Antonia Lofaso Headshot

You know about "Restaurant Reboot," right? Presented by LendingTree and premiering June 12, it’s a massive celebration of the American restaurant industry, featuring scads of celebrities and musical guests. Oh yeah, and Food Network colossus, Guy Fieri, just happens to be giving away $300,000 in grant money to 11 restauranteurs, live and in person. But the real reason you won’t want to miss this unique event is that, joining Fieri as co-host, is celebrity chef Antonia Lofaso.

New York-born, L.A.-based restauranteur and perennial Food Network host and judge, Antonia Lofaso hasn’t been crowned Top Chef or won the "Tournament of Champions" (although she’s come awfully close), but she did manage to pull out a massive win against the pandemic. Not that she put it that way when she sat down with Mashed for an exclusive interview. What she did tell us is that throughout the pandemic, she kept nearly all 500 of her restaurant employees gainfully employed, and fed thousands of first-responders — and all of this, while being followed by Fieri’s docu-cameras for "Restaurant Hustle," turning her restaurants into delivery-marts for the grocery challenged, and being a single mom to her daughter by the late "smooth-rapper," Heavy D.

And did we mention, Antona Lofaso also mustered up the energy to appear on "The Bachelorette" as Ben Smith’s "family-ish" right in the middle of the pandemic? Of course, that’s all just the tip of the iceberg. Basically, Lofaso is the very personification of "grace under pressure." Read on, but prepare to feel humbled.

Antonia Lofaso reveals the back story behind Guy Fieri’s Restaurant Reboot

Guy Fieri rocking on as he does
How did you come to be hosting LendingTree’s Restaurant Reboot with Guy Fieri?

Guy Fieri, for the last year and a half since the pandemic started, has figured out a way to make sure that the general public knows what’s going on and that people in the industry feel like they’re supported. That’s been the biggest thing that’s happened over the last year and a half — there’s been so much internal support amongst, and interest in, the industry. And we all rallied behind each other this year in a way we’ve never seen before.

How far back do you and Guy go?

Guy and I — we’ve always worked together. I’ve done "Guy’s Grocery Games" and "Guy’s Ranch," and we have an incredible working professional relationship as well as a friendship. I’ve spent a lot of time with his wife and his kids, and he spends time with my daughter. And we’re like — all of us that are in sort of the Food Network world — we’re like a little family. We love to have dinners out. We love to see each other at food events, and we like to spend time with each other. You’ll see a lot of stuff Brooke [Williamson] and I do together, or Alex [Guarnaschelli] and I. So we’re all always with each other.

When we did "Restaurant Hustle," it was this really vulnerable experience for all of us in a way that Guy kind of saw 15 steps ahead. Whereas I was still in this mode of "I have to protect my restaurants. I can’t possibly film something right now. It’s inappropriate. I don’t want my staff to think that this is me trying to sort of promote a film career in the midst of a pandemic." But Guy was like, "That is not who you are. You are an incredible leader. You care about your staff. People need to see that. People need to feel like they’re supported on a global level."

I’m so happy that I trusted him and did it, and it was like this really intimate experience that was just really heart-wrenching and really vulnerable. But that’s how "Restaurant Reboot" came about. We were all together during "Restaurant Hustle," and Guy was like, "I still want to keep going, raise 25 million. I’m going to do ‘Restaurant Reboot,’" which is, again, getting all these sponsors to donate money to help people who are looking to get back into the restaurant industry, rebuild their food trucks. Whatever it is, these people who received the grants and scholarships, it was $25,000. It’s no small sum of money, each. And so, it was just incredible to be a part of it. Incredible."

Antonia Lofaso experienced, first hand, the brutal reality of restaurant-ing during COVID

Antonia Lofaso volunteering for No Us Without You

Your devotion to helping people in need really stood out in "Restaurant Hustle." So I’m surprised to learn you had some trepidation at first.

Well, I had no trepidation about filming it, you know what I mean? I’ve just always kept what I do in the restaurants very separate from what I do in film or in television. And so, I’ve never let people inside of my home. I’ve never let people inside of my restaurant. I’ve never let people see that side of me. And so, and I just felt like… this was a part of history. Not to mention, my staff is wildly proud of what we did. They got to see it on television, edited and put together. So, I mean we all know what we did because we were all there. But when you see it laid out in front of you, everyone’s crying. Everyone had tears in their eyes. They were just beside themselves because it felt like we were in this insane nightmare that we were never going to wake up from. And it was just like every day wake up, go. Every day wake up, go. And so, to kind of see what we did laid out on the screen was like, "oh my God, we did so much."

