Let’s start with your superhero origin story. What first inspired you to become a chef?
My grandmothers were a big part of it. My Italian immigrant grandmother on my mom’s side was a big inspiration. She was this old-school Italian. She had every inch of her yard cultivated, she grew the majority of her own foods, and she had all of her kids trained to go out foraging for mushrooms. I swear whenever we came over she’d walk into the kitchen, the door would swing open and food would just start flowing out of it. I don’t know how she did it, but she was magical.
Where did you begin to cut your teeth in the restaurant business and how did you get to where you are now at Shoyu?
The very first job I ever had in the restaurant biz, I was fifteen and a half years old. My dad was very strict and insisted that us kids learned the value of work so he insisted we get jobs at that age. McDonalds just happened to be within walking distance of my house. Say what you will, but it teaches you a lot. It teaches you how to work in a kitchen, it teaches you how to multitask, and it teaches you speed. All of the things that will help you down the road in the kitchen.
At what point did you decide to make cooking your career?
That really came much later in my life. I was a theater major at the University of Minnesota for many years and I think that’s probably where a lot of my managerial skills came from. I was focusing more on things like stage direction and there are a lot of the same type of organizational skills needed in those types of things that there are running a restaurant. The two kind of blended for me. I wouldn’t say I became disenfranchised, but I’d say realistic about career opportunities in that particular field but I realized it might be harder for me to make an actual living [in theater]. I started to look around and what really inspired me and what I loved to do, and I found that I just felt right in a kitchen. At 26 I put myself back into culinary school and started at the Nicollet Island Inn, of all places.
So far on the show you've shown a lot of Asian influences in your food. How would you describe your overall style of cuisine?
I had a lot of experience cooking Chinese and Asian food while cooking for Wolfgang Puck. My first real job outside of culinary school was at 20.21 at the Walker Art Center and that was an Asian-inspired restaurant. Chef Lee Hester was the executive chef at all of Wolfgang Puck's fine dining and he has a love affair with Chinese food and it was really easy to be inspired by him because he's so passionate and knowledgeable. I went from line cook to sous chef to executive chef at two of their restaurants all within their Asian genre. It was a very cool experience.
You mentioned in the first episode some of your experiences working with Wolfgang Puck and how you were hoping the show would allow you to step out of his shadow. Have you heard from him or Lee Hester since the show started airing?
I have heard from Lee Hester. He wished me good tiding and good luck. I won't tell you exactly what he said [laughs] but it was very similar to advice he has given me in the past.
You're currently working at Shoyu in the airport. In the first episode you mentioned you were hoping to change the perception people have of airport dining. What's it like to cook in that atmosphere and what recent changes have you seen in that subgenre?
OTG Management [which runs Shoyu] has gotten a lot of press for what they're doing in the airport. They've taken over G Concourse and put a ton of new restaurants in there. It's very different if you haven't been to the airport in the last year or so. There are 5 fine dining restaurants now, all chef-driven, all inspired by local restaurants throughout Minnesota. We're running restaurants just like any street restaurant would be. We work with local farmers, and we have purveyors that source artisanal ingredients for us. Everything is made is made from scratch and chef-driven by the seasons. There’s anything that you would expect a regular brick and mortar outside of the airport and I think that's a nice change of pace. Normally, it's dominated by fast food and chain restaurants that have nothing to do with the city that they're in; so to be able to get a real taste of local food in Minneapolis and never actually have to leave the airport is a very cool thing.
Did you every feel any level of condescension or lack of understanding about working in an airport restaurant from any of the other contestants on Top Chef?
I think all of us were there because we love to cook. One of the coolest things about that experience was that everyone there was just as excited to learn from the person standing next to them as I was. You have to be kind of humble in this industry and realize you don't know everything and never will know everything. It was this great little workshop of some of the heavy hitters in the industry in the trenches and it's neat to be a part of a group like that.
Did you have any strategies going into the show or any level of self-awareness about how to present yourself for the cameras and producers?
In all honesty, you don't have any time to think about how you're presenting yourself. Things move so quickly there. The best advice I was given about being on the show was to be yourself, because it will come out on its own no matter what. I hope I can say I was myself or that I came off how I actually am in real life.
