Bravotv.com: What were you thinking when you saw who your competitors are? Have you worked with any of them before?
As soon as I saw who was in the show with me, my intial thought was, "This is a talented, diverse group and that I certainly have my work cut out for me ... this isn't going to be easy." I knew Hubert Keller and Tim Love, having enjoyed their food and friendship for years. Christopher Lee and I had met once prior to the show, but I was a big fan of his cooking already.
Bravotv.com: What were your biggest concerns competing in the Quickfire? You said you don’t really do desserts.
I had several concerns with the Quickfire Challange. One, dessert really is the weakest part of my game. I'm fine with helping create the flavor profiles of the desserts in all of my restaurants, but the actual fabrication of them is something I leave to my pastry chefs, the true masters of eggs, butter, cream, sugar, and chocolate. I comment on taste, texture, plate presentation, menu balance, etc, but rarely get involved with the whipping, mixing, folding, measuring, and everything else that goes into their artform.
The fact that 30 minutes was shaved off of a normal Top Chef Quickfire Dessert Challange certainly wasn't going to help my cause, nor that the Top Chef kitchen was outfitted with equipment that I had never used before in making my very limited repetoire of desserts. The challange would have been hard enough in my own restaurant, but not feeling comfortable with the equipment made making desserts and churning ice cream so much more difficult ... AND IT REALLY SHOWED!!!!!
Bravotv.com: What was the inspiration behind your Quickfire dish? Were you surprised by the Girl Scouts’ reactions?
My inspiration was simple ... this was a dessert I had committed to memory, having just made it two days ago in one of my restaurants, and was something I knew tasted great and wouldn't challenge anyone's tastebuds (seven-year-old Girl Scouts included); plus I knew, having just made it at Radius, that I could be done in 40-45 minutes. Um, yeah, right, sure, 45 minutes!
Well, a good cook is never supposed to make excuses, so I take full blame for not checking my surroundings a little better. Needless to say, I learned a valuable lesson that day.
As for the Girl Scouts' reaction ... they were tough critics to all of us, except Hubert. Having not completed all five of the required plates, I was pleasantly surprised they gave me 2.5 stars as I felt I deserved less for not completing the task.
Because of their good spirit and generous score, I will be buying triple the amount of Girl Scout cookies this year!!!Bravotv.com: Onto the Elimination: What was your reaction to having to cook in the dorm?
When I found out we had to cook in a dorm, using nothing but a microwave, toaster oven, and a hot plate, my reaction was "OK, this is going to be difficult." I need to really impress the judges, rock everyone's world, and make a serious comeback — no short order especially since I don't own a microwave! A perfect bowl of pasta, as delicious as it is, might not be enough here. I kept thinking that I had to do something really special to be able to make up the lost points from the Quickfire Challenge and it wouldn't be easy against these top chefs. I chose to do dishes from my modern French restaurant Radius rather than food from my Italian restaurants Alta Strada and Via Matta, thinking the judges and students might be swayed by something a bit more "plated" than the rustic Italian dishes I do at Alta Strada and Via Matta.
Bravotv.com: What was your diet like in college? What did you make for yourself?
My diet in college was pretty normal ... beer, pizza, sub sandwiches, repeat.
The only thing I used to cook in college was eggs and the occasional giant pot of pasta. I ate a lot of cereal as well.
Bravotv.com: Why did you choose to cook what you did for the elimination challenge?
I chose to cook what I did for the Elimanation Challenge based on several factors/reasons. Obviously the equipment was going to be a real test, but also, when first given the challenge, we did not know where we would be cooking other than it was at a college. We could be indoors, outdoors, in a gym ... we didn't know, so we had to be prepared for anything and everything.
Second, and of equal importance, was that we were given a very limited budget, just $150 for three courses for 16 people, shopping at Whole Foods.This greatly impacted what we could buy, as did the time limit. Given the limited budget, had we been given more time, a lot of other products would have been available to us, but we had to use items that were quick as well as economical.
Another factor I wanted to incorporate, knowing my old college days, was to use as many vegetables as possible in the dishes that I was preparing. College students eat crappy and I wanted to show them that they could make delicious food, that might even been good for them, right in their college dorm room. I may have taken the task a little too seriously as I attempted to get them a full day's worth of vegetables in the three-course challenge
Bravotv.com: What did I think of the judges comments?
Well, I was pretty happy with my food and certainly with my presentations, especially given this food was prepared in a hot, cramped dorm room, and plated on a desk. When finished, I checked out the other chefs and started thiking that everyone had done well, all the food looked good, but just maybe I had pulled off some sort of a comeback. Unfortuneatly the judges did not share in my assesment of how good my food was and gave me disappointing scores at the critics' table. I'm certainly not complaining, merely commenting, when I say that they seemed to give some a bit more latitude than others regarding the challenge and our surroundings. If they chose to overlook one person overcooking something or overseasoning because it was done in a dorm room and cooked on a hot plate or microwave, they should have extended that "hall pass" to all four chefs. Do I agree with everything they said about not only my dishes, but the other chefs as well? No, I don't, but these are professional food critics and well respected editors who were chosen for their tastebuds as well as their personality and experience; plus, everyone, no matter what their creditials, is entitled to form their own opinion, like it or not.
I'll accept their banishing me from the Top Chef kitchen, but will remain in respectful disagreement.Bravotv.com: Did you get to taste the other food? What did you think?
I did get to taste a lot of the other dishes and thought the chefs all did a fantastic job given the challenge and surroundings. I especially appreciated what Tim did given all of his product froze ... he really did a great job.
Bravotv.com: What surprised you most about the competition that maybe you didn’t expect when watching Top Chef?
My biggest surprise was how fast the actual cooking time goes by. In a professional kitchen, three minutes seems like an eternity for plating food; on the show, three minutes went by in the blink of the eye.
Bravotv.com: Anything else you’d like to add?
A few things I would like to add is that I'm really happy to have been given the chance to participate in Top Chef Masters and win some well-deserved funds for The Cam Neely Foundation. While the competition was stressful and I was very disappointed in my scores, I loved the opportunity to do something that not only took us out of our comfort zone, but was so much fun as well. It would have been nice if we would have gotten a chance to cook in a more traditional setting, maybe one involving fire, stoves, burners, broilers, and fryers, but that's the luck of the draw and the fun of the show.
I certainly feel closer to Hubert, Christopher, and Tim, for going through this together, and know that this experience helped create an even greater bond between all of us.
And lastly, I happily invite Gael Greene, James Oseland, Jay Rayner, and of course Kelly Choi, to dinner at my house, where I would like to cook for them, with no time limits, a reasonable budget, no microwave ovens, no messy cramped dorm rooms, and no star rating system ... hopefully just good food, and hopefully one day soon.