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Local chefs battle in ‘Beachside Brawl’ and ‘Iron Chef’

ARLO Chef Josh Mouzakes fights for West Coast chefs to win Food Network's "Beachside Brawl" premiering June 19 at 10 p.m.
(Courtesy photo)

Attention foodie fans: Two S.D. chefs match wits and wiles with culinary counterparts on two TV series

Not just one, but two renowned San Diego chefs are competing on national cooking shows within days of one another.

Claudette Zepeda appears in the latest incarnation of Netflix’s popular Iron Chef series — “Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend” — which debuted yesterday.

The executive chef of Vaga in the Hyatt’s Alila Marea resort in Encinitas could not be reached for comment, but she is already a TV food show veteran. Zepeda competed earlier on season 15 of Bravo’s “Top Chef” and on “Top Chef Mexico.”

Chef Claudette Zepeda, founder of since-closed El Jardín in Liberty Station, competes on Netflix's new "Iron Chef" series.
Chef Claudette Zepeda, founder of since-closed El Jardín in Liberty Station, competes on Netflix’s new “Iron Chef” series.
(Eduardo Contreras/San Diego Union-Tribune)

On June 19, ARLO gourmet chef Josh Mouzakes will rumble in the Food Network’s “Beachside Brawl.” This new six-week series that airs Sundays at 10 p.m. (and on discovery+) pits five prominent East Coast chefs against five on the West Coast to see which coast offers the tastiest summer dishes.

When judges rule, the winner may be the “beast of the East” or the “best of the West,” trumpets the show promo.

Mouzakes actually got his start in Eastport, Long Island, before moving westward to culinary commands in the Hotel del Coronado and JW Marriott in downtown Houston and then becoming executive chef at ARLO, the Town & Country’s new signature restaurant in Mission Valley.

“I thought it would be good exposure for my career,” Mouzakes posted on Facebook following filming. “What I found was much more profound.”

Working alongside the coach cooks and show host chef Antonia Lofaso “gave me a whole new perspective.” He called it one of his top culinary experiences.

Although no stranger to competition, this was Mouzakes’ first time on a Food Network show. But his TV premiere had an ominous start.

Mouzakes got an unexpected direct message from a show casting agent while shopping at the Panera bakery and cafe in Solana Beach. As he talked to the agent, he glimpsed slight movement of a purse belonging to a woman customer dining nearby, then the front door quickly open and close.

Sensing the customer had just been robbed, he told the casting agent, “Hang on, man, I gotta help this lady,” and dashed out the door in pursuit of the suspected pickpocket. The fellow already had sprinted across the parking lot and was quickly out of view.

The customer was missing her credit cards but was able to call and cancel them before any harm was done.

It wasn’t quite the chef’s “catch of the day” but was a testament to Mouzakes’ crisis response, a key ingredient to kitchen survival. After the excitement, he resumed his phone conversation with the casting scout who cleared Mouzakes for a Zoom interview with his boss.

When he received confirmation that he was a contestant, he had only a couple of days to buy all the Hawaiian shirts he could find (no chef’s jackets or white shirts were allowed) and report to Hermosa Beach.

The show was staged on the Redondo Beach Pier where a village of tents had been erected for the 10-day photo shoot involving a crew of about 200.

Host Antonia LaFaso gave the two teams of four contestants and their coach a beach-themed cooking challenge, and they dashed to the communal grocery pantry to collect ingredients.

Cooking assignments for the premiere included a food item on a stick, a fried item, something in a bun, something cheesy and a sweet treat. Summer showdowns over the six weeks ranged from budget seafood banquets and boardwalk bake sales to luxury yacht fare and tropical destination dinners.

“We had production assistants walk us to lunch, but most of time we were in a holding pen waiting for the next challenge,” he says.

“It was an anxiety roller coaster — adrenaline going as we were waiting for the results and starting to get really anxious. ... In the tent, we all bonded. We called it stress pier.”

Mouzakes found the biggest challenge was trying to be creative under pressure — not getting too stressed or going overboard in the beachside brawl. He needed to scale down his normally elaborate presentations to tasty, but inventive, beach cuisine, packing as much wow factor as he could muster.

Time was his biggest enemy. “I like to be creative and think outside the box,” says Mouzakes, but with 20-, 30- or 40-minute deadline constraints, there wasn’t always time to execute his dream presentation.

Will he add any of his Food Network creations to ARLO’s menu?

Absolutely, says the celebrity chef, who is currently updating ARLO’s offerings. Plus, on each Sunday that he appears on the six-episode competition, ARLO will feature his beach-themed creations of that week.

Mouzakes honed his skillet skills beginning at age 13 after he got a dishwashing job at a local restaurant where he convinced his bus driver to drop him off after school.

After his college culinary courses and an internship at the French Laundry in Napa Valley, he worked on the East Coast, then in Great Britain before heading west.

With filming over, Mouzakes is giving away his Hawaiian shirts to charity (they shrunk in the wash). Nevertheless, he’s game to return to the competitive culinary pressure cooker.

“Strangely, I want to go back and be in another show and another competition.”


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