Vaknin, executive chef with Manhattan’s Esprit Events, can currently be seen each week on “Hell’s Kitchen,” battling it out with fellow contestants for the right to head one of Ramsey’s signature restaurants. In the meantime, the 28 year old spoke with Jspace about cooking for television, where he finds inspiration, and his love of all things Israeli.
Jspace: Is Gordon Ramsey as tough in person as he seems on television?
Guy Vaknin: I can tell you he’s a lot tougher than what he seems on the show. I don’t see him as tough, though, I see him as sharp. He knows what he wants and he knows how to ask for it. And he says it to your face. I think it’s a great quality in a chef. There’s a lot to learn from him, he’s very professional. I think he’s a culinary genius.
How did you get involved with “Hell’s Kitchen?”
This is actually funny. I don’t know if you know the magazine “Great Kosher Restaurants,” but I got a name from my office manager for an interview and I sent them an e-mail about my background and then they jumped on it because they loved the idea of a kosher chef, who was Israeli, had been in the army, the whole background. I can’t tell you anything about the interview or any of that because it’s confidential.
How did it feel to be chosen for the program?
I was surprised a little bit because it came out of nowhere. They actually pursued me to come on. I give them good TV, I guess.
Are you doing any kosher cooking on the show?
No. Personally, I cook everything. But in our company Esprit Events we are strictly kosher under the Orthodox Union. The idea of the company is also to face that challenge, because I see it as a challenge, not a restriction, the challenge of being kosher but also providing good food. Something different. Modern. Not the old traditional gefitle fish and potatoes with chicken. So we take it to a different level. I studied in a non kosher school, but I took all the knowledge I have from there and put it into kosher cooking and it’s going to be something different.
How would you describe your cooking style?
It’s very modern. I come from traditional cooking roots, Moroccan, I learned from my grandmother. I took everything I learned and put a twist on it. The flavors are incorporated but not as heavy. We cook everything fresh and seasonal. It’s a combination of everything I’ve been through, lived through and loved since I was a kid.
Are we going to see Israeli cooking influences from you on the show?
At one point, yes. I can’t tell you exactly when, because it’s coming up. I’m a little bit different, I’m not going to make traditional food you expect to get from a caterer.
What’s it like to cook with cameras following you around?
It's not what everybody thinks. The intensity and the pressure, it mounts on you. Thank God I’ve been doing fairly fine, but it’s a lot of pressure. It’s not easy to cook like that.
Can you give us any hints on what we’re going to see this season?
I can tell you it’s going to be very interesting and what you’ve seen so far is only the beginning. It’s only going to get better as it goes on.
Do you think your professional or personal life will change at all as a result of doing the show?
It already has. It’s affected me in terms of people already commenting; ugly comments, good comments, support. You have to take everything in proportion. It’s a reality show after all. We cook. I’m a chef, I do what I do. I have a great company, I have a beautiful girlfriend. You have to come back to your own life. If anyone thinks the show will give them some thing else, they’re wrong.
It’s a once in a lifetime experience and I would do it all over again if I could. I’m happy that I did it. I’m truly, truly happy that I did it.
Are you proud to act as a representative of Israel on television?
Of course. I’m the most Zionist person in the world. I love Israel. I happen to be here [in America] because the family is here, but eventually I plan to go back. I’m very proud of where I come from, my heart is there, like every other Jew in the county. I’m very proud to represent Israel and I hope you will see [on the show] I did a good job for the country.