” I am looking at what my heart and my mind are telling me to do and just letting that creativity come out. I try to find ways to push myself. I am in an incredible professional kitchen with incredible food. I am like a kid in a candy store. So yes, my biggest competition is myself.
IW – How did you feel about Slim saying “that as a person, I don’t really like the dude” and Jake saying “you liked to kiss ass?” Were you shocked?
SH –That was really the vibe of it all. If you look at how the show plays out. I was not shocked. It was very interesting. The show is tough on one level. You have two aspects of it that makes it very difficult to kind of get a strategy and game plan going. Why? One side is the team challenges. You have to get together with the team and build some unity. On the other hand you have individual challenges. So you have to be independent and forget about everyone else and fight to do your best. I will say that when they said those things I was not surprised.
IW – Did you see that for the first time when you watched the show?
SH – Yes, everything you see, I see for the first time also. Anyway, yes Slim , you know when you are 22 years old…you have to venture outside your comfort zone. If all you want to do is cook Asian food, you don’t deserve to really be on the show. The show is about growing as a chef and taking an ingredient you are not comfortable with and making something incredible. So I was not surprised to hear that from her because I felt a lot of jealous vibes from a lot of people there.
IW – Could it be because you are good?
SH – It really is and that is the bottom line. I never said a word to anyone about it and I never judged anyone. You want to cook a deviled egg? Fine. Do I think it will cut on a show like this? Probably not. That is your prerogative. People don’t like me because I am ambitious and have confidence and I want to push myself and I get excited about it. That is their loss. I just don’t think about it.
IW – Confidence! Yes. I am thinking of the cupcake contest. You had never baked before and you won this contest. How did you know how much flour, eggs and other ingredients you needed without any baking background?
SH – It is so funny. When I finally got the ok that I was going to be on the show, I came right to my wife and my mother-in-law who is an amazing baker. I told them I needed help because I have a big feeling that I am going to get stuck with some sort of a baking challenge or some sort of a situation that has to do with a dessert and that is not my gig. That is not my forte – that is not my power. I am a meat guy. I am a protein guy. I am a sauté guy. Anything. Just don’t make me bake. The reason I don’t like it is because it is so measurement specific. There is not room for exploration. There is not taste, taste, taste and build something. It is a cup of this and a ¼ cup of that.
IW – Yes, I am not a great cook but I bake and if you don’t put in the right ingredients it just doesn’t work. So I was shocked when you won.
SH – That’s right. So with the cupcake challenge, I did a lot of my homework on basic things and I had a basic recipe on how to make a cupcake. I used that recipe. I took with me basic recipes and I knew them in my head. That was my base and I knew I could build from that. Then they lift up this big black sheet and what is under it looks like a Willy Wonka factory.
So with the dessert challenge, I said to myself, “I hate doing this but I have no choice.” I knew I had to go with something I absolutely love. I love Italy. I proposed to my wife there. We got engaged there. We spent time there. She studied abroad there. My two favorite gelatos are nutella and pistachio. Anytime I am there I get two scoops of that and those flavors are just amazing together and on their own. How can I go wrong if I incorporate those flavors into this cupcake? And that is what I did. I put nutella inside of the cupcake and I swirled it with some cream cheese frosting on top.
IW – Winning the cupcake contest gave you the privilege of competing against Chef Cat Cora. Do you have any regrets on changing the ingredients during that cook-off?
SH – Yes. That’s funny, because I got a lot of mixed feedback. Why would I do that? Well the ingredients I chose to use (shallots and green onions) were very subtle and I was hoping for a lighter, more vibrant and sweeter note. But they picked hers.
IW – The judges really did not know which plate was yours and which one was Cat Cora’s ahead of time?
SH – No, they didn’t.
IW – So that brings me to the question of how real is this reality TV show? Do the producers encourage certain behavior/reactions for drama?
SH – There is nothing staged there. It is so natural. That is why it is amazing television and an amazing experience for us. Really, it was, “Here is a box. Open it. Here it what you got and you got an hour.” I did not see it before the show and I have no idea what is in it. It is as real as it gets. A food reality show is truly as real as it can get.
They set up the scenario. They set up the stage for everything. They have the game plan of what they do. Then they unveil it and let whatever happens, happen.
