Bravotv.com: Are you excited for the show to air? Are you a Top Chef fan?
I often don't watch myself on TV, even though I've had years and years of television, and I work on the editing of my own show, once I'm up there I usually don't like to see it.
What I like the most about the show is that it has really become a chef's show. It's very popular amongst the people I know the best and the people I hang out with the most because it's got real things you can imagine doing, and it has fabulous opportunities to see how people will react in certain situations in our profession. It's not just about talent in the kitchen, it's how you handle pressure and how quickly you can make decisions. In some ways this is the only show that shows people in the full light of what it means to be a chef. I know people who aren't really apart of the restaurant world might not be able to imagine how some of these situations make sense as ways of figuring out if someone's a good chef or not, but I think they are. There are times when you're called upon to do amazingly diverse things, so I think it's a really good show from that standpoint. You have to be able to be creative under pressure in all facets.
Bravotv.com: Why is Chicago the perfect place for this season?
Chicago has one of the hottest dining scenes right now because we have a lot of innovation, but also a lot of solid, more traditional but contemporary food. More traditional than, say, what you'd find at Alinea and Moto -- those are very cutting edge and very experimental in their cuisine, but then we've got some super solid contenders in fine dining and just nice dining. I think we have a very strong Midwestern sensibility here that has to do with learning your craft very well and using good ingredients, and it's not as flashy as what you would find in L.A., or as over-the-top as what you would find in New York, but I think people come here as a culinary destination all the time and are just blown away that they can have one great meal after another. I started going to Mexico when I was in my teens, and it touched all of my heartstrings immediately. I felt, when I went to Mexico for the first time, that in many ways I'd gone home more than I had gone to a foreign country. I just kept going back, and I lived there for a long time, but I decided to settle in Chicago for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that my wife's family lives here and we wanted to be somewhere with some family roots. The other reason was that Chicago has a huge Mexican population. It's the second largest concentration of Mexicans in the United States with over a million within the Chicago limits, and it's recent immigration, so we have all the ingredients really at our fingertips to do the real traditional food of Mexico. In L.A. they may have the right ingredients, but they have such a strong Chicano population that is third, fourth, fifth generation that has created their own Mexican culture that's very different than what you'll find in Chicago. In Chicago it's much closer to the traditional culture of Mexico and it's very diverse, we don't have immigration just from one place, it's from different places, so what we end up with in Chicago is a lot of mom and pop places that are really oriented towards the food of their locale.
Today is the 21st anniversary of our restaurant, and what we've done is given people courage to do the real food of Mexico. We've shown that if you do it with good ingredients and skill, people will come to it. Before, folks would make Mexican food they thought the American population wanted. It was already Americanized before it even was put on the table, so I thought how can I make the regional food of Mexico, and how can I translate that and make it look right on the plate to people who are coming to an upscale restaurant. We've spawned many restaurants over the years. Someone asked me how many it was the other day and I think it's probably a dozen, and they're all mid and upper level restaurants, they're not what most people think of when they of Mexican food. Chicago probably has the highest concentration of that kind of restaurant, and it's because we've set that standard by saying, "You can do this. You don't have to make your living by making cheap food for people." We've been thrilled that we've been able to make our mark, and when people talk about Chicago Mexican, they mean that upscale approach to the regional Mexican food, so I was really thrilled with the challenge of taking a taco and making it upscale because that's what we do every day.
Bravotv.com: What was the key to the Quickfire Challenge?
A lot of the people didn't listen to the challenge and just made tacos. They didn't make anything that was upscale enough to go on a fine dining menu, and I was really sad about that. One person said, "You know I don't know much about tacos, so I'm just going to make something different and I think upscale," and he did. Richard's taco will be on our menu once the show airs.
Spike was very adamant that the taco shouldn't be upscale, and I disagree with that. I think there's room for growth in everything, and, as I've said many times, if a cuisine is not evolving, it's dying. I believe there is a place for experimentation with new things, and some of those things will stick and some of them won't.
Bravotv.com: What did the chefs have to do to succeed in the Elimination Challenge?