Have you been watching the show as it airs? What's it been like to see yourself on TV?
It's really fun. The rest of the contestants and I have been tweeting each other back and forth and it's been hilarious to watch some of these conversations unfold. For example, the episode this week, we couldn't shut up about Shirley's beets and what happened to them, which became this running inside joke between us. The show is done. There's nothing you can do except sit back and watch and if you don't have a good sense of humor about it, you probably shouldn't have gone on Top Chef to begin with.
It sounds like you've kept in touch with a lot of the contestants since you've wrapped filming.
Oh absolutely. They're like war buddies at this point. No one else understands what you've been through at this point!
What was it like to cook for Tom Colicchio and the rest of the judges? Did that ever get easy as it went along?
No! [laughs] No, it never gets easier! To this day it's not easy. I was sitting there watching judges' critiques this week sweating and nervous as I was when I first heard those words come out. You're not only cooking for them, but for any number of luminaries that might walk in the door at any particular moment. You go into a place like Commander's Palace for a nice meal and two hours later you're suddenly cooking for the head chef and every chef that's come before him. It's a trip.
How different is the cooking process in this environment compared to your own restaurant?
The best way to describe it is that it's highly concentrated. The way I like to formulate menus and go about my dishes is to do a lot of research and experimenting, and then run dishes as specials for a while and familiarize your staff with what the dish is and how it works. After that, you still workshop it a little bit more before it gets on the menu. In this particular case, you're going from concept directly to judges sometimes in just 30 minutes.
And then they throw in the team challenges too!
You know, the team challenges are realistic. I've always said that no one runs a restaurant on their own. You always have to work on a team, no matter what. You have to have that as a skill that you're just as good at as your culinary ones.
What are some of your favorite places to eat at in the Twin Cities?
A lot of the places I like are the smaller places. A really good friend of mine, and someone who's doing amazing things in the Twin Cities right now is Thomas Boemer over at The Corner Table. It's been really cool to see his journey from where he started in the Twin Cities to now. He was actually a sous chef with me at 20.21 and it's really cool to see what he's turning that place into. He's amazingly talented and someone I very much look up to and admire.
Do you have any advice for those who may be watching the show and are inspired to become chefs themselves?
My number one recommendation is to work in a restaurant before you decide to dedicate your life to it. I'd much rather you have some experience in a restaurant before you go into culinary school instead of doing it the other way around. I think people are sort of waylaid by the purported glamour of television. You're going to work long hours, all the hours you're friends are out playing and holidays too. It's down and dirty. People who are there are there because they can't visualize themselves anywhere else.
What's your favorite guilty pleasure convenience store junk food?
[Laughs] This is kind of embarrassing, but those Flaming Hot Cheetos. Oh my god, they're delicious. They have that little bit of lime in there too - so good.
Finally, we've been trying to keep track as the show's been airing, but exactly how many headscarves did you bring with you to New Orleans?
All of them. Very rarely do I get to dress up and look like a girl. As a female in the kitchen, nine times out of ten you're wearing chef's clothes cut for a man, so the opportunities you have to look girly you sometimes have to embrace and just go with. Today I'm wearing a red one.
Everyone is calling you Rosie The Riveter online!
It's an honor to be compared to one of those gals. There are a lot of insanely talented ladies on this season too.
Top Chef: New Orleans airs Wednesdays at 9pm on Bravo.
Grub Street (New York magazine's online food presence) offers its list of Top 25 food memoirs,prompted by the large number of that genre to be published this fall.
Missing from the list are the books I would put at #1 and #2. "A Day of Honey: A memoir of food, love, and war," by Annia Ciezadlo and the very recent "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking," by Anya von Bremzen (reviewed in this week's Taste section).
What would be on your list? Remember that these are food memoirs and not cookbooks.
