Westerly chef Jeanie Roland beats Bobby Flay at his own game
Chef Jeanie Roland is no stranger to hard work and long hours. She and her husband James opened the critically acclaimed Perfect Caper restaurant in Punta Gorda, Florida, in 2004, and in 2012, to be closer to family, they opened a second restaurant in Westerly — Ellas’s Fine Food and Drink — which is also garnering great reviews for its high-end Asian-French cuisine.
A 1992 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Roland traveled the world as a corporate chef before becoming a restaurateur. She is a five-time James Beard Foundation semi-finalist for Best Chef South Region (at The Perfect Caper).
But Roland never imagined she would rise to national fame so quickly when earlier this month she won a cooking competition against celebrity chef Bobby Flay. A producer on the Food Network’s “Beat Bobby Flay,” now in its fifth season, called Roland at Ella’s and invited her to compete on the show.
“I had never competed before. I don’t have time to sleep, let alone do a TV show, running two restaurants,” she says. “It never crossed my mind because I’m so busy. But when this presented itself — some (cooking shows) are silly — I felt this was a really smart cooking show and a fair competition.”
The way it works is two talented chefs — in this case Roland along with Becca Richards, executive chef at Flex Mussels in New York City’s West Village — are chosen to go head-to-head for the chance to “Beat Bobby Flay.” But they must first face off against each other, creating a winning dish in just 20 minutes using a secret ingredient of Flay’s choice. Roland and Richards were presented with a Tomahawk Rib Eye Steak and Roland’s preparation was chosen over Richards’ by celebrity judges Katie Lee and Robert Irvine.
In the second round, the winning chef challenges Flay with his or her own surprise signature dish.
Roland whipped out the ingredients for her Curried Mussels with Frites. The mussels are coated in a coconut milk-based Thai curry sauce and topped with fresh herbs and lime juice. The frites, fried in duck fat, are served with three sauces: French-style Dijon aioli, Asian influenced ginger chili aioli, and homemade ketchup.
“Bobby Flay didn’t even know I was doing (this dish) until I started cooking,” Roland explains. “He had to do his own version.”
Judges Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation, along with chefs James Brown and Susan Feniger, did a blind tasting off camera and chose Roland’s dish over Flay’s. Roland is only the third contestant to beat “The Iron Chef” since the show’s inception.
“It makes for good TV, it’s very exciting, very true to form, and stays true to the 20-minute time limit,” Roland says. “I thought for somebody of Bobby Flay’s level to do this, he obviously enjoys competing. He was genuinely happy when I won. He’s a very generous person. The whole experience was phenomenal.”
Roland gives a lot of credit for her practically overnight success to seven-time Grammy Award winner Taylor Swift, who lives near Ella’s in Westerly and is a regular customer of the restaurant. In addition to traveling between two restaurants, Roland teaches sell-out cooking classes, and Swift and musician friend Lorde recently took one of Roland’s classes together. They learned how to cook tuna tartar tacos, one of the restaurant’s most popular appetizers, which Swift instantly posted on Instagram.
“Ella’s has gotten a little press,” Roland humbly states, “but Taylor Swift brought my name more into the news. She mentioned me, thanked me, on national TV, and put me on her Instagram, reaching millions of people. To have somebody of her level recognizing me, it’s something very genuine on her behalf, and I really have to thank her for that.”
Cooking New England style
“If my name is going to be at the bottom of a menu, I’m going to cook everything myself,” Roland says. “I make my own butter for the tables, own ketchups, ice cream and even the little candy you get with the bill.
“That started in Florida, and I feel that coming to New England has helped me refine my skills, to grow as a chef, to challenge myself more here,” she adds.
Roland attributes these new challenges to the changes of season in Connecticut, which is one of her reasons for moving back to the area. She fondly remembers spending summers as a child at Charlestown Beach.
“My heart missed New England,” she says. “Cooking with the seasons here, and having access to these great farmers and fishermen really feeds my soul as a chef.”
Roland notes that some assume she does only French-Asian cooking.
“I cook what I like to eat. Even things I don’t care for myself, I push myself to do quite well,” she says. “I do French-Asian, but I also have chicken and grits on the menu. I cook good food that’s approachable and people can understand and (enjoy) eating.”
As much as cooking, Roland enjoys teaching others to cook and has been giving cooking classes for years in people’s homes, at The Perfect Caper, and now at Ella’s.
She says what differentiates her classes from other cooking classes is that she shows her students how they can make the same dinner for two, a family of four, or a dinner party for 20, and that she gives lots of little chef tips for people as they’re preparing the dishes.
“My theme in cooking is that cooking should be fun. People do big dinner parties and get caught up in the preparation, and when you’re cooking you want to be able to improvise and enjoy what you’re cooking. In my classes I say, ‘If you don’t have one thing, substitute something else, something different. That’s what cooking is all about. It’s from the heart and with love and making something beautiful from what you have instead of always sticking with the recipe.”
WILTED ZUCCHINI & YELLOW SQUASH SALAD WITH CITRUS SAUCE
6-8 medium large zucchini and yellow squash
1 1/2 tablespoons Kosher salt
Julienne the zucchini and squash with Benislicer or shredding vegetable peeler. Toss squash with salt and let wilt and drain in a colander. Rinse well with cool water.
For the citrus sauce:
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1 teaspoon sugar
1 clove garlic, grated
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated
1/3 cup light olive oil
Whisk all ingredients together and toss with wilted squash.
This will hold overnight if needed. Bring to room temperature before serving and add 1/4 cup finely julienned basil.
“Launch some grilled chicken or your favorite seafood and turn the Squash Salad into a main course,” Roland suggests. “Change up herbs such as tarragon, mint and oregano and add some nice feta or goat cheese and turn this little salad into a vegetarian all-star!”
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