Jonathan Bennett Leans Into The Nostalgia Trend With New Cooking Competition - Exclusive Interview

The last few years have seen no shortage of nostalgic foods and snacks making a comeback, such as Oreo Cakesters or classic Dunkaroos. And Food Network's latest show, "Battle of the Decades," brings nostalgia in spades, pitting the older generations and newer generations against each other for one epic cooking competition. In an exclusive interview with Mashed, the series' host, Jonathan Bennett, disclosed what nostalgia means to him (in terms of food, of course), the biggest challenges for contestants, and the best dish he tried on the show.

The "Cake Wars" host even divulged the most outlandish cake he's tried to date — and thankfully, that dessert wasn't made with an Easy Bake Oven. But "Battle of the Decades" pushes contestants to the limit by having them recreate viral food trends and traditional dishes with a twist, as Bennett explained. Have you ever grated parmesan cheese with a Snoopy snow cone machine? We haven't, but one of the competitors sure did.

What nostalgia means to Jonathan Bennett

"Battle of the Decades" is based on nostalgic food trends and appliances. When you think of the word nostalgia, what food or meal comes to mind?

I grew up with Hamburger Helper, and I'm so excited that they used it on "Battle of the Decades" as one of the challenges. [During] my childhood, I'd say three nights a week, we had Hamburger Helper because it was so delicious and it's just what you ate at the time. Fruit Roll-Ups come to mind — I loved those ... Dunkaroos are delicious. Those are my childhood. I grew up in the '80s and '90s, so those were foods of the decades. We ate them every day.

Dunkaroos made a big comeback in recent years.

Yes. But for the record, we were the original Dunkaroos eaters.

That's fair. Did you ever use the tattoos on the Fruit Roll-Ups as a kid? I always used to do that — on your tongue.

Oh my gosh, yes. The Fruit Roll-Ups — you put them on your tongue and then stick them on the back of your hand. I would look like I had leprosy, covered in all these stamps from the Fruit Roll-Ups.

What's one throwback food trend that you hope never comes back?

That's a good question ... Chicken noodle soup. No — I don't want to go with chicken noodle soup ... I don't think we need to bring back Tang ever. Tang, when you taste it again as an adult, you're like, "We drank this and thought it was good?" It's Kool-Aid without the sugar.

I'm not familiar with that one.

Tang [is] a powdery orange drink. It's like Kool-Aid, but it was before that. I was never a big fan of Tang when it came out, and I hope it stays that way, but that's one trend that we can do without.

It's all about old school versus new school

With contestants using popular ingredients and gadgets from different generations, what did you find to be the biggest challenge among the competitors?

One of the biggest challenges for the new-school chefs was figuring out how to turn on the gadgets that they had to use. We had one chef that didn't even know how to turn on a George Foreman Grill because she had never seen one before. It was hilarious to watch them have to figure it out. The new-school chef has to use all these nostalgic appliances like the Magic Bullet or the Easy Bake Oven; it's fun to watch them have to figure out these older appliances.

It's also funny to watch the old-school chefs make fun of the new-school chefs for not knowing how to use it, because it feels like you're in your kitchen with your parents and they're like, "Let me show you how to do it." When you're cooking with your parents, they have to show you everything and how it works. There's some fun crossover there between the two chefs that's fun for TV.

Did you find that the old-school chefs were often coaching or giving advice to the new-school ones?

Yes. Well, it's funny because the old-school chefs were constantly coaching the new-school chefs. What I was surprised to see is how open the old-school chefs were to not being set in their ways but to taking some of the new techniques and ideas that the new-school chefs have and incorporating that into their dishes. The old-school chefs realize that cooking and food and trends are always evolving, so you can't be stuck in your ways too much. You have to evolve with the time.

To have that marriage between the new school and the old school teaching each other things is fun to watch, and it's a beautiful thing. You see the old-school chefs almost schooling the newer ones — not so much on recipes, but techniques, [like] the simple techniques of oil in a frying pan or the old-school stuff that your parents and your grandparents do better than you and you're like, "I can't tell you what my grandma does."