Here is the Grub Street list:
25. Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang
24. Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
23. The Devil in the Kitchen by Marco Pierre White
22. The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti
21. A Tiger in the Kitchen by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
20. The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz
19. Born Round by Frank Bruni
18. Blue Plate Special by Kate Christensen
17. The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pépin
16. Climbing the Mango Trees by Madhur Jaffrey
15. Shark's Fin & Sichuan Pepper by Fuschia Dunlop
14. Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin
13. The Raw and the Cooked by Jim Harrison
12. The Man who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten
11. Alice, Let's Eat by Calvin Trillin
10. California Dish by Jeremiah Tower
9. When French Women Cook by Madeleine Kamman
8. Heat by Bill Buford
7. Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl
6. Between Meals by A.J. Liebling
5. My Life in France by Julia Child
4. The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher
3. Toast by Nigel Slater
2. Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
1. Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton
What would New Orleans cuisine be without Paul Prudhomme? I joked previously in the premiere recap that he’d be the grand marshal of the New Orleans clichés I expected Top Chef to parade out throughout the course of the season, but there would truthfully be no reasonable justification for leaving out someone who so distinctly put a face to New Orleans and Cajun cuisine. Not only are we graced with his presence, but I also apparently missed the memo that Prudhomme has lost what appears to be over 300 of the 500 pounds he once weighed, as his appearance tonight sees him on his feet and no longer tethered to the motorized wheelchair he once still managed to cook like a pro from. For an episode centered on the history of the titular city and the legendary Commander’s Palace, Prudhomme couldn’t be a more welcome sight. Now if only they had let him speak more.
Before we get to the main challenge, this week is terrifying double elimination week, a plot twist that I’m sure was created when producers realized there were still 17 chefs left in the competition. Editor-in-chief of Food and Wine Dana Cowin makes her annual resurfacing for this week’s Quickfire, and boy is she mad! She hates all these newfangled food trends! She hates them! She’s tired of hearing about all the bacon you’re eating in your man cave, she’s over putting eggs on top of every dish like they’re a star on a Christmas tree, and she’s most certainly doesn’t want to eat anything smoked again for at least another 5 years because apparently smoking stuff is a food trend as well. Most of all, she doesn’t even want to lay eyes on kale chips or kale salads anymore, a statement that I’m sure made Gwyneth Paltrow cry.
The challenge is for the chefs to make these expiring trends new again, and while our local hero Sara Johannes (pictured) is bummed that eggs have been forever been tainted in this competition by Dana Cowin’s disapproving glare, most are able to look past the egregious culinary sin of being passé and come up with some clever, tasty dishes. The egg concoctions fare best, with heaps of praise poured upon Nina’s tiny scotch quail egg on a leek and potato soup, and Shirley’s immunity-winning shirred egg congee. Sara also gets some praise from the judges with her smoked tuna tataki and arbol chile vinaigrette (below), which Emeril likes for its hints of orange flavor.
No surprise that the worst two dishes involve kale (in what world is kale more fun to cook with than bacon?) and Bret inexplicably defies the explicit wishes of Cowin by making a kale salad to go along with his gazpacho and kale juice side. Despite this bizarre lapse in strategic judgment, Bret is spared elimination by Aaron’s fried kale that is both overdressed and deemed “too salty to finish” by Emeril. Aaron was quietly charming and seemed terrified of TV cameras, so I think I’m going to miss him.
The chefs are then whisked away to Commander’s Palace - a legendary New Orleans eatery that served as a launching pad for the likes of Prudhomme and Emeril - where they are told they must replicate one of the four dishes they are treated to by executive chef Tory McPhail. There’s a lot to unpack in each of these dishes, and while McPhail is certainly correct that recreating complicated dishes will test each of the chefs’ palates and attention to detail, it’s ultimately a bit of a letdown to have to watch our contestants parrot the dishes of someone else instead of flexing their creative muscles with food of their very own.
Still, precision is key here and the stress of the whole ordeal appears to have sent the kitchen into chaos. At one point Shirley loses track of her beets (I think because of Patty, who finally gets some kudos from the judges in both of her dishes this week) and Nina finds herself on the wrong edge of Michael’s competitive streak after he dumps the okra she mistakenly places on his plate all over the place.
