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Be a Better Cook

There’s Something About Christina

The winner of season four's Hell's Kitchen dishes about her first job in the kitchen and divulges her three pantry must-haves.

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Clean Eating: You started working in restaurants at the age of 16. What kind of work were you doing in a kitchen at that age?

Christina Machamer: I was a hostess-slash-biscuit-maker [laughs] at Red Lobster. It was kind of fun, actually.

CE: How would you describe your style of cooking?

CH: I would say there’s definitely a lot of Italian influence. But it’s all very simple and rustic and, since I’ve moved to California, really vegetable-heavy because we get such amazing produce out here.

CE: How does that translate into your cooking as chef de partie at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon restaurant in Beverly Hills?

CH: Seasonality is extremely important. We try to use local ingredients as much as possible. Most of the produce is grown probably within 100 miles of here, mostly north of LA.

CE: What does clean eating mean to you and your family?

CH: In our household, we hardly use any prepared products. We’re on a diet that we invented, called the “European diet,” and basically we make everything in-house, including our own bread and chicken stock. We also go to a lot of farmers’ markets. So, for me, clean eating is knowing what you’re getting – how the product was grown, what water was used to irrigate it and how your protein products were raised and processed – and, in the end, doing most of your own cooking from scratch because you have the most control over what goes into your food.

CE: Do you have any advice for readers who may be intimidated by home cooking?

CH: Getting started as a home cook can be difficult. At home, we do a lot of bulk cooking. One day we’ll make chicken stock, but instead of making a gallon, we’ll make three gallons and freeze it. Once you have a surplus built up, it gets a lot easier. But I would say, don’t be afraid, jump right in.

CE: What do you cook up for yourself when you get home from a long day?

CH: I’m very provincial with what I eat, and I work 16 hours a day, so I use a lot of carbs when I cook. I use pasta and risottos to keep it really easy. We make tomato sauce once a month and freeze it. It takes seven minutes to boil some pasta, and all you have to do is microwave the sauce and pour it right over the pasta and you have a dinner. I actually eat things that are quick at home because after 16 hours of preparing gourmet fine foods, the last thing I want to do is come home and make a taurine or get really into it.

CE: You’ve said that you ate a lot of turkey sandwiches when you were on Hell’s Kitchen. Do you think it’s a misconception that chefs go home and make baked Alaskas or soufflés for themselves?

CH: I think it is. People are always telling me, “Come over and cook for us.” My reply is, “How about I come over and you cook for me!” [laughs] Chefs don’t eat gourmet in their homes; they eat a lot of quick and easy dishes. At least one day a week we try to cook something nice or try a new recipe, but we eat normal food the rest of the time.

CE: Do you eat clean when you’re at home? What are some examples of dishes you might prepare for yourself?

CH: Stuffed squash is something that my mom used to cook for us all the time. In the wintertime, we probably do a lot of different fresh, lean sausages and ground meats. We just try to play with stuff.

CE: Can you suggest any must-have pantry staples for grab-and-go cooking?

CH: To get really basic, the kind of salt you’re using is very important. We only use Kosher salt. I also cook a lot with olive oil, and I use a lighter olive oil that’s filtered so I can sauté with it. Or I use a lighter olive oil in place of butter. You can’t live without that. Chicken stock is also important, or vegetable stock if you’re vegetarian. I use it in my risottos, pasta sauces and soups. It’s just a go-to thing that you should have and it survives forever in your freezer. Those are probably the three basic essentials that you just have to have.

CE: Are there any tips you can offer for ordering healthier restaurant fare?

CH: Definitely ask your waiter any questions that you might have; that’s essential, especially if you have allergies. And don’t be afraid to ask for something to be made gluten free or more healthy. Most of the time we’re really happy to make any substitutions that we can. In Gordon [Ramsey’s] kitchen, his favorite ingredients are butter and mascarpone cheese – it’s not healthy at all! [laughs] But oftentimes, we have things that aren’t on the menu. We have a separate menu for vegetarians and vegans. So, all you have to do is ask and, if you have any concerns, there are three cooks in the kitchen – one will have a good idea and be more than happy to play and change the menu for you. Saturday at 8:30 p.m. may not be the best time, but usually it’s fine.