SH – I have always loved food. I come from a Jewish background. My grandmother, God bless her – she is 86, cooked a lot of food and she still does Friday night dinner with the family. That is what keeps her going.
IW – She must be excited that you are on this show?
SH – Yes, she really is. She gets really nervous for me. Food has always been a big part of our life. When you think about family and food they always typically go together. When you are with family, you are typically eating and when you are eating, you are typically with family. So food was a big part of my life. Did I ever think that this was something that I could be typically passionate about? No. I just kind of picked things up. When I was off at college and on my own at 18, I had to figure out how to cook for myself. I didn’t have much money and I had to just learn to throw things together and not to be afraid of cooking. Just taste, taste, taste.
IW – Who cooks in your family now? You?
SH – You know the answer to that question. My wife gets a 5 star meal every single day. What is funny is that it typically costs me more to eat at home than to eat out because of the ingredients and the stuff I buy and how crazy I go. But it is fun. I would come home from work all stressed out and that was my outlet.
IW – What was working with Gordon Ramsey really like?
SH – Gordon Ramsey is a one of a kind guy. If you have seen any of his other shows, he is this bad ass guy. For example, on Hell’s Kitchen, he rips you up. He rips you up like a coach that can’t stand you if you messed up. He’s like a drill sergeant in that show.
IW – He was pretty tough on you in the segment where you were preparing food for a wedding.
SH – Yes, he went at me. He has that on Master Chef but he takes more of a mentorship role. He gives you info and advice and acknowledgment when you do well.
IW – How did you handle the criticism from the judges? Did you ever lose it with a judge?
SH – They get in your head a little bit. A judge will come in and ask you why you are doing something a certain way and they cause you to second guess yourself. You want to listen to them because obviously they are the professional and have the experience. But I never lost it. No.
IW – I get the impression on every show that they really like what you do.
SH – I am always in the top because I am always pushing it. I go outside the box and try to do different things.
IW – You are very confident.
SH – Which people on the show call cockiness!
IW- I remember the contest where you had to guess what was in the Texas Style Chili and the contestant that guessed the fewest ingredients would be eliminated. You needed to guess just one more ingredient and there were so many obvious ones left even to an amateur cook like myself (beef, oil, tomatoes to name a few.) You guessed cumin! Now that is confidence.
SH – It is a very specific taste. I was confident in it. I am not cocky. I am confident. I believe some of the other contestants that expressed that…. were just insecure themselves. We are in certain situations and they are freaking out and they see me not freaking out and they get a little jealous. But that is not for me to worry about.
IW – I loved the cook off contest the involved the truckers. You apparently make a “kick ass” barbecue sauce. Any chance of you sharing that with our readers?
SH – I am working on bottling that actually. I just have very specific natural ingredients that I want in that product. I really don’t want to sacrifice anything, it is perfect the way it is. I don’t want any preservatives in it.
IW – Do you have a recipe for it or is it a secret?
SH – Absolutely, it is a secret. I can give you the foundation. It is actually up on the MasterChef website. But I have a few secret ingredients that I add to it.
IW – When was this show filmed?
SH – We wrapped the end of April. We filmed here in LA. The studio is amazing. I wish I could walk you through the pantry and the equipment room.
IW – Participating in the show appears like it could be very stressful.
SH – For me, I love stress. I went into a stressful business right out of high school, finance. It has been especially stressful these last couple of years. There is not a whole lot of happy people out there. Really the hardest part for me was being away from my family. We were sequestered for a month and a half.
I would love to give a big shout out to the woman in my life. My wife, Monica. She is the heart and soul of me. We just had a baby on the 2nd of January. I left my firm on the 4th of January. For her to look at me and say, “Go, follow your dream. Do what you love. We will be fine.” Knowing that I will be gone as long as I need to be gone. Granted, I was here in LA but it is almost tougher being here because I am a couple miles away from my wife but I can’t see her or the baby and it drives you crazy. That was the stress for me. Always being concerned about my wife and my son. I did get a couple of care packages with pictures so I could see how my son had grown.
There was some stress with the scheduling of the show also. We would have some 16 hour days. 4 am call times. Camp Pendleton was an exhausting episode.