And you were still trying to keep your restaurants afloat…

We got our businesses as stable as they possibly could, and we did it so quickly. I have an incredible marketing director, Chani Hitt, who’s now actually going to be our Chief Operating Officer, who hit the ground running. A lot restaurants struggled because setting up to-go tablets to go is very, very difficult. We already had them in place because back in 2018, I was like, "hey if someone wants my $75 steak to go, I’m not going to tell them no." So, it was more about building the markets. We had liquor stores up. And the day-to-day was going. And that took about a month and it was like, okay, now we’re going to do Passover dinners and Easter dinners. We just hit the ground running with ideas.

But when the dust kind of settled, what was really striking to me and my whole team was, we were all really upset with what was happening on the internet. I almost had to stay away from it a little bit because it just felt like I was watching a lot of people [who lost their jobs] who can’t even get unemployment. There’s a lot of immigrants in our country that people love and are saying that they should come here and work. And then all of a sudden, something like this happens, and then they realize the country doesn’t care. No one’s really talking about that.

Here’s how all those frontline workers got fed

Antonia Lofaso handing out food

Where did all the funding come from to feed so many people?

I work with a foundation, No Us Without You. It was brought up to me by an ex-bartender of mine, we got liquor companies involved, and as much as the produce companies could because they’re hurting, too. But the liquor companies were not hurting, so we demanded a lot of finance from them. And they were very, very generous. So, a lot of the food donations you saw us doing [in "Restaurant Hustle"] — the liquor companies were funding them. Liquor sales in United States were up 40% last year, so, they made a lot of money. Think about this: restaurants are out of business and liquor sales are up 40%. So, think about what the general public was buying.

Were there other sources as well?

World Kitchen stepped in, and there were a couple of other organizations that I worked with that stepped in as well and did fundraising — to the general public. So, it was the general public — their dollars — that helped support restaurants making meals for frontline workers. Which was incredible. So, there were a lot of big companies where I worked in Los Angeles that were all non-profit, that literally every dollar [raised] went to the frontline workers. They were super transparent about that. And it was just way for them to do something. That’s kind of how we felt too. Now that our businesses was settled, there was a bigger situation happening. This isn’t just about our businesses being okay. It’s also making sure that No Us Without You can get meals and diapers and milk to the immigrant workers who can’t get EDD [California’s response to COVID-related unemployment]. You know what I mean?

I do, which means I’m scratching out the question I had regarding TikTok cooking crazes!

It was kind of heart-wrenching to me — watching a lot of celebrities on Instagram who were just like, "Look how cute this is" or "Watch me while I go through all my dresses today." I’m like — there are literally people right now who live paycheck to paycheck, and it’s just sort of a disconnect. I just had to shut it off… And then we’re talking about frontline workers. These people were like firefighters. Firefighters that run into a building when the building’s on fire. These people are not running away from the virus that had the entire world shut down and scared to death. They were running towards the hospital. So the least we could do was feed them and kind of brighten their day. And you have to remember, a lot of hospital cafeterias closed. So think about this: all these people taking care of COVID patients, and they don’t have a meal unless they brought it from home.

The speed at which things unfolded in those first few weeks of the pandemic will shock you

Closed during COVID-19 sign

Can you walk us through a timeline starting with your finding out about everything shutting down? Because it seemed… fast.

Oh, it was. We were so fast. In fact, Chani Hitt, my marketing director… that woman was a freight train. Actually, freight trains don’t go fast. Whatever the fastest train in the world is.

So, whereas a lot of people were shell-shocked by what was happening, that didn’t happen to us. We found out on March 16 — a week after we had just done this huge dinner with Stephanie Izard and Brooke Williamson — 150 people in my restaurant, DAMA. We were talking about what an incredible thing this was going to kick off to be, and then a week later, we were totally shut. My business partners, Mario Guddemi, Sal Aurora, and Pablo Moix, and I — we decided to shutter DAMA because DAMA’s kind of in the middle of nowhere in downtown L.A., and it had only been open two years at the time. Scopa was open seven. Black Market was open almost 10. We’re like, "let’s just focus all of our salaried employees there." And we knew immediately… we should sell things in a market because the supermarkets are insane. And so, within two days we had markets up and running.

