• Candice Kumai on the cover of her book Cook Yourself Sexy<br />
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Image courtesy of Lauren Volo
  • Kumai and the cast of E!'s new show Playing with Fire<br />
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Image ©E!
  • Kumai in her show Playing with Fire<br />
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Image ©E!
  • Grilled mushroom and leek flatbread pizza<br />
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Image courtesy of Lauren Volo

A Conversation with Chef Candice Kumai

E!’s new show Playing with Fire, which showcases five movers and shakers in the New York culinary scene, debuts Sunday night, so we caught up with one its stars for a quick chat about food, entertaining and, of course, hair. A former model and Top Chef alumnus, Candice Kumai received her culinary training at Le Cordon Bleu California School of Culinary Arts and is currently a judge on Iron Chef America. Also known as the “Stiletto Chef,” Kumai has written several cookbooks, including Pretty Delicious (Rodale, 2011) and Cook Yourself Sexy (Rodale, 2012). She was also a contributor to the New York Times #1 bestseller Cook Yourself Thin (Voice, 2009). Kumai focuses on healthy recipes that use “real food” (read: less packaged) to make sexy and delicious meals. Here, Kumai shares her best tips on how to look gorgeous—and calm—whether you’re cooking in front of the camera like her, entertaining a few friends at home or hosting your favorite clients at the salon.

You have a really unique look and gorgeous hair. Tell us about your background.

My mom is Japanese and my dad is Polish American. Very recently I’ve had a couple of different hair stylists tell me that half-Asian hair is some of the most beautiful hair to work with. It’s a mixture of the extra fine and coarse hair from my mom’s side and light brown with some soft elements from my dad. I have a very fine mane and a lot of it, but it goes through the ringer because of the work I do. I have to take really good care of it.

How do you keep your hair looking gorgeous while cooking…without it winding up in the food?

If I’m entertaining friends, I’ll pull my hair up. If I’m at an event, I’ll do soft curls and put it halfway up. My hair has gone from long with bangs to its current medium length with sideswept bangs. In NYC, it’s about a look that’s effortless. I get the most compliments when I appear more natural.

You’re often cooking over a stove or under the bright, hot lights of cameras. How do you keep your makeup on and not look shiny?

I recommend finishing sprays for makeup. I like Make Up For Ever’s Mist and Fix spray and MAC’s Fix+ spray. It’s important to have layers to keep your makeup from melting off. Makeup artists often put a paint pot on my eyelid first to make eye shadow last and there’s always a lot of lip liner on before layers of lipstick. It’s also important to pay attention to what you look like throughout the day. Keep a kit on you with blotting tissues and powder, a lip pencil and lip glosses.

One of my makeup artists told me, “My job is to make you happy and feel good.” Your client may be under a lot of pressure—especially if they’re in the public eye—and the more you make them feel special and beautiful, they more they’ll use your services.

How can salon owners use food and entertaining to create a warm environment for their clients?

Make clients feel special and take that extra step with food and drink choices, whether it’s pomegranate seeds in the champagne glass or pouring a nicer bottle of wine and keeping herbal teas on hand for a relaxing atmosphere. Serve up small bites with the drinks.

Throw a mixer every three months or so for your clients and have them bring friends. Serve small treats and offer up a few free manis/pedis and some blowouts to a couple of women that night.

As a busy chef who’s often entertaining friends or clients, what are your tried-and-true entertaining tips the rest of us can steal to use at home or in the salon?

Set the scene: Keep the atmosphere clean, simple and upbeat. It’s only going to take a few extra plates, candles and lighting and you’re off to the races! Be a gracious host and keep that smile on…even if you’re stressing a bit!

Be mindful of your guests’ diets: It’s always nice to have a variety of foods on hand, like gluten-free, vegetarian and dairy-free options. And, make sure to have starters out for your guests to nibble on prior to eating the main dishes. I recommend a cheese board, spiced nuts, dried fruit and crudités with homemade hummus. I love serving my guests the best red wine first, like a red Rioja blend, or a glass of Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne. Have options available for all, serve with a smile and clean as you go.

Prep parting gifts before they arrive: Go the classy route and be a memorable hostess with a lovely to-go package. Wrap up cookies or a dessert, homemade jams or a bottle of elderflower cordial. Send your guests leaving with a smile. After all, if you’re going to go through all of that trouble to throw a dinner party, you’d better make it a fabulous one!

Kumai shares one of her favorite spring appetizers for entertaining. Serve this crispy veggie pizza—from Cook Yourself Sexy—at your next gathering.

Grilled Mushroom and Leek Flatbread Pizza
With a crisp crust and intensely robust mushrooms, onions and leeks, this recipe is pretty much perfection. Kumai suggests cutting the pizza into small bites for an appetizer and serving it with pinot grigio or Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne.

Serves: 6

2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 small yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 cups cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced, preferably on a mandolin
1 leek, halved, rinsed, and finely chopped
2 1⁄2 teaspoons sea salt, divided
All-purpose flour for rolling dough
1 pound store-bought pizza dough
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1⁄4 cup basil leaves

1. In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, reduce the heat to low, and cook, stirring occasionally.

2. Add the balsamic vinegar once the onion has picked up some color. Continue to cook the onion until fully caramelized, approximately 20 minutes. (If the onion slices start to stick to the pan, splash the pan with a bit of water and stir and scrape up any browned bits.)

3. Increase the heat to medium. Stir in the mushrooms and cook until they just begin to soften and lose their moisture, 2 to 4 minutes. Add the leek and 2 teaspoons of the salt and cook for an additional minute. Set aside.

4. Heat a charcoal or gas grill or a grill pan to medium-high heat. Sprinkle your work surface with flour and roll the dough into a 1⁄2-inch-thick circle. Brush the grill pan (or grill grates) with 1 teaspoon of the oil and gently lay the dough on the grates. Grill until the underside of the crust is golden, 1 to 2 minutes, and then use a spatula to flip the dough over.

5. Brush the remaining 1 teaspoon oil over the top of the dough and sprinkle with the remaining 1⁄2 teaspoon sea salt. Grill until the underside is golden, another 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer the grilled pizza round to a cutting board.

6. Top the pizza base with the mushroom and leek mixture. Sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese and finish with a few leaves of basil before slicing and serving.

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