IW – Speaking of the Camp Pendleton episode, twice you were not selected by the “blue team” captain and ended up on the “red underdog team.” However your team has won 2 out of the 3 challenges. How did that make you feel?
SH – I never got picked. They asked that on the show yesterday. “Why aren’t you picking Sharone? He is always in the top and kicking butt.” They wanted me to go home. They wanted to strategically align other strong contestants on their team and put me in a position where I am on a pressure test and then send me home. And guess what? Not going to happen.
IW – You had so much energy in each episode. You were a strong take charge leader which it seems to me would be a quality you would have to posses to be a Master Chef. Where does that come from in your life?
SH – I think I just pulled from my life experiences. Part of it comes from a young kid growing up without my mom around. Leadership? I don’t know. Some people have it and some people don’t and I just feel like I thrive in those types of situations. I look forward to those types of situations. I have never been afraid of it.
When we had our baby the doctor asked me if I wanted to pull my kid out and I said yes. A lot of guys would not want to be in that situation. It was the most incredible experience of my life. I went sky diving a few years ago and I thought that was an adrenalin rush but being able to deliver your own child…that takes the cake.
IW – What is his name?
SH – Luca. It means “light” in Italian.
IW – Do you stay in touch with any of the cast members?
SH – A few. Most of them don’t like me. I am sure you can see why. I was kind of like the outcast. I think a lot of them were really intimidated by me. Maybe I was at a different level them some of them. I don’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing. I never really compared myself to any of the others when cooking.
I am passionate about cooking. I have always been jealous of certain people who are great artists or musicians. I can’t draw for crap. I can’t play the guitar for crap. But I can cook. I can cook really well. I feel like I can create something beautiful on a plate that not only tastes good but looks great.
IW -Are you going to go to any type of culinary school now?
SH – No. I decided not to. Not because of the price but just because of what I want to do and where I want to be. I will quote Graham Elliot, who is a four star chef and one of the judges. He owns a four star restaurant in Chicago. He rocks. He was a great mentor and I got to learn a lot of things from him. He told me that his biggest waste of time was going to culinary school. I really got a great crash course in all of the culinary stuff in Master Chef class. On days we were not shooting, we would go to Gordon Ramsey’s restaurant and other restaurants and spend all of this time learning amazing things. A crash course and it didn’t cost me a penny. I actually got paid for it.
IW – Kourtney Kardashian had nice things to say about you on Twitter. How was she introduced to your talent?
SH – No comment. I can’t really say. You know…..she liked my food. She was a fan and that was cool.
IW – I read where you were starting a website. What is that going to be about?
SH – I am going to start posting different recipes. Simple, good, fresh Mediterranean recipes that even you can cook! ( I shared with Sharone that I am not much of a cook.) I just want to share some of my ideas.
IW – How are you handling being recognized in public?
SH – It is pretty cool. It has been pretty positive. I was making burgers for a bunch of my friends and I went to Cantors, which is a deli on Fairfax. I went to get my Kaiser rolls for the burgers.
IW – Did you put bacon grease on those buns?
SH – No, no (laughing). I actually did not do bacon grease because I have a bunch of Jewish friends that are giving me a hard time about that. It is being talked about publicly about how I cook with bacon. Now my synagogue is not really happy with me. Anyway, when I was at the deli I was recognized by a mom and her daughter. The 11 year old girl was all giddy and happy and said how much she loved my cupcake. That was very flattering.
IW – Do you have any tips for our readers that would make them less “imperfect” in the kitchen?
SH – First of all, don’t be afraid to try. You might surprise yourself. Secondly, taste,taste,taste. Don’t be afraid to taste as you cook. Salt and pepper are your best friend. Season and taste.
IW – What is your biggest imperfection when in the kitchen?
SH – Over doing. I tend to make too much food. If I do a dinner party for 10 people I will cook for 20. If it is for 20, I will cook for 40. It helped in the Marine challenge because we needed the extra meat.
IW – What are your plans after the show?
SH – Pursue what I love. Working hard and trying to meet the right people at the right time and further my career as a chef.
The season finale of Master Chef can be seen this Wednesday night, September 15th on Fox.