The Twin Cities restaurant scene will be getting a bit of national attention soon, when Justin Sutherland, of St. Paul’s Handsome Hog and the new Pearl & the Thief in Stillwater, competes on Season 16 of Bravo’s “Top Chef.”
The prolific chef squeezed in the filming of “Top Chef” this summer in Louisville, Ky., some 700 miles away from his home base, where he was simultaneously overseeing the opening of one restaurant and the expansion of another. Pearl & the Thief opened in May, and Handsome Hog is about to double in size when Marriott installs a boutique hotel in the restaurant’s building on Mears Park. (Pearl & the Thief, 112 Main St. N., Stillwater, 651-342-0972 , pearlandthief.com; Handsome Hog, 203 6th St. E., St. Paul, 340-7710, handsomehog.com)
Sutherland, a winner of Food Network’s “Iron Chef America,” is a rising star in the intersecting worlds of food and television. And a rare one, at that. Only a handful of Minnesota chefs have landed on reality cooking competitions over the years.
It’s not for lack of talent, Sutherland says. And yet, to watch the trailer released by Bravo last week — in which Sutherland is grouped with chefs from other “small” cities, such as Dubuque, Iowa, and Dothan, Ala. — you’d think Minnesota’s capital is just a wee fleck on the map rather than an integral twin in a metro of 3.6 million people.
But set aside Minnesota pride for a moment to focus on Louisville. It is in that capital of bourbon that Sutherland will get to show off his southern-cooking roots when Season 16 of “Top Chef” premieres Dec. 6.
While he couldn’t tell us how he fared on the show, Sutherland spoke to the Star Tribune about becoming a serial TV cheftestant, what it’s like to live in a house full of chefs, and why there’s never been a “Top Chef: Minnesota.”
Q: Not a lot of Minnesota chefs have made it onto these competitive cooking shows. How did you?
A: It started with “Iron Chef.” I got a random call on my cell phone. They said, “Is this Chef Justin? This is a producer from the Food Network and we want to know if you’re interested in competing on ‘Iron Chef.’ ” I was like, “What? How did you get my number?” They obviously have scouts out and about, and said they’ve been following me for a little bit. I was kind of blown away by that phone call.
Q: So it pays to answer a call from an unknown number! I usually just ignore those.
A: Yeah, I usually do, too. Actually, Food Network had reached out before. I was on the docket for either “Guy’s Grocery Games” or “Beat Bobby Flay” and I was semi-committed to that, and they asked if I wanted to step it up a notch. So I said yes.
Q: Why do you think Minnesota chefs haven’t made a big appearance on these shows?
A: I think it’s maybe stigma from around the rest of the country. We’ve always been kind of small-town Minnesota. But I think that’s changing as of late. We’re getting more attention to our food and dining scene and to the chefs that we have in the area. There’s been an upswing here in the last few years, but we’re always a little bit behind the coasts as far as what we get attention for.
Q: Although in the trailer, they lump in St. Paul with small towns —
A: —With Dothan, Ala. and Dubuque, Iowa! That was one of the first things I noticed and I got a lot of text messages about that.
Q: Do you think they’ll ever film a season in the Twin Cities?
A: I brought it up to them. They said it’s been on their radar. If they can do Louisville, Kentucky, they can do Minneapolis. I don’t know who makes those calls.
Q: When was the season filmed?
A: It was about May through July, almost three months of filming. I came home for two weeks in the middle.
Q: So you just fit that in with opening Pearl & the Thief?
A: Well, yeah. It was not the ideal situation whatsoever. Once I knew I got cast on it, we planned to have the restaurant open about a month before I had to leave. But as restaurant openings go, we were delayed five weeks. So when it got to those last two weeks, it was like, crap, I am not going to be here. But we had an awesome team here and we made sure they got as much out of me as they could before I had to leave. Brandon Randolph, who is the chef de cuisine, killed it. We planned for me not being there, but either way, I was extremely nervous every day not knowing what was happening and not being able to use the phone.
Q: You couldn’t use the phone?
A: No phone, no internet, no newspaper, no TV. Pretty much zero contact with the outside world. They wanted you to live in their “Top Chef” bubble. That was the only thing that mattered to you in your life at that moment.
Q: How was Louisville?
A: It was a much cooler than I had expected. I had never been there before. I knew it had a big southern food [scene] and a lot bourbon, which are two things right up my alley.
Q: Without revealing anything too specific, what are some of your favorite memories from “Top Chef”?
A: Outside of the food aspect of it, it tests every aspect of your being. I’ve heard from past contestants that it’s the closest thing to being in boot camp or basic training. You take 15 chefs who are used to being the boss or the best at what they do and put them all in a house under these extremely stressful situations. It was really cool learning what you’re capable of, learning some of the things you forgot that you knew how to do that just come back as instinct. More than anything, it was cool to be surrounded by people who are equally passionate about what they do as you are, and being submersed in that world. I made some lifelong friends.
Q: What was it like living in the house with all those strangers?
A: “Real World” style. All roommates living in the same house, sleeping in the same room, every single day waking up with the same people. It’s definitely the “Real World” of food.
Q: What do you like about this style of competition as a chef?
A: I like it because it’s the reason I like this industry in general. I like the high stress and the fast pace and the thinking on your feet and the always dealing with unknowns. That’s a big part of the industry. I’m kind of an adrenaline junkie. That’s what drew me to being a chef. I couldn’t imagine sitting in office all day at a cubicle.
Q: Of the guest judges who came on the show, who were you most excited to meet?
A: Eric Ripert was unbelievable, to be able to walk in and see him standing in front of you. It was nuts. And Emeril. It was a surprise every day, and every single day got bigger and bigger.
Q: Do you get to form relationships with the regular judges, like Padma Lakshmi?
A: There’s still that separation of the judges and contestants, but you can’t help interacting with these people every day and forming some relationship. Even just becoming more comfortable around them. The first time you walk up and Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi are standing in front of you, you’re awestruck and can’t believe they’re there. But it becomes more normal every day.
Q: Now that you’re back, how are things going with your restaurants?
A: We have a lot going on with Hog. We are in the process of almost doubling the restaurant space, a huge expansion. The entire building is being taken over by Marriott and becoming a boutique high-end hotel. So in order for them to not bring their own bar and restaurant in, I offered that I wanted it to be us. But we needed to expand to accommodate it. We’re adding about 40 more seats. We’re adding a 150-person banquet private dining room, doubling the kitchen in the basement. So we’re working on a lot with that.
I also oversee Public Kitchen, which is in the same building, so they are doing the same, expanding the kitchen over there and looking at a potential concept change. And then Pearl & the Thief is going to hit 6 months next month. We’re just gearing up for the winter, changing gears for a little slower season in Stillwater.
Q: As far as your TV career, are we going to keep seeing you popping up on these shows?
A: I think you will. Nothing I can officially talk about, but I’ve had a few offers, so now I’m at a point where I need to review them all, make sure I’m making the right moves. But I’m also excited to spend a little time at home and get my hands and head wrapped back around my restaurants and not be on the road as much. But I’m pretty confident you’ll be seeing more TV out of me in the near future.