Q&A With Top Chef Contestant and Giving Through Growing Ambassador Candice Kumai

Candice Kumai serving serving "Sexy Swiss Chard," a tantalizing dish jazzed up with pumpkin seeds and lemon juice. (photos by Kate Herman)

Eight years ago, Candice Kumai was a contestant on the premiere season of Bravo’s Top Chef. Today, she’s the author of two books, “Pretty Delicious: Lean and Lovely Recipes for a Healthy, Happy New You” and “Cook Yourself Sexy: Easy Delicious Recipes for the Hottest, Most Confident You,” which is coming out next month. She’s been featured in countless magazines and TV spots, but now her latest gig is traveling as the Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi as the National Ambassador for the “Giving Through Growing” project. In partnership with American Community Gardening Association, the project grants $8,000 to five community gardens across the country to supply local food banks with fresh produce. Lucky for us, one of the selected is the Live Oak Community Garden, right in East Dallas.

Last night, at DUO All Things Culinary, Kumai celebrated the newly created Woodbridge Giving Garden in Dallas and made a swiss chard dish using produce straight from the Live Oak Community Garden. I sat down with her to discuss why Giving Through Growing is so important to her.

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"Sexy Swiss Chard" - made with produce from the Live Oak Community Garden

SB: How’d you get into the business?
CK: I think what got me into it was really a love of people, and a passion for connecting with people, colleagues, and family more than the food, to be honest. I tweeted this the other day: if someone had told me 10 years ago that I’d be sitting in New York, from San Diego, judging Iron Chef and writing for magazines, I would have laughed in your face. With anything I do, it has to be organic and real.

SB: Why is Giving Through Growing important to you?
CK: I think it’s an incredible kickstarter program for local gardens to harvest and donate fresh produce. So much of what we have is highly processed and preservative-laden. It’s so necessary.

SB: What’s special about Dallas from a culinary standpoint?
CK: We shot for Home Made Simple here a few years ago. Everything is much bigger here, and we share a love of good food and cooking.

SB: What’s your favorite thing to grow in a garden?
CK: My mom had a garden for my sister and I as kids, and it was mainly squash and tomatoes and beans. I didn’t know what basil was when I was five. So now I grow mainly herbs – rosemary, thyme, sage, and the exotic like lemongrass and ginger. If I could, I’d grow sweet potatoes. I also love kabocha squash.

SB: Any pets at home to cook for?
CK: I have cats that I left at my parents’ home in San Diego. I didn’t want to subject them to a New York apartment. But I have rooftop dinner parties. My friends come over, I cook dinner, and we watch Iron Chef when I’m judging. They make fun of what I say and do, or what I’m wearing, because I couldn’t decide and wore too much jewelry.

SB: This program is sponsored by the wine label, Woodbridge. What’s your favorite wine?
CK: I’d say Woodbridge cabernet. It’s earthy with a bit of fruit, and not too musky. I like to enjoy a glass of red wine at the end of the day, and Woodbridge is a classic table wine.

SB: What’s your cooking process like?
CK: With baking, I follow directions. With cooking, you’ve got to follow your soul and your passion. You don’t need to fall on directions.

SB: Any special or hidden talents we don’t know about?
CK: I grew up shortboarding. A lot of people don’t know that about me. And I didn’t know I could write, but apparently I can. I also do a killer impersonation of my mom.

SB: You’re throwing a dream dinner party. Who’s invited?
CK: I’d need people with good energy, so Tony Robbins, Joel Osteen, and the Dalai Lama. Also, Conan O’Brien, Dave Chappelle, and Jack Johnson. He just has a very calming vibe. And Julia Child, Madonna, Alton Brown, and Jamie Oliver.

SB: Are you inspired by any certain regions?
CK: Absolutely! Japan. Specifically, southern Japan. Also, southeast Asia and Vietnam. My parents are Japanese and Polish, so Poland in an indirect way. But my grandma and aunt instilled the hostess in me, so everything’s about the details.

Sarah Bennett graduated from Southern Methodist University in May 2011 with a degree in English/Creative Writing. She admits her nerdy passion for historical fiction, and can be found on the weekends cheering on the Mustangs from the Boulevard.

One comment on “Q&A With Top Chef Contestant and Giving Through Growing Ambassador Candice Kumai

  1. There is another humanitarian Top Chef this season. Gina Keatley. Very hot and a CNN Hero!!