Christopher Lee, former Striped Bass chef and current exec at New York’s acclaimed Aureole, talks to PW about Stephen Starr, Girl Scouts, Sour Patch Kids and his role on the new Bravo series Top Chef Masters.
What’s the first thing that went through your mind when Bravo approached you to be on Top Chef Masters?
“The first time Bravo contacted me I kinda said, ‘Really?’ I didn’t know what to think about it, so to be responsible I got more information about the show, consulted with my family, friends and PR team and decided it wasn’t a bad idea. The real kicker for me was that we were competing for charity.”
Are you a fan of Top Chef?
“I’m definitely a fan. I watch it and have had friends in the past on it. I’ve had my opinions about the show, how it always looks frantic and hectic, but now that I’ve been on Top Chef Masters with a clock in front of me, I can understand that craziness.”
Wait, wait. You’ve had friends on the show? Who?
“I knew Lee Anne Wong from the French Culinary Institute; we do a lot of work with them at Aureole. Hung Huynh worked at Gilt when I took over, and Marcel [Vigneron] … You go to Vegas, and you know Marcel.”
What about last season’s chef-testants? If Carla and Stefan came a’knocking at Aureole who one would you hire?
[Laughs.] “Not Stefan. When I hire somebody, I ask them right off the bat if they can drop their ego at the door. We’re here to produce great food, and Aureole comes first. You have to be selfless to be in my kitchen. Longevity isn’t about one person or one idea; it’s about many people coming together and supporting and believing in the same thing. Carla seemed selfless like that.”
Far as we know, no Top Chef contestant has had roots in Philly, so as the former chef at Striped Bass, you’re in a way the first contestant to represent for us.
“I loved Philadelphia. My wife and I were just in town visiting friends. We didn’t want to leave; there were reasons behind it. Philly was always a great city to us. It’s where my career really took off, where I really started coming on to the scene.”
In your Bravo video bio, you say that people might be shocked to discover you grew up eating chili, tacos and even McDonald’s. During your time in Philly as the chef at Striped Bass, were you scarfing scrapple and Tastykakes between bites of crab cocktail with green apple “caviar”?
“At the Bass we had the candy bowl. It was at the front of the line. Everyone had access to it, but everyone had to fill it up. There was everything in there from jellybeans to Starburst, hard candies, chocolates, Sour Patch Kids. Some guests actually raided it. What we cook in the restaurant for 10, 12 hours a day is just one facet. When I’m out of work I love rustic food, the classics, stuff that has soul, is really old-school or has an ethnic background.”
Under your direction, Striped Bass nabbed a rare, elusive four-beller from Craig LaBan. Where were you when you found out?
“We knew the paper would be coming out that morning. My wife, the GM, his fiancee at the time and I were hanging out at my house, and the paper came around 4 a.m. We robbed it from our neighbor. [Seeing the four bells] was as surreal moment. Our game plan from the get-go was four bells, so a lot of hard work went into that. To this day, the Striped Bass crew has been the best crew I’ve ever worked with. It was a great feeling, not so much as a personal accomplishment, but as something we all achieved together.”
Then less than a year after the review ran, you abandoned us—er, gracefully departed Philly—for Gilt in New York, the subject of our citywide inferiority complex. How could you do that do us?
“Stephen and I reached a point where we didn’t see eye to eye anymore. I didn’t start looking for a position until I needed to.”
Starr has since turned Striped Bass into steakhouse Butcher & Singer. When you found out, was it like your parents turning your bedroom into a gym after you leave for college?
“It was such a bad, bad day when I got that information. Stephen has so many ideas running through his head and proposals thrown at him; I’m sure he had a good reason, but he took an institution, a mainstay, and turned it into just another steakhouse. What are there, like, 60 steakhouses in Philly now?”
Something like that.
“Not really a great idea in my opinion.”
Since your time at Striped Bass, has your philosophy as a chef changed at all?
“Not really. Success comes one way: very hard work. I live by that rule; it’s always been my philosophy as a chef. In terms of cooking, I try to produce new food every day. Since Striped Bass, I’ve never repeated a dish. Five years, new food every season.”
At Aureole, you’re presumably not deboning chickens and brunoising bushels of apples. What was it like to get back behind the line on Top Chef Masters?
Wine with Mexican Food? Sí!