Fried chicken is a perfect example. You and I know how to fry chicken, but for some reason, Grandma does it better, and it's because she does something with the oil or she has some little trick she does when she's putting the oil in the pan. It's the simple techniques that the old-school chefs pass down to keep them going. That was really fun to watch.

That's my dad with red sauce. I can't do it myself.

Right. You know how to do it, but you can't.

You can shred parmesan cheese with a snow cone machine

With the old-school chefs learning and the new-school chefs learning, is there anything that you learned from the contestants yourself?

One of the hacks I learned is that if you ever don't have a cheese grater, you can put parmesan cheese in a Snoopy snow cone machine and grate the parmesan cheese. That I never thought to do, but apparently, you can do it, because we do it on "Battle of the Decades."

That is very unique. I don't know if I have one lying around, but maybe.

Next time you have a Snoopy snow cone machine and a brick of parmesan cheese and you need to make pasta, you've got yourself covered.

Is there a dish from the show that took you by surprise?

Yes. I've been talking about this one a lot, but I have to because it's so good. The challenge was to incorporate Wheaties, ranch dressing, and Fruit Roll-Ups into a dish. We had a chef take the Wheaties and grind them up into a breading and coat the sole fish and cook it, and then they melted down Fruit Roll-Ups to make a sauce by adding a whole bunch of other ingredients to it and drizzled it over the fish. It was a really summery, light fish.

When you taste it, you can taste the Wheaties and you can taste the Fruit Roll-Ups — so you get that nostalgic trigger — but at the same time, it's elevated to a completely different level. Even though you're tasting those ingredients, you're tasting something completely new for the first time.

Was it good?

It was the best fish I've ever had in my whole life.

That's wild.

Actually the best fish I've ever had. Who would've thought you could put Fruit Roll-Ups on a fish and it's delicious?

That's so interesting. I'm going to try to replicate that at home, and it's going to be a disaster.

Don't do it. Don't try this at home, kids.

Buy a lot of pants to host a food show

This isn't exactly your first time hosting a food show, with your most iconic being "Cake Wars." Was there any advice you received from the "Cake Wars" judges that you still use today?

Yes. The best advice I got when starting hosting on Food Network is to make sure you get three different sizes of pants, because when you start the season and when you end the season, I guarantee you, you are not going to be the same weight. Make sure you have some outfits that get bigger as the season goes on.

What's the most outlandish cake you remember from the series that you can recall? You did so many.

My favorite cake was the Girl Scout episode for the Girl Scouts. They had to take each one of the cookies and transform them into a cake version. They did a trail mix cake that still to this day was the best cake I've ever had.

It was a brown sugar, cinnamon-dense cake, but it had nuts and berries. It tasted like trail mix, but it was in this really good brown cake. It was absolutely phenomenal. The guy from Atlanta — he was the one that won, and I've never been more excited than to crown him the winner of that episode because I was like, "You deserve this."

I love when you're rooting for them and they actually go all the way. It's very exciting. Girl Scout cookies are very nostalgic too, speaking of.

Yes. Hey, we should do that for Season 2. Food Network, take note — Season 2.

If you could pick any food competition show to host beyond the ones that you're currently hosting, what would you pick and why?

I want to go on "Worst Cooks in America" because I am not that great of a cook. Even though I host hundreds of episodes of Food Network, I'm not the best chef in the world. It would be fun to go on and actually see what I could do.

That's a good one. I've spoken to Anne Burrell a few times, and she told me that the celebrity seasons are more fun because they know how to act on camera, but they get frustrated when they actually try to cook, so they don't look perfect on camera. They get all flustered.

I love that.

You should do it. In addition to this show, are there any other upcoming projects that you can speak on?

No — my whole life is this right now.

"Battle of the Decades" premieres Wednesday, August 16 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Food Network. You can keep up with Jonathan Bennett's latest projects on his Instagram page.

This interview has been edited for clarity.