And it did take about a week to upload everything into all the delivery apps because we were selling tomato sauce and pasta sauce, but we were on it because I’d been in the supermarket, so I knew supermarket shelves were empty, and people were freaking out. And so, to our community and to all of our guests who reach out to us, I was like, "we can help with whatever you need."

What kind of help did your customers need?

We had people reaching out that were too scared to leave their home, a lot of elderly people in the area. There were a lot of people who just were immune-compromised that would send us emails. And they would be like, "we want… like a supermarket." So, things like chickens, bananas, flour, vegetables, fruit, milk, yogurt. We’d put together boxes for them, and then my business partner would go and deliver them. It would be once a week we would do 50 deliveries to whomever needed it. We were just trying to be as helpful as we could to anyone around.

The bizarre reality of filming a documentary about the pandemic during the pandemic

Antonia Lofaso 2015
And at some point, in the meantime, hadn’t the filming of "Restaurant Hustle" started?

Oh, filming. So, this is the crazy part. "Tournament of Champions" had just started airing. And Guy was doing all this press for it, and he FaceTimed me while I was at Scopa… Now mind you, I’m now bagging groceries and we have the bare minimum staff. I picked up the phone and I saw his face and heard his voice. He’s like, "Sister, what’s going on?" I just started crying.

Guy was like, "Hey, you’re being filmed." I was like, "Thanks for the heads up." So then he called me afterwards. "Yo, are you okay?" And I was just like, "I am not okay. This is bananas. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I have to lay off 500 people next week." The next morning, I got a text from him. It was on a chat with Maneet, Marcus, and Christian [Petroni], and Guy was just like, "We have a 5 p.m. conference with Courtney White." So of course I get on the phone because Courtney White is the head of Food Network, and he’s Guy Fieri. And they were just like, "We’re sending you guys an Osmo [camera]. Capture everything. We’ll check in every week."

I was hesitant. But Guy was like, "You don’t understand how powerful this is going to be for the whole world to see this. And people are going to feel supported and we’re going to raise all this money. And people are going to feel like they’re not alone out there." And he’s like trust me, trust me, trust me. So I trusted him.

And then my good friend, Lolly, who’s a very famous director of photography, but now she’s out of work, obviously, and she’s like, "Listen, we’ve been best friends since we’re 12 years old. If you want me to follow you around with this thing, I’ll follow you around with this thing." So, I was like, "Okay, just don’t get in anyone’s way." Everyone in the restaurant has seen her because she’s been my best friend since we’re 12. And so, it didn’t feel weird to have her walking around with this very tiny camera. And so, she filmed it all. And it became this very sort of organic, natural experience.

The peculiar little club that Antonia Lofaso has been a member of since the pandemic

Guy Fieri looking pensive

It was as if Guy Fieri were some kind of soothsayer — like, somehow he just saw it all before everyone else.

Hundred percent, and it’s interesting because a friend of mine is telling me how David Chang is doing a show, I think with Hulu now, and they’re talking about the pandemic. But no one else recorded anything during that time. Guy’s like that though — if you spend time with this man, he has ideas, and he doesn’t not say what he’s thinking. So, he just is constantly going. Constantly going and doesn’t really care if an idea sounds crazy or weird. So, I think that when he saw me on FaceTime and I was crying, it was like there was the thing where he’d be like, we should record this… and got it green lit by Courtney within seconds. And Frank Matson over at Citizen Pictures — they just did such an amazing job. And Tim McOsker — piecing all of this together. It’s just because there was a lot of insane footage. It’s cell phone footage. Lolly’s cell phone footage, the Osmos footage. And so, they really had to dig deep in order to edit them because it was not easy.

Did you know what was going on with the other chefs during filming?

Yeah, so we had daily updates. So we had updates. And we’re friends so we’re all talking to each other. And then we also had meetings. So all of us were kind of like we were in meetings with Guy and with Frank every week or so to check in. And usually in those check ins, we heard what was happening with other people. And so, we kind of all knew what was going on.

It seemed like there were four very different stories.

And I don’t think they even realized how different the stories were going to be. They just, we’re four very different people so it made sense. And every city was so different. What was happening in New York City with Marcus was so different than what was happening with Christian in Westchester [County, New York and Stamford, Connecticut). Maneet is in Nashville. I’m in L.A. So, we all are very, very different, and even though they’re in the same state, Christian and Marcus, the cities are so different. Everyone’s experience from state to state was just different. From city to city. And so, it showed in what we were doing.