Sara finds herself in good company (Carrie, Stephanie, and Justin) but she’s given the dreaded Top Chef dessert course that has notoriously sent many talented chefs home in past seasons. She’s tasked with recreating McPhail’s strawberry trio, which includes a biscuit, beignet and cocktail, and unfortunately, its Sara’s first real miss in the competition. Padma says her beignet is greasy and that the top of the biscuit was “obliterated” when served to her, while Tom notes a lack of white chocolate in his portion entirely.
Although she’s not in the bottom three, Sara’s faux pas is made even worse by the fact that Stephanie and Justin both nail the same dessert course. New Orleans resident Justin eventually wins the challenge (a sweet note of pride and victory considering McPhail just recently beat him out for a regional James Beard award) and Stephanie overcomes her flop sweat and panic to produce a biscuit that Hugh Acheson claimed was better than the one from the Palace. Stephanie’s terror has made her something of an audience surrogate at this point (who else wouldn’t feel like vomiting if they were thrown into Top Chef?), but it will be interesting to see how long it takes for her self-effacing comments to become annoying to the other chefs the more and more she succeeds in the competition.
Most of the other chefs aren’t able to escape critiques this week (even Nina’s top 3 shrimp and tasso henican gets dinged for messy plating), but Louis, Bret and Carlos are ultimately the ones who end up with this week’s worst 3 dishes. No one from the group responsible for Prudhomme’s black skillet seared trout did very well, as the team foolishly decided to divvy up the prep work amongst the four of them, leaving poor Louis in charge of the entire team’s seasoning despite him making no qualms about not knowing much about Cajun seasoning. The bland result lands him in the bottom for the second time in the episode, where he is joined by Carlos, who botched the balance of his fish by worrying about losing crust to overcooking.
Thankfully, Bret is the one who is told to pack his knives and go home courtesy of his poorly grilled veal chop tchopitoulas (what even is that word?) and general sense of meekness. Bret, who reminded me more and more of someone Elaine from Seinfeld would have dated and eventually grown to hate, kept making bad decisions throughout the night, none worse than his confounding choice to wait until close to plating time to cook his veal because he couldn’t find space on the grill earlier in the day. Emeril said it best: “no sear, no love.”
For those of you placing bets at home, it only took until the second episode of Top Chef: New Orleans to center an entire Elimination Challenge on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Of course the show at some point has to acknowledge the events of the tragedy as to not appear completely tone deaf to the devastating impact it had on the region, but I can’t begin to stress how refreshing it is to see the series avoid the melodramatic impulses that lesser reality shows wouldn’t when addressing the topic, instead creating an episode that rather sneakily speaks to just how restorative the power of food and community has been to a state that’s still struggling to pick up the pieces a full 8 years after disaster. This episode is built all around teamwork, both in respects to the week’s food truck group challenge, as well as the Habitat for Humanity volunteers our cheftestants are tasked with feeding. Lest this episode get a little too much on the “Kumbaya” side, there’s a fantastically cruel elimination at the tail end of it, but we’ll get to that in a minute
The episode starts exactly where the last one left off. Contestants have barely had a minute to discuss Ramon’s exit before Padma struts in to inform everyone that they’re immediately going to participate in the “longest Quickfire Challenge in Top Chef history.” They’ll be making gumbo inspired by their heritage, and since gumbo takes longer than 15 minutes to cook, the contestants will get a head start back at their apartment before heading into the kitchen in the morning. As New Orleans native and Cosmo Kramer look-alike Michael says of his home city, “If you don’t have gumbo on your menu, you’re going to go out of business,” a food motto I honestly wouldn’t mind seeing adopted in the Twin Cities.
While Aaron seems confused about what exactly constitutes a gumbo base (maybe a little research before boarding that plane?), most contestants appear to impress Padma and adorable guest judge Leah Chase. Unfortunately, our Minnesota gal Sara Johannes doesn’t fare quite as well as some of the others, although she avoids landing in the bottom with Jason’s poor attempt at mixing his Polish roots and this summer’s beet craze. Sara’s crab and silken tofu gumbo (right) is inspired by her time in Shanghai, and while it certainly appears to be one of the more ambitious dishes of the batch, it ends up being too difficult and too salad-like for Padma and Leah to eat, with each commenting on the unusual serving style that made it challenging to land food on their utensils.