To be successful in the Block Party challenge the chefs needed to figure out how to bring integrity and deliciousness to that block party experience. Some of them just went so far downscale with it that it felt like they weren't trying to bring something new to it, but instead just trying to give you a good version of the ordinary stuff -- but it wasn't a good version! That was my biggest struggle with that. One team very clearly didn't work the way a good team works. They didn't recognize everybody's strengths and go with them. Instead, they all wanted to do everything, they all wanted to be involved in the development of everything, they all wanted to take responsibility for everything, and, consequently, nothing came out very good. It really seemed like no one was in charge.
The other team was much more divided up and people were playing their strengths, but, it being so early in the competition, it felt like they hadn't really gelled yet. They also didn't really figure out that they had to play to two audiences. They had to play to the judges, first and foremost, and they had to play to the people on the street, but to tell you the truth, I think the people on the street were kind of disappointed that they didn't get more upscale food. The chefs were playing too far down to them, and I never like that. Even if something's a stretch for them, people like being stretched. These people thought this was a really cool thing, and they wanted to be challenged and to see something different.
Stephanie's wonton and "Sexy Drink" were really good, and they were interesting. She was playing to the judges in many ways, but they were also super popular with the people at the event.
Zoi's pasta salad -- Ew! That was awful! But there was nothing to recommend about either her or Erik's dishes. I didn't think it was a hard choice at all. In fact, I kind of thought as we were leaving the event that it would probably be Erik because he was supposed to be the master of the corn dog, and if he couldn't pull it off in that situation it meant he was only master of it if he had all the right conditions, and that is not a great chef. You have to be able to play with your conditions.
Bravotv.com: Going back a moment -- were you surprised that Manuel didn't do better in the Quickfire considering his position at Dos Caminos?
I thought Manuel wasn't showing he knew Mexican foods. He was always trying to add something that was completely new to the pot without respecting the fact that there are traditional things you build upon and then add in the new thing.
I chose not to know anything about the chefs beforehand because I wanted to go in with a completely clean slate, but Ryan had worked in our kitchen at one time and I sort of recognized him, but when he was presenting his dish to me in the Quickfire Challenge he brought up the fact that he'd worked in our kitchen for a day or two, and he did it in a total brown-nosey way, and I was so taken aback because then I remembered him and I remembered that I didn't really care for him. That was the worst thing he could have done, and he thought it was going to be a really positive thing. Immediately I remembered him and the swagger with which he walked through the kitchen, and that doesn't go over very well in our kitchen. If he'd just kept his mouth shut, I wouldn't have put two and two together. I might have later, but I wouldn't have done it by the time the challenge was over.
Bravotv.com: What can our viewers do to elevate the tacos they make at home?
One thing people don't play around with as much is jicama. A really delicious salsa starts with tomatillos and jicama and what I do is just chop it all with some red onions, avocado, lime juice, chilis and cilantro. Then you've got this really crunchy salsa that's brightly flavored and that's some that, once you start playing around with it, you start to realize there's a whole world of flavor. I think when most people hear salsa they think it's going to be a red tomato salsa, but you can do fruit salsas and tomatillo salsas, which are probably more common in Mexico than tomato salsas, and using jicama to add crunch to them is really delicious.
Bravotv.com: Anything you want to add about your experience?
The thing I was totally taken aback with is how hard it is to be a judge. I didn't expect to get as personally invested in each of the contestants over the two days as I did. I love young people, and seeing people develop, and I wanted to be a cheerleader for them. I'd go back and watch the monitors while they were doing their work, and I wanted to just go in and say like, "No, just slow down a little bit, think about what you're doing." I felt very strongly that I wanted to see them all succeed. There was so much potential there that when we did the Quickfire Challenge I was really disappointed that they didn't listen. They're all talented people, so why didn't they stop and listen and think, "What are they really asking me to do here." Instead they just jumped in, which is not a good sign and hopefully they learned not to do that. I so wanted them all to succeed that when we did the final and were judging each team, it was really hard! It gave me such a strong impression that it took me days to get over it. I went back to work and it was like I'd been through a traumatic experience. I really love nurturing young chefs, so I just wanted to help them all like I would in my own kitchen.