Antonia Lofaso explains exactly what it’s like being filmed while under pressure

Antonia Lofaso gesturing with her hands

Did working with a camera present change the restaurant dynamics?

Well, [cooking is] our love language. It’s like they talk about the five love languages. That’s the way I show love — it’s through food. A lot of my friends were at home, and we didn’t get to see each other. So, I would drop off cakes to their house. Or, with my friend, Lindsay, who lives in Texas, I sent her a basket from Russ & Daughters because it was just for me being like "Hey, by the way, you’re not alone. I sent you some smoked salmon." Also, we started doing remote dinners early on. Billy Harris called me. He said, "Hey, I got 200 people that want to do a remote Zoom dinner. Would you be willing to do something?" I was like, "100%." So I transformed my private dining room at Scopa, and it was very weird at first because it was me with earbuds in and trying to taste and teach and do the thing. But we’ve gotten used to it.

And the other part, too, is just making people happy, and making people feel like they were connected. Everyone’s struggles were really real. Whether it was a financial struggle or people like my parents and a lot of older people who didn’t see people, didn’t have human connection. And so, all of those things are equally important. So it was like trying to find wherever we could kind of bring a little joy.

Since "Restaurant Hustle" left off before things got worse — and then better, can you catch us up? Or is that where the next Restaurant Hustle" comes in?

I think that’s going to come out in either July or August. So we’re in the midst of filming it now because yeah, people want to know what happened. But right now, L.A. County’s still not really open. I mean, we are but we’ve got a ton of restrictions and so, the rest of the country, you’re seeing them flood open. But not really L.A. County. We were supposed to be open June 15, and they pushed now down to July, which doesn’t make any sense.

Oh! I see. So things out in L.A. haven’t really gotten better yet?

I mean we have percentages open, but we still don’t have bar business. And people still have to be six feet away from each other. And there is no separation of the vaxed and the unvaxed, masks and no mask. There’s not a lot of information, and there’s just not a lot of change, to be honest, other than instead of it being eight feet apart it can be six feet apart now. But it’s not as if we’re fully open.

Antonia Lofaso speaks about the difficulties caused by misinformation

Antonia Lofaso in a promo photo for Top Chef

Have you seen changes in America’s attitude and approach to dining out?

I’ve heard the general public right now is eating out, on average, three and a half times a week. So, they’re very excited to be out, and the general public is the reason we can still open our doors. Right now we’re the only form of entertainment. Movies are kind of open, but there’s not really anything out because no one’s been making movies. No one’s really going to concerts. No big events. So, when you go out to dinner, this is your entertainment. And people have been locked up for a year and a half. So everyone’s been having a hard time. That’s why I have this conversation with my staff – that everyone just needs to be gentle with each other.

We’ve all gone through a really awful year. And if we’ve had difficult customers it’s just because they’re confused and frustrated because everyone’s being told so many different things. And so it’s like, now I have to explain to the general public how the government works. Like, it doesn’t matter if the CDC and the President of the United States says that if you’re vaccinated, you don’t have to wear a mask because that doesn’t count in L.A. county or in the state of California. And that’s been very confusing for people.

So, I’m just trying to get everyone to understand that everyone should just be nice to each other because there’s a lot of insane information and misinformation, and information that doesn’t really apply to us that does apply to the rest of the country. It’s hard to explain that to people, so that’s been hard. But at the same time, the general public is the reason we’re open… So, everyone has done the best that they possibly can during this year and a half.

Antonia Lofaso reveals the silver lining hidden within the pandemic

Antonia Lofaso competing on Top Chef All Stars

During "Restaurant Hustle" you made this wonderful philosophical statement that perhaps 2020 is the year that we all needed. How do you feel about that now ?

Oh, I still 100% swear by that. I’ve had my daughter’s father pass away. We’ve suffered great loss, and we’ve gotten stronger from it. The way I live is things just happen for a reason. And even this — I mean there were so many awful things that happened from it, but so many incredible things that happened from it. And there’s times where we were all forced to stop, to pay attention, to do these things we wouldn’t normally have done. There’s been incredible social change that’s come from it. And so, everyone is like "wow, this has been the worst year," but then,what if this was exactly what we all needed? It’s all about perspective.