Shirley and Carrie’s dishes both get high marks, but Carrie grabs the win and immunity by combining her Iowan roots and Trinidadian husband’s culture to create her pea-green gumbo with coconut, mango, and corn crumble. Guess which part of that is the Iowa.
By the way, it’s worth noting that contestant Brian Husky is now 0 for 3 in getting his dishes shown in detail at this point. Keep trying, Brian!
Padma divides the cast into four groups based on where each is standing during the Quickfire deliberation. Sara ends up on the Green Team (below), along with Shirley, Stephanie and Louis, the latter of whom I’m pretty sure didn’t exist at all in the last episode. Guest judge Susan Spicer tells them they’ll be in charge of creating menus for food trucks that will be parked outside 2 different Habitat for Humanity construction sites, two places Padma and Gail Simmons bravely face in white pants. Shirley informs us she once had a food truck but now calls it “the biggest paperweight in the world” after she couldn’t get the proper papers in order. Hopefully that’s not a chilling omen of things to come for Nicollet Mall.
Of the four teams, green’s concept is by far the least defined (“light but refreshing”) especially compared to some of the others (Surf, Tacos, Miami and Caribbean), but the chefs seems to have an easy chemistry from the get-go, with Sara teasing Louis by telling him they’re banking the challenge entirely on his megawatt smile. Louis also says he likes working in a kitchen full of women, which was a tidbit I liked hearing nearly as much as Gail's defense of peanut butter and jelly.
Jason, on the other hand, is near insufferable on Team Surf. I neglected to mention Jason in the first episode recap, but he’s clearly an editors’ favorite, which has everything to do with his extreme ego and willingness to remind everyone he was once voted Philly’s Hottest Chef. At one point, Jason says “I’m probably going to end up at the [truck’s] window because I like chatting people up,” however the pause after “because” is so long that you know he had to fight everything in his power to avoid saying “because I’m so just so damn handsome.”
Ultimately, Jason shortcuts his salmon hand roll by preparing it too far in advance to make more time for flirting with female customers and flipping his Hitler Youth haircut, a mistake that leaves him with both a soggy dish and a plane ticket back to Pennsylvania. It’s a fairly shocking elimination considering how much screen time he’s received thus far (not to mention in light of Patty’s third consecutive appearance in the bottom, this time including a random tomato on a tuna slider that she referred to as “nothing special,” a comment that just about gave Tom Colicchio a conniption), but it will be nice to see less preening and more cooking in future episodes from here on out.
But how did Sara and the rest of Team Green do? Well, just like last week, Sara’s never a bride, always a bridesmaid. Green is highlighted in judges' deliberation as one of the top two teams (including mostly high marks for Sara’s tuna burger with sprouts, avocado and watermelon rind pickles, right), but it was Team Taco and Carrie yet again specifically who earned the week’s top honor. Carrie has shown real ingenuity thus far in the competition, this week dazzling the judges with her and Aaron’s beef and pork curry empanadas. In this week’s try it at home moment, Carrie used a chilled wine bottle in lieu of a roller to keep her freshly made dough cold and resistant to gumming up with hot, sticky butter. Really, is there anything wine can’t do?
With Carrie (below) and her aw-shucks Iowa-by-Seattle charm on a roll and Sara not far behind, one thing is certain so far into this young Top Chef season: Midwest girls are definitely holding it down.
Did Sara impress you in her second outing, or are you too distraught by having to say goodbye to Jason’s chiseled jawline to notice?
New Orleans is such an obvious choice for a Top Chef location that you really have to wonder why it took the producers 11 seasons to get there. While the season premiere predictably conflates the whole of the Big Easy into the most marketable aspects of the French Quarter (contestants actually compete for Mardi Gras beads while reminding themselves to “Let the good times roll”), Top Chef has built up enough goodwill over its long run that we have every reason to believe this season will eventually dig deep into NOLA’s diverse and distinct food scene. Still, I’m half expecting to see Paul Prudhomme wheel up behind host Padma Lakshmi any episode now, most likely while being serenaded by Harry Connick Jr. in a feather mask.
