Chef Antonia Lofaso’s virtual cooking class with Selena Gomez on HBO Max’s new show ‘Selena + Chef’ is a fun escape.
Like seemingly everything else as a result of the pandemic, food television has had to adjust on the run in an attempt to keep producing new content for viewers. One byproduct of that pivot is the new HBO Max series ‘Selena + Chef’, on which the superstar singer/actor/producer is put through the culinary paces by acclaimed chefs.
In episode 2, Antonia Lofaso set out to teach Selena how to make a seafood tostada that she offers at her Latin-inspired Los Angeles restaurant DAMA. When you take one admittedly novice cook in Selena and pair her with the fun, chill chef, hilarity ensues. And from where I sit, if I can laugh and learn concurrently, I’m all-in.
While Selena is the star of the show, Antonia’s ability to teach remotely, encourage, even cajole, and yes, laugh, made her the perfect complement to an occasionally squeamish, though willing learner in Gomez. Why cajole you ask? Well, let’s just say that Selena’s knife skills won’t lead to Benihana beating down her door with a job offer anytime soon. For a moment, I saw her life flash before my eyes, as did Antonia.
So how did Antonia’s involvement with ‘Selena + Chef’ come to pass?
“It was late April or early May and I was in my restaurants doing the best that I possibly could to pivot and turn them into take-out, building these specialty boxes. I just thought that all productions had shut down and was so happy when HBO reached out. It was a producer that I used to work with at Food Network, telling me that they were doing this new show. I was so happy that they were trying to figure out how to employ people and keep things moving during this time. It was a no-brainer. I said ‘So you’re gonna set up a TV set in my house and I’m essentially gonna do a giant Zoom session? Absolutely!” And Selena is just so lovely and she’s a novice cook, so I thought it’d be fun.”
Much of the episode’s charm is owed to Selena’s inexperience in the kitchen and the relaxed guidance Antonia was able to convey via Zoom.
“She’s incredible. She was very forthcoming about not really knowing anything. We as chefs, in the hospitality industry, have this thing where it’s our job to really teach the next generation, whether it’s our sous chefs or line cooks or anyone else who wants to learn. I was really excited that HBO was going to keep things so honest and by honest I mean they’d let us do our own thing with very little interference. Our food was dropped off at my house and at Selena’s house, and nothing was pre-cut and nothing was pre-cooked. Everything really relied on my ability to communicate and her ability to listen and follow directions. And it became so much fun. We had this very real experience where she learned to cook octopus and olive oil-poached shrimp and calamari. It’s a very seemingly simple dish, a seafood tostada, but all the elements take a little bit of time to prepare. She dove right in and was not scared. Well, she was a little scared of the octopus, but she got over it. I’ve always loved these kinds of productions. You get to see people relax and feel more comfortable and more natural. That’s when you get those gems of realness.”
While it became quickly apparent to me that Antonia Lofaso would’ve been an eager participant in ‘Selena + Chef’ regardless, the inclusion of a charity component was a bonus for her and allowed her to support an organization that is personally very important to the chef.
“I love that the donation was so large, $10,000. A lot of the charities that we give to, specifically because of what our country and the world are going through right now, are suffering. So I was very happy to continue my contributions to and networking for this specific drug and rehab facility called Beit T’Shuvah. There has been substance abuse in my family where I have lost family members and through rehabilitation have gotten them back. This community has been very good to my family. Very, very good to my mother, to my father, to my brothers. And I just can’t thank them enough.”
In addition to being personally invested in the work Beit T’Shuvah does, Antonia has a worldview of substance abuse that compels her to add her voice and visibility to the issue.
“Substance abuse is spoken about in our country and I want to keep speaking about it as much as I can because it has affected my family and my relationships, so any chance I get to compete so I can donate money to Beit T’Shuvah, I will. Alcohol sales in the country are up 40% right now. I just think it’s a huge, huge disease that doesn’t need to be filled with shame and covered up. When people say ‘Let’s not talk about it. We don’t talk to those people anymore. We don’t talk to those family members anymore.’ I’ve personally seen rehabilitation in a way that is as far as I’m concerned, a miracle. And again, I can’t thank HBO and Selena Gomez enough, because donating to Beit T’Shuvah wasn’t even a question.”
From ‘Selena + Chef’ to ‘Guy’s Grocery Games’ to ‘Cutthroat Kitchen‘, among many others, Antonia Lofaso has become a regular and very popular presence on food TV. At the end of the day though, she’s an accomplished chef and I wanted to learn about her culinary roots.
“I got into this business without the idea of doing television. It’s been close to 25 years for me. I wanted to go to culinary school because I was always in the restaurant industry. I always loved to cook. I was obsessed with food. I worked as a host and a manager and a server in multiple restaurants. My very first job was at Hot Dog on a Stick at Sherman Oaks Galleria in the San Fernando Valley. The outfit, the hat, and all. The business has always been in my blood and in my DNA.”
And then came Top Chef and with it a new passion that continues to this day.
“When I decided to take the leap and do Top Chef, it was very unexpected and I fell in love with competitive cooking. I always say that it taught me so much about who I am as a human being and as a leader. It really helped me develop my personality, not on television, but in food. People don’t talk about that enough. When chefs do well it’s because we have a strong, opinionated idea of food and that shows in our restaurants, in our concepts, in our food, people love it and wanna be a part of it. It’s just about what do you seem to be true about food. And I learned so much about that through competitive cooking.”
With competitive cooking comes criticism and feedback, something that lesser chefs shrink at hearing but that Antonia Lofaso embraces.
“So many people think it’s negative, but for me getting bad feedback is the best way to learn. Over the course of my two seasons (Top Chef Chicago and Top Chef All-Stars), Anthony Bourdain, Tom Colicchio, Padma, Gail, Susur Lee, Thomas Keller, the list goes on and on, chefs that have so much history and so much information because they’ve spent their entire lives sucking it all in and are so willing to spoon it out. I paid attention and it really changed the way I look at food and the way I do business. And so it was the greatest gift.”
Speaking of gifts, Chef Antonia continues to teach, inform, and entertain, with her virtual cooking class with Selena Gomez on ‘Selena + Chef’ epitomizing the many reasons why she’s so alluring as a successful restaurateur and food television personality.
Have you watched ‘Selena + Chef’ on HBO Max yet? Do you have a favorite episode?