Shifting gears for a moment to cooking competitions. You’ve come so, so close to winning…I assume you’re not about to stop now?

Yeah, I’ve been competing professionally since 2007, which is insane. When I did "Top Chef" the first time, I made it to the final four. And then "All Stars," and I made it to the final three. I always joke, "I’m always the bridesmaid, never the bride." I love competing, and I’ve won small things, but so far not the giant tournaments.

Then you tied on this year’s "Tournament of Champions."

I know. It’s so frustrating. I mean I came so close. It’s literally, every time I you came so close. And I still like Jet [Tila]. I still talk about it because I’m like, "Yo, you know your dish wasn’t North African." But to me, competing is such a privilege — to be able to jump into those arenas and to have this insane rush of adrenaline and then to execute under all of that pressure. [Competitions are] huge confidence builders. Honestly sometimes I come up with great dishes where I’m like woo, that’s going to go on a menu now. And you get to see what other people are doing. You keep yourself fresh like that, and you keep yourself so on your toes. It just makes you hungry for other things that are happening.. Complacency is what kills. And so, for me saying "yes" to things and competing and letting my adrenaline take over and taking it so seriously, all that stuff keeps me young and fresh and alive. And so, yeah, I don’t know, Guy and I have been talking, and he’s like, "You’re doing ‘Tournament of Champions’ next year." And I was like, "I’m going to need $400 built into my contract for therapy."

That’s it?!

Two sessions. Two is what I did last time. I remember in my second session I was just like, "I can’t believe I’m spending money having this conversation with you." He’s like, "Well, get it out."

Antonia Lofaso reveals what happens when you don’t win Top Chef

Antonia Lofaso competing on Chopped

Which would you say was your favorite competition?

It’s hard to say because it’s almost like you can gauge times in my life and my age based on what show I was competing on. And so, all of them have been so special in so many different ways. When I did "Top Chef," I was just starting out. I was a baby pigeon. I didn’t even know what I was doing. Then going back a second time for "Top Chef " after I’d already opened a restaurant and had a little pep in my step and was a little more confident.

Plus, it was an "All Star" situation.

Yeah, so I’m an "All Star" all of a sudden. And then I make to the finale, and I’m the only woman. So, it’s like all of these insane things were happening. And then I go into Food Network, which is like fun, more relaxed competition where it’s not, "your whole life is ruined if you don’t win this competition," which is kind of how we feel about "Top Chef." Like, I did a "Chopped" tournament, and it was so much fun. "Cutthroat Kitchen" was so much fun. "Guy’s Grocery Games" is a blast. Like "Supermarket Stakeout," judging "Iron Chef America." All that stuff just became, it became like "ah, I can breathe a little bit." I still get to talk about food, but it’s not this insanity. Then "Tournament of Champions" came, and it was just like the insanity is back. "Tournament of Champions" is the closest to "Top Chef" I’ve ever done. That’s how stressful it is. That’s how in-your-face it is. And I’m also 15 years older. So, it’s a really interesting journey that has gotten me there and how I compete now in "Tournament of Champions" versus my very first season of "Top Chef" in 2007.

Can you elaborate on that?

Well, when I was on "Top Chef" in 2007, I was scared of everything. When I made a dish, I was like I think it’s good, I’m sure you’ll like it. And then I would pay attention to what other chefs were doing. And I would be like, oh, I don’t do that. And now, I’m just like, "I don’t care what you do. This is my opinion. This is how I feel about foie gras. This is how I feel about hamachi collar, this is my idea of North African cuisine." And so, I have this kind of like I don’t really give a s*** attitude that serves me much better than being scared and distrusting to my intuition. And now I’m just like I cook more confidently. I cook more like myself. I’m not as inclined to try to be something that I’m not. When you see someone like Michael Voltaggio do all this incredible gastronomy. I’m like I don’t do that. You know what I mean? I do this, and I do this really well. And this is what I like.

How cooking competitions change you for the better, according to Antonia Lofaso

Antonia Lofaso in black chefs clothes, gesturing with one hand

How has that affected you as a judge on, say, Cutthroat Kitchen?

It’s given me a great amount of sympathy and empathy for everything they do. And I think — and it’s interesting because I was just talking to this other chef about it right now. And she’s like, "I want to get into judging." And I was like, "You should get into competing first," because there’s a part of it where it’s like you should, the thing that you’re talking about, you should be able to do… I think that you become so much more of a dynamic judge when you’ve been in their shoes. And you can be like, God, I know what you were going for. I saw it. I knew the determination. Time got away from you.