As if the prospect of seeing mouth-watering crawfish and gumbo on your TV screen each week wasn’t exciting enough, this season of the venerable cooking series also has a Minnesotan contestant (excuse me, cheftestant) by way of Sara Johannes, who’s currently making a name for herself as Executive Chef at Shoyu, a modern Japanese restaurant in the Minneapolis- St. Paul International Airport (Concourse G).
Sara is the first chef we meet in the jam-packed initial hour and she leaves quite an impression with her self-proclaimed “rockabilly” look, Rosie the Riveter bandana, and no nonsense demeanor. During her prep time one-on-one with head judge Tom Colicchio, we learn that Sara has worked under the esteemed Wolfgang Puck at two different eateries in the past (including 20.21 at the Walker Art Center), and is finally ready to make a name for herself by stepping out of his shadow. Colicchio reassures her that Puck won’t be making a guest judge cameo during this round, but can you really expect reality-show producers to hold onto that straw for the season’s entire duration?
With 17 other chefs competing in the first round, the episode doesn’t even have enough time to introduce each contestant (seriously, Bret’s sole contribution to this episode is commenting on Janine’s decision to wear Daisy Dukes in the kitchen), let alone have time to hold a Quickfire Challenge. Instead, we get right to the Elimination Challenge, in which each chef is assigned a strand of Mardi Gras beads that informs them whether they’ll be working with frog legs, turtle, or alligator meat as their dish’s main protein.
To make things even more colorful, the chefs are also asked to prepare and serve their dishes for a crowd of people at a swamp soiree, a location that places a few of them within spitting distance of real life alligators. There’s also some business about making the chefs actually assemble the dining stations when they arrive on the scene, a random bit of stumbling-block filler the producers seem keen on ever since they had contestants break through blocks of ice to get to their ingredients on Top Chef: Texas. Sara gets a nice character moment when she’s shown cursing at a bent rod, which already puts her in a better light than Travis, whose major contribution to this episode is loudly declaring that he has an Asian fetish. Moving on.
A few chefs express worry about having never worked with their protein selection before, but the best of the bunch are able to adapt to their own styles and the challenges with the set-ups.
The top three scoring dishes this week belong to the all-female trio of Sara, Nina and Carrie, a sight that’s promising to see this early on considering female chefs have won Top Chef only two out of 10 times, and that's not even counting the Top Chef: Masters spin-off. Carrie gets over her crippling nerves and self doubt to deliver poached frog legs served with an oyster emulsion and cold zucchini salad, a decision that’s praised by the judges as a smart and unusual antidote to the swamp’s sweltering heat.
Sara also impresses with her “unapologetically spicy” General Tso's-style deep-fried alligator with smoked chiles, sweet-and-sour sauce, pickled veggies and pea shoots. Padma yelled out “Holy s---, it's hot!” when tasting this dish, so it really must have packed a wallop. What better place to go bold than New Orleans? Fortunately for Sara, these judges can handle a little extra spice.
Sara was close to squeaking out a win, but instead that honor went to Nina, who made her native Saint Lucia (where her father was once Prime Minster) proud with her curried turtle meatball, chayote slaw and chutney with raisins. She’s definitely one to watch.
In the end, Ramon, Patty and Aaron were in the bottom, a dishonor that was made even worse by the show’s new decision to allow contestants to hear the comments that judges make during the deliberation process as they wait in what is now colloquially known as “The Stew Room.” Aaron gets criticized for cold pasta, Patty is blasted for having an emotional breakdown, and Ramon gets torn to shreds for adding ice to his dashi to bring its temperature down, a decision Tom calls “crazy talk.” Ultimately, Tom Colicchio can’t suffer fools and the judges decide to send Ramon home, where he will surely go back to his undefeated reign as a Muay Thai boxer.
With a solid start under her belt, do you think Sara has what it takes to become Top Chef?
Marcus Michalik is a pop culture writer who watches just about every TV show, including this one. He hopes this season of "Top Chef" inspires him to step away from the frozen food aisle, but he is not counting on it.
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