Bravotv.com: Are you a Top Chef fan? What were you expecting when you came on?
Yes, I'm a fan. I've been watching the show since it started. I enjoy the show a lot. I didn't really know what to expect; I was looking forward to having fun and to experience it from a judge's point of view vs.an observer's/competitor's point of view. What a pleasant surprise I had being a judge. I really enjoyed it -- even more than I thought I was going to. I'd love to do it again.
Bravotv.com: First, the Quickfire: How important is knowing how to butcher to a chef?
It's extremely important on many levels -- to know the anatomy of meat and fish and different animals, to refine your knife skills but to be able to choose your product at a raw state and customize it to your specs. It's important from a cost standpoint to buy and shop and butcher stuff yourself.
Bravotv.com: You can tell if a steak is cooked correctly by cutting through it, looking at color. What are some tips for the steakhouse diner? Also, is Medium Rare the standard to order for the best flavor and why?
It's important for the diner to understand what exactly they are ordering, and to ensure it's actually what they want. Blue is very red, with a cold center. Rare is red, with a cool center. Medium-rare is red with a warm center. Medium is pink, with a hot center. Medium-well has a dull pink center. Yes -- medium-rare is the standard for ordering and enjoying steaks because you retain the juices and blood with the flavor vs. well done, where everything is cooked out and you lose a lot of the natural flavors that way. Also for texture and tenderness, the fibers in the well-done steak get chewy because they are cooked all the way through -- they aren't as soft and pliable.
Bravotv.com: Spike won the Quickfire and got to choose his proteins ... the big scallop question: Did you know there were frozen scallops in the pantry? Could you tell right away they were frozen when you ate his dish? Is there any way to salvage frozen scallops?
No, didn't know there were frozen scallops in there. We never ever purchase frozen seafood, so it isn't anything that's kept in my coolers normally. In the real world, when you're a chef, you may get something you didn't order from the purveyor, or there are other people there accepting your product and it does make it into your cooler, but you as a chef need to know when there is an inferior product, and you need to be able to say no. As a top chef, your quality conscience needs to be at a top level. Spike failed that test. I don't think there is a way to salvage frozen scallops. If you were going to use frozen -- use it in a mousse or a souffle, something that's not so pure, but when they are sauteed, they need to be sweet, fresh, and not waterlogged. Never for sauteed scallops, never when it's the main focus of the dish.
Bravotv.com: You said you admired Spike's "spunk," but it seemed like he was fairly rude to you -- what did you think of that situation?
I think he was a competitor and was fighting for his life. I think he made a huge mistake by using the frozen scallops and by showing his quality flaw in the heat of the moment. I think it got the best of him, but I didn't take it personally at all. I liked his fire and his spunk. He was rude and disrespectful, but I called him out on it based on his own choice of ingredients, regardless of how they got in the cooler. I wish him the best -- he's definitely got a great future.
Bravotv.com: Which dishes impressed you/least impressed you?
Richard's dish was fantastic. It was very much like something I would serve in Tramonto's Steak & Seafood -- the whole sushi meets steak meets contemporary presentation. It would fit right in on the menu. My least favorite was Spike's scallop dish, for reasons that we have already gone over.
Bravotv.com: You said Antonia's was most like something you would find at a steakhouse, what does that mean? What is the role of the fine dining steakhouse now?
Antonia's dish was a vamped up classic. No surprises, but solid and delicious. We need her dish. To take old classic steakhouse items and reinvent them into a contemporary style that is the norm today. Taking those old world classic steakhouse items like shrimp cocktail, French onion soup, and Caesar salad and presenting them in a contemporary style.
Bravotv.com: Any predictions on who will go on to win the whole thing?
I think it's Richard and Stephanie for me - those are the two that really stuck out for me.
Bravotv.com: When the show aired, I believe they said your restaurant had just opened, how's it going? Anything from the Top Chef's dishes inspire anything on the menu (peanut butter mash perhaps)?
Yes, absolutely, the peanut butter mash was absolutely inspirational -- putting a fatty nut into a potato really worked well. Tramonto's Steak & Seafood is doing really well -- we're about to open our second in Schaumburg in the fall, and looking forward to doing a few more of them across the country. We continue to try to reinvent the wheel in all of my restaurants -- Tru, Osteria di Tramonto, Tramonto's Steak & Seafood. I'm also in the middle of writing a steakhouse cookbook and trying to convey some of my spirit of steakhouse into a cookbook.
Bravotv.com: Ilan Hall made a comment that Antonia's meal was good but everything was very rich -- how much of a concern is that in the steakhouse environment?
I think it's a good concern just based on the fact that a lot of steakhouse ingredients are rich and you have to balance them a little bit. For example, when dining at a steakhouse, one might order an appetizer like oysters or crab cake then an entree of steak with truffled mac 'n cheese or a double-stuffed baked potato ... you have to balance it throughout the meal or you'll never make it to dessert. It also depends on how hungry you are, just choose accordingly. It's more of a consideration than a concern.
Bravotv.com: Anything else you'd like to add?
I really admire all of the competitors. What a great opportunity it is for young talent to go on national television to compete like that. I think it's a very fair show. I think it's a fair environment in which to test your skills.