So a lot of times judges are like this is just the dish. I’m just judging the food. And I’m like yeah, but if you know where they come from and this is what they do, and this is their background, I’m more inclined to put myself in their shoes because I’ve been in their shoes. And I’ve had great mistakes and I’ve great failures and incredible successes. And so, to be able to also tell them that.

When they see me, they are like "Wow, she’s done this before. She’s been in the grind." And so, there’s this kind of camaraderie that happens. And so, I find myself as a judge really making sure that they learn something from that experience because that’s what I did. I had some of the most incredible judges early on in my career. Tom Collicchio, Anthony Bourdain, just to name a few, Daniel Bouloud — I had the distinct privilege of them being able to taste my food and give me feedback. And so feedback is positive – even if it’s negative, it’s not nasty, not sound bites. That’s what I don’t get behind. Guy doesn’t stand for any of that on his set. He wants it to be constructive. So, people are going to fail, and that’s okay. And so, and it’s a really… it’s one of those things that you just feel better about because people are going to fail, and that’s okay, but you don’t need to make them feel like a failure.

Antonia Lofaso reveals what it’s like cooking with Selena Gomez and breaks down the octopus debacle

Selena Gomez

What was it like cooking with Selena Gomez? Because that’s got to be a whole different kind of thing.

She’s amazing. And HBO Max is incredible. Their producers were amazing. I worked with one of the producers on "Cutthroat Kitchen." That’s actually how I was the first one they called to come and do it because I’d worked with [Selena] before. So, it was awesome. And they were the very first show that was back — I mean, I think we filmed that in May [2020]. They came in my house, set everything up, and then they left and just did everything from a truck in my driveway — just to keep it very safe.

And Selena is the sweetest. She genuinely wanted to learn how to cook. I didn’t want to scare her. I chose the seafood tostada because it’s this incredible Mexican dish that I do at my Latin restaurant, DAMA. And I thought she would be totally into it, which she was, but not so much the cleaning and cooking the octopus. It was funny, because everyone’s like, "Did you plan that?" And I was like, "No, it just happens to be part of the dish." I didn’t really think how funny it was going to be to have whole octopus on the show. But everyone loved it, and it ended up being a lot of fun. And Selena learned how to cook an octopus. So there’s that. We all learned something new.

Any words of wisdom for women trying to forge their way in the restaurant business?

The only thing I’ve ever told really anyone is just make sure that this is what you want to do. When you’re in the restaurant industry, it’s 60, 70 hours a week. It is a lot of work — a lot of physical work, and a lot of mental. It’s somewhat of a thankless job. I get a ton of praise because of the stuff I do on television, but if you get into it wanting to do that, it can be disappointing. You have to really, really love it. There’s nothing else that I would do.

Antonia Lofaso reveals the truth about culinary school

Antonia Lofaso holding up some weird-looking food
How about with regard to dealing with all the people and personalities in the business?

Just work for good people. Work for people that share your same ideals and character… And don’t give up. I’ve fallen down, skinned my knee, and been like, "I’m not doing this anymore" multiple times throughout my 25 year career. It’s not always going to be pretty. But if you want it, then you get up and you brush your knees off, put a Band-Aid on and get right back to work. I’ve left kitchens crying more times than I can count just because you just, you feel beaten from it.

Does culinary school prepare you for it?

Not really. I went to the French Culinary Institute. That’s what they called it back in the day. It’s the same one Bobby Flay went to, and Dan Barber, and Tom Colicchio. There’s a lot of great chefs that came from the French Culinary. But you don’t really know what it feels like until you’re in a restaurant. You don’t really, really get the gist of it until you’re in a restaurant.

A lot of these kids coming out of culinary school, they think when they graduate they’re chefs. But I’m like, "you’re still a line cook that’s going to make minimum wage until you really know what you’re doing." Culinary school gives you a basis. It doesn’t really prepare you for day and day, night cooking and all that stuff. It’s not the same. It’s not what happens. I remember when we first opened DAMA, I had both of my sous chefs in the dish pit cleaning because the two dishwashers couldn’t handle the volume, and it was just disorganized. It happens during openings. And I was expediting, and literally when my business partner walked back there and was like, "Man, your team just, they’re savages." I was like, "Yeah, because they will do anything." And it’s humbling. It shows everyone else in the restaurant "I will do anything that they will." No one’s too good for any position. Everyone’s done everything.

