Amanda Freitag ’89, Judge, Food Network Chopped
It’s hard to believe that a Food Network Chopped judge and runner up on The Next Iron Chef could fail her first practical exam at the CIA, but it’s true. Standing in front of the chicken she was supposed to butcher and bone, Amanda froze. She couldn’t remember a thing! Right after the exam, she went and got 20 chickens and practiced butchering them in the dormitory kitchen until she could do it with her eyes closed. She passed her retake exam with flying colors.
Despite that shaky start, Amanda remembers her CIA experience as happy and eye-opening. She recalls getting up at 4 a.m. for egg cookery class and seeing ice floes pass by on the Hudson River as she walked across campus. She remembers struggling with bread baking and the joy of eating sweetbreads for the first time. She remembers learning about the importance of “working clean” from a truly hard-core teacher. And she fell in love with authentic Italian food rather than the Americanized version of that cuisine.
After graduation, Amanda took her curiosity and skills on the road in what could be called a journey of discovery. She got to work the line for, and sometimes with, Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Vong, where she discovered exciting Thai flavors. She then took a job in the very mellow kitchen at Verbena, led by Diane Forley, where she worked her way up to chef de cuisine and learned the rhythm of the seasons and the joys of the farmers’ markets. Amanda spent two glorious weeks working under Alain Passard at L’Arpège in Paris, where every morning the chickens, frogs, and pigs that were going to be used that day were delivered, and where she discovered that if you have really strong skills, you can cook anything. After that, there was a stint under Sara Jenkins at Il Buco, where every ingredient was imported from Italy. Amanda had the “ground-up” experience at Cesca, where she developed the menu and kitchen staff herself. And later, at The Harrison, she learned that it is a lot harder to work with an existing crew and change the culture of an existing restaurant. Clearly, her restaurant experience was wide-ranging and it brought her to the attention of the Food Network.
The network invited her to compete on Iron Chef America against Iron Chef Bobby Flay. She says, playfully, that till her dying day, she will debate the single point that separated her from the win! Despite the loss, her personality came shining through, and the network invited her to become a judge on Chopped. Since then, Amanda has filmed 75 episodes. She says she’s had an incredible time learning about ingredients and cuisines, and meeting people like White House Senior Policy Advisor on Nutrition Sam Kass, who was a guest judge on her favorite episode, “The Lunch Ladies.”
In January 14, 2014, Amanda opened her first restaurant—a revamp of the iconic Empire Diner in West Chelsea near the High Line in New York City. As executive chef Amanda and her two business partners turned the 75-seat Empire into a redefined diner in the modern day of foodies and a chef-driven world. “I always wanted my own place,” she says. “I feel I’m about fifteen years late. Along the way I was trying to find my voice, style, and home.” In July 2015, Amanda stepped away as executive chef at the Empire Diner—although she is still involved with the restaurant as part of its original ownership team—to concentrate on her new TV show with Ty Pennington called American Diner Revival on the Food Network. On September 29, 2015 she published her first cookbook, The Chef Next Door: A Pro Chef’s Recipes for Fun, Fearless Home Cooking.
Amanda is grateful to the CIA for giving her an incredible base of skills and knowledge that enabled her to have the work experiences that made her into the chef she is today. And, of course, she can still butcher a chicken with her eyes closed! Visit Chef Freitag’s website >