What happens when a family – where cooking is in the blood – puts their skills (and their relationship) to the ultimate test? Vanessa Etienne finds out.
Hundreds of flyers went out that read: “Ayesha Curry’s looking for America’s next food family!” The entreaty – to compete in ABC’s new series Family Food Fight – was eventually passed along by a friend to Johnny and Enrico Livanos.
The brothers, owners of Ousia, a Greek-inspired Mediterranean restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen, didn’t like the sound of being on TV with cameras glued to their faces. And the possibility of screwing up and getting eliminated early on just seemed embarrassing. But, despite their reservations, they decided to audition.
Without much information and few expectations, they brought four other family members to the studios. “Even our two little cousins came to watch,” says Johnny. “We just tried to make a fun day out of it. And then, within 20 minutes of leaving, they called us back for the next audition.”
The Livanos family dynamic is what impressed the producers and ultimately landed them a spot in the competition, narrowing down from six family members to just three: Johnny, Enrico, and their mother, Lorena. Describing it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, they went for the chance to win $100,000.
They have a special bond, they say, that results in a natural ease in the kitchen. All it takes is a facial expression and they know what each other is thinking (while Enrico says their mom’s fiery personality brings an element of passion to everything they do).
“Gathering around, eating together, cooking together, is just in our DNA, it’s who we are,” he says.
“Ultimately, we just wanted to have a new experience. There’s no growth without a little challenge, and we’re never going to have another opportunity like that again.”
Despite the pressures of the competition – and under the scrutiny of the camera – they tried to maintain the same kind of energy they’re used to in the family kitchen. “When we’re cooking together it’s not just about food,” says Johnny, “it’s about spending some time together. So we usually have some wine, put the music on, and just have a little fun.”
Being their “normal goofy selves” also meant they found themselves singing during some of the challenges to compensate for a lack of music. “Pass me the breadcrumbs, gonna make a meatball,” the boys would sing, creating little improv melodies to stay calm.
This “party mentality” is what they grew up with, gathering around the kitchen island making Sicilian cookies, cracking jokes, and singing together. “Some people whistle while they work, and we just like to sing and rap while we work,” says Johnny.
And while certain kitchen shows play up the pressured environment and the clashes that can happen behind the scenes, the family insist they were able to stay level-headed … even when the temperatures were at boiling point and the timing was tight.
“You have to have another level of respect and find balance between work and family,” says Johnny. “Communication is so important because, if something doesn’t work out, you have to remember that it’s not your co-worker, it’s your mom or your brother.”
In one particular episode, they were given 45 minutes to create a burger, fries, and milkshake from scratch. And, although they’d gone into the competition planning to stick to what they know, Johnny and Enrico had a new idea … but Lorena wasn’t so sure. “When they made the milkshake and infused the milk with cereal … I can’t believe they thought of that! That was a high for me, to see the boys pull through and create a beautiful masterpiece,” she says. “The whole experience was really a mom’s dream come true, because when am I going to do this again with my adult sons?”
And while Lorena, Johnny, and Enrico were filming, the rest of the family came together to run the restaurant, cheering them on from home.
Their advice for other families who want to start cooking together? “Go for it,” says Enrico. “Figure out what gets you excited to eat and go through the steps of it together and watch what comes alive.”
And, most important? “Have fun.”
Family Food Fight is on Thursday nights at 9|8c on ABC (abc.go.com)
This article originally appeared in the print edition of W42ST magazine in August 2019.