Someone had to say this about being a working mother, so Antonia Lofaso did

Antonia and her daughter Xea Myers

Can you talk about being a working mother in this field?

I think being a working mother in any field is really, really difficult unless maybe your job has somewhat of a normal schedule. I have a lot of conversations with women about this because we think that there’s this idea like you can have it all, but that’s actually a lie. If you want to work, it does mean that you’re going to be away from your child. The balance then comes with the time that you spend with your child when you’re together. How intimate that time is and how much quality of that time is.

I see a lot of stay at home parents, and their kids are on their cell phones and they’re on their cell phones. And I’m like yeah, you guys might be in the same room together, but is this quality time? And so, I point those things out, not as a way to make people feel badly, but because we have this idea as parents that quantity of time is where this works. And I’m like it kind of isn’t. It’s quality time, and that’s what’s worked for me. Was it perfect? No. Was there a lot of up and down? Yes. But now, at 21 she’s just like "I can be anything that I want to be and my mom is so incredible."

So, listen, your kids are going to hate you for something.

Yeah, that is for sure. Mine do.

Your kids are going to be p***ed at you for something, right? So, might as well let it be the thing you like to do, so.

My mother was a working mom, so I hated her for that. So, I was willing to have my kids hate me for that.

And it’s one of those things where kids don’t know. As they get older they start to realize. And so, and it was just my daughter’s own growing pains. It had nothing really to do, like I was a bad mother. She was at swim practice with her grandfather or her uncle or her grandmother or, you know what I mean? Or a family friend of mine, and she was always safe.

It takes a village…

Yeah, it takes a village, and so, yeah would she have like me at more swim meets? Sure. Were there times I came home and had to have the worst day ever and had no energy to have a conversation with her and just wanted to zone out and there was no time? Yeah, 100%. But is our relationship incredible right now? Without question. Is she in college and living her dreams and is well? Yes. So this fantasy that you’re going to have this perfect home life and you’ve made a pot roast and a beautiful potato gratin and then worked a 10 hour day, and then got eight hours sleep, and then exercise and all the things that need to happen so that you stay sane, and check homework and went to a parent/teacher conference. No, not going to happen.

Antonia Lofaso gets real about the loss of her partner, Heavy D

Heavy D

And you were, or, rather, you became a single mom. I’m very sorry about your loss. After Dwight died, did you and your daughter seek solace together in cooking?

No, interestingly enough. It was just like a whirlwind. It was just honestly like more survival mode. We moved and all that kind of stuff, but our… we found a lot in going out to eat together. That’s kind of like our thing. So, she knows how to cook. She knows how to cook well. But when we eat at home at our house, it’s like very clean eating and very sort of like not a lot of junk food in the house unless we’re having a dinner party or something like that. So, our stuff is like we’re going to go out to eat. And so, that’s always been our thing. We love Korean barbecue, and we love sushi. We love to be out together eating. That’s our favorite thing. We’ve taken trips to Paris and Italy and all these areas and just all we do is eat the whole trip.

Is there anything in your restaurants that is a secret call out to Heavy D, I mean, Dwight?

The name of my company is actually DinnerBelle Inc., and he named that. He named me DinnerBelle years ago, and so that’s the name of my company.

Can you tell me about your friendship with Ben Smith and your experience making a cameo with him on "The Bachelorette"?

Yeah, so Ben and I became friends — he lives in the same neighborhood that I, and he was a trainer at the gym. We started training together and became really good friends. And during the pandemic, he created this whole program called Delta Bravo, which I still do. It’s like an online program that I can do in my back yard. And so, because he lives in the neighborhood, and we were all shut down, he was with me. He delivered meals with me to frontline workers. We just — there’s this community of people that live in our neighborhood. So, they called him to do "The Bachelorette," and he was like, "Should I do it?" I was like, "Yeah. 100%. Why not?"

So, when he was out there, and I’m very much like a mom figure to him. You know what I mean? I hate saying that because I’m only 15 years older than him. I’m like hello, I’m not really your mom. But the producers called me because his parents couldn’t come because of COVID. "Is there any chance that you can come with his sister? He talks about you as just like this great mentor," or whatever. So, I ended up on The Bachelorette in 2020.

Would you ever consider going on "The Bachelorette"?

