[Laughs.] “The funny part is the opposite is true. When I took over Aureole, I was in the kitchen 90 percent of the time. I inherited an entire crew, so it was important for me to get in there and be a working force. So before the show I was pretty brushed-up on my skills.”
Did you have a strategy?
“I didn’t wanna make myself look like a fool. [Laughs.] I wanted to go in there with a competitive attitude but still have fun. Everybody wants to win, but it wasn’t the end-all be-all.”
Wylie Dufresne, Rick Bayless and Wilo Benet are just a few of the chefs competing with you for the title. In the first few episodes, chefs are grouped into fours and only one advances to the next round. When you first saw the contestant line-up, who were you hoping was in your group?
“[The producers] barely told us anybody that would be on the show. Out of the 24 chefs, I got an initial list of eight. The only one I knew was in my group ahead of time was Hubert Keller. I trained in San Francisco [location of Keller’s acclaimed Fleur de Lys], so as a young chef I really admired him.”
How was it cooking against him?
“It was great. One hell of a guy.”
So format-wise, how different is Top Chef Masters from Top Chef? Can we expect vending-machine-amuse-bouche Quickfires and challenges where you had to cook everything in an EZ-Bake Ovens?
“All of the Quickfires and Elimination Challenges are based on ones from Top Chef, only more difficult and with less time. In the first episode, we had to cook with just a hot plate, microwave and toaster oven—then to make it worse, they threw us in a college dorm.”
On Top Chef, the contestants are allowed to bring a secret ingredient from home. Same policy on Top Chef Masters?
“ We could have brought something from home, but I was like, ‘Screw it.’ [Laughs.] I just wrapped my knives in paper towels and jumped on a plane. The other guys had gizmos and gadgets, and I was like, ‘I guaranteed you won’t have time to use any of that shit.’ [Laughs.] Just give me a knife, a spoon, the food and let’s go.”
Dessert is always Top Chef suicide, and you had to cook one in the very first Masters Quickfire.
“When they gave us that challenge, I was like, ‘Greaaaat.’ A lot of us chefs come from realms that have always have the luxury of a pastry chef. I can make basic stuff, but I don’t have the practice—or the time to practice—desserts. And the kicker wasn’t that we had to do dessert, which was a killer. First they tell us we have to make dessert, then they show us the jury: Girl Scouts.”
Girl Scouts? Did you bust out a Thin Mint parfait?
“At least kids are truthful. They like it or they don’t like it. But it was challenging to develop something familiar and tasty—in an hour.”
The winner of Top Chef Masters gets a $100,000 donation to the charity of their choice. If you win, where’s that money going?
“For the past three or four years, I’ve been working with Autism Speaks. My nephew Sean Patrick has autism, and he was the driving force behind me being a part of the show. There’s just not a lot known about the disease, and there needs to be funding to research, educate and support the families with this unfortunate diagnosis. When I can do something for my family, I jump at it.”
Where do you eat when you get back to Philly?
“Philly’s such a great food town. Jose [Garces] is my probably my favorite Philly chef. Amada is great. Tinto is awesome. If I was in town during the day, I’d go to John’s Roast Pork and get some sandwiches for the family. Or that Mexican place on Washington Avenue … Near Passyunk … What’s it called?”
Los Taquitos de Puebla?
“Yeah, that’s it! Definitely there. Melograno’s always great too, and Vetri’s places. Marc’s a good friend of mine. His spinach gnocchi are definitely on me and my wife’s top list.”
There are definitely lots of amazing restaurants here—enough to merit Philly being the host city for Top Chef season 7, perhaps … You got any pull?
[Laughs.] “I’ll see what I can do.”
Top Chef Masters premieres at 10 p.m. on Wednesday on Bravo.
Wine with Mexican Food? Sí!