Never, ever, although my friends did say there should be a cooking version of that for me — "Cooking for Love." I’d be the bachelorette and all of my suitors would have all these different food competitions to do.

The weirdest challenge on Cutthroat Kitchen, according to Antonia Lofaso

Seafood cocktail

Speaking of food competitions, what’s your favorite thing you’ve ever gotten to try while judging "Cutthroat Kitchen"?

So, Eric Greenspan did a dish where he wasn’t allowed to mix any ingredients together. It was a really weird challenge. Everything had to be served separately. He served me clams, chopped shallots, herbs, vinegar, ketchup — and he was like, "this is a do-it-yourself table-side seafood cocktail." And I was like, "Oh my God. This is so much fun." I was mixing everything together and it was delicious. It was so good, and the way all the ingredients were laid out. Everything was so perfectly organized.

Is that something you would ever consider doing in one of your restaurants?

So, right now, we don’t really do much table side, and especially with COVID now. It’s not even an option. Other than opening a bag of churros or opening up a bag of zeppolis, we can’t have people touching anything.

The truth about the reboot of the restaurant industry

Antonia Lofaso raising a glass

Would you say that there really is an opportunity now for a "reboot" of the restaurant industry?

Well, I mean just the fact that people are eating out three and a half times a week right now. I mean it is. It’s booming. What I see is that there’s been a lot of sort of subdivisions of hospitality that are emerging that are really, really interesting like all of these ghost kitchens. And honestly, all of these large format events that are kind of happening via Zoom with the opportunity for people to buy boxes and have boxes shipped. So, we started two other companies in the midst of all of this. And we’ve got a nationwide delivery service of all these do-it-yourself at home packages where you can get Scopa tomato sauce and pasta and rice balls, and empanadas from DAMA, and fluffernutter kits from Black Market.

Fluffernutter, nationwide! Sign me up…

So, go to ScopaItalianRoots.com, and it goes to all of them. And this has nothing to do with the pandemic. You could have dinner with your mom who lives in Florida, and send her a box and actually just have a conversation over a meal. So, there’s all these opportunities for these other businesses that are kind of thriving right now. So, I think the hospitality industry — we’re going to see a huge explosion. People are just so excited to be out.

Will you be jumping on the ghost kitchen bandwagon any time soon?

Not yet, but through the whole pandemic, I was doing burger boxes and barbecue boxes and Valentine’s boxes, Mother’s Day, pasta tasting kits. Anything that I could put together. We did whiskey tastings, wine tastings. We did Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Rosh Hashanah. You know what I mean? Hanukah, everything. Any holiday like Memorial Day, Labor Day, we did everything from both restaurants. We would box and ship to you, or you’d come pick up. So, there’s a part of us that are like maybe we open a ghost kitchen, just continuing to do these boxes. We just did barbecue boxes for Labor Day 2021 and people bought them. And I’m doing a lobster roll box for 4th of July.

Antonia Lofaso distills 2020 into a single word…

Chef Antonia Lofaso

So, overall, it sounds like you managed to turn the situation you were presented with into something positive.

I’ve had restaurants for a very long time. We have menus and the menu changes, but nothing’s really like this — where everything’s going along so well, and then all of a sudden someone throws a wrench into the middle of it. But I’m very task-oriented, so, it’s exciting to problem solve. It’s part of being in the restaurant industry. So, it was like being able to sharpen these tools to be like okay, we have this very serious problem. How do we survive? Being with other chefs, talking about what they are doing. I mean, it just kept going. It felt so good to be creative. It feels so good now when we’re looking at the numbers from last year and seeing how many people we were able to keep employed when we shut down again in November. And that was a really big deal, a huge deal. And it was all because of these secondary businesses that we were opening. We had people who needed jobs, and we were able to employ.

You want to know something? We kept saying that the word "pivot" was the word for 2020. But I think I’m going to go with "resilience."

I like that better.

I like it better too.

Well, thank you so, so much. This was fun. Can’t wait to see what happens on Saturday!

Yeah, it’s going to be great!

"Restaurant Reboot" will live-stream for free and will air on June 12, 2021, beginning at 7 p.m. (EST) via Guy Fieri’s Facebook page. It will also be simulcasted by LiveXLive across 20+ other platforms including, LiveXLive, YouTube, Twitch, TikTok, Twitter, and can be viewed at GuysRestaurantReboot.com.