Part of me always wants to write fun, silly articles about Top Chef — the cooking, the shenanigans, the personalities — it’s my escape, in a way (in general I prefer food people to movie people by a wide margin). But then in talking to these people, I start to remember that the thing they’ve basically trained their whole lives for is now on indefinite hold.
It’s hard to envision an 18, 19-year-old kid trying to go to the Culinary Institute of America like most of these chefs did when so many of the restaurants that inspired them (and might have hired them one day) look like they may never open again. But I suppose it’s the same in journalism. It’s hard to think about some aspiring writer somewhere trying to pledge an industry that spent the last few years laying off 47-year-olds who’ve written three books. Maybe that’s why I relate.
Dammit, see? This was supposed to be a fun intro.
As dark as that got, Top Chef is still as fun as ever and, for the most part, this season made it easy not to think about all the stuff I just mentioned. While this season had a dominant champion, in Melissa King, it also had some memorable characters. Case in point, the other two finalists — Stephanie Cmar and Bryan Voltaggio. Voltaggio had felt like the elder statesman, a high seed all the way through, at least partly because he seems like the ultimate dad, quick with a bad pun and slow with an unforgettable, halting baritone chuckle that he said his wife made a drinking game out of.
Meanwhile, Stephanie Cmar played the lovable underdog. The private chef and the only contestant whose trip to Italy would be her first time in the country — whose quips got sharper as the show went on. I did not expect to learn that she went to boarding school. But while Linkin Clark Griswold and CMonster differ in temperament, both seem incredibly content with their chosen profession. Seeing their passion underscores what we’re going to lose if we lose restaurants.
What were your favorite parts of the Italy trip?
BRYAN: I think for me it was just the tours. The truffle experience was by far one of the things I’ve most been wanting to do most over the last decade and I’d never had a chance to do it. And then going to Parma and really just understanding cheese making and the whole thing with Parmigiano Reggiano and the nuances between it and understanding the process… all of that stuff was an amazing experience. We never got to do any of that in previous seasons. In Masters, they just threw me out of a plane. In Vegas, we just went to casinos.
This was by far my favorite season.
STEPHANIE: Definitely. I’d never been to Italy. So everything that I saw was brand new and that was incredibly exciting and then to forge these friendships, in another country, while it’s being filmed is an indescribable experience. Because even though we experienced it a while back, to be able to go back and watch it was really amazing.
Were there any specific food lessons that you learned while you were in Italy?
BRYAN: I had one. So during the truffle challenge, I actually grated my truffles with a microplane. What the diehard Italian truffle connoisseur said is that was the absolute incorrect way to do it, because it actually releases the perfume in the truffle too quickly, that you should only use a truffle shaver. And so you would think that something that’s been around for probably a hundred years would be the right tool to use, but lots of chefs in kitchens all across America, from three-star Michelin, down to just your neighborhood Italian restaurant, they might have some truffles, and they’re grating truffles with a microplane. So I thought it was okay, but I kind of got slammed for it.
STEPHANIE: I guess same with the truffle experience. That you should never apply direct heat to a white truffle was something that I knew in the back of my head, but given the challenge, it didn’t really come back to me as I wish it had. I also learned that when something tastes disgusting, like radicchio, don’t put it on the plate and just beg for forgiveness. David [her husband] will be around the corner, we’ve got a tiny apartment and it’ll be like, “Radicchio!” Shut up, David. That was a curve, that was a learning curve for me.
On that note, what was the thing that your friends or family roasted you for the hardest that they saw you do on the show?
BRYAN: My laugh.
STEPHANIE: It’s so good though!
BRYAN: The ones who are close to me can make fun of me. My wife, every week would say, “Hey, it’s Thursday, who’s ready for America’s favorite drinking game? Every time you hear the laugh…” and she put that on her social internet group [Ed. note: yes, he said “social internet group” and not social media]. So I think that’s probably the one thing that I remember the most.
STEPHANIE: I would say it wasn’t roasted as much as it’s the most comments I’ve ever gotten was probably the “Champagne Padma” episode. But she was my favorite Padma. Champagne Padma was my favorite judge.
Don’t you think that the show would be more accurate to the real fine dining experience if there was like two or three drink minimum for the judges before every challenge?
STEPHANIE: Yeah, but you have to be careful which judge ’cause you want the one who gets tipsy and kind, not the one that gets boisterous and mean. I’d have to pick my drinkers.
Okay, which judges are the mean drunks?
BRYAN: Yeah I knew that question was coming. Go for it Steph, I want to hear all of these answers now.
STEPHANIE: Did we ever see anybody who got mean? Nobody ever did. I just wouldn’t want to find out, necessarily. Not that I saw it, but just like when I drink rum, I don’t become the best Steph. I just wouldn’t want a chef to be grading my food and drinking their 21-year-old shot drink.
Stephanie, when Brian Malarkey said you winning would be a huge upset, you kind of just like agreed with him right away. Do you think seeing yourself as an underdog hurt you? Would you change anything about that?
STEPHANIE: No way. That’s what got me so far. I mean, when Malarkey said that I don’t think he was being mean by it. I think he’d been in the bottom with me a bunch of times, and it was kind of like a dark horse moment where I was like, “Maybe we shouldn’t suck so bad anymore and get better?” And that’s what I tried to do. But I think he meant it out of love.
Bryan, this is your third time on one of these shows, and I’ve heard other people say that you’re insane for doing this three times. Why do you think it’s worth it to keep putting yourself through the process?
BRYAN: Well, this one was different. I mean, I think every season I did well, the first one was obviously it was my first time, and then I did Masters the second time because I was the first to go from Top Chef to Top Chef Masters, and I thought that was an honor to be asked to do that. And of course, it was for charity, which I thought was great. This time was different, because I’d already done it twice and I’m like, why do I need to do it a third time? Really I thought that I might have a chance to get to the finals. So I was like, you know what, why not? I’ll throw myself out there and do it one more time.
But also knowing that it was going to be a group of really talented chefs, that it was going to be all about the food and less about personalities and drama and all of that stuff, that’s the environment that I would want to compete in. Now, I’ve been asked a few times already, because this is over now. Would I do it again a fourth time? No, I’m gone, that’s it. Three times is enough. I got the three finales and that, in itself, is enough.
Now you can’t pick each other, but what is your favorite thing that you tasted that someone else cooked this season?
STEPHANIE: We just got asked that and I have the worst answer because when we got done with a quickfire elimination challenge, I would be so… it wasn’t full. I don’t know what the word would be to describe it, but like so overwhelmed that the most memorable thing that I ate was Padma’s soup in the finale when they cooked for us. It was so delicious. That’s definitely the one of the “not-chefs in the competition”-foods that I ate. Everybody else’s food is a blur.
BRYAN: I mean, there was amazing food and I have a long-winded answer to this, but also during the challenges trying the food, it’s unlike previous seasons where you’re trying other people’s food and you’re like, “oh yeah, I would have never made that.” In previous seasons, I’ve tried some bad stuff. But this time, it was all a pleasure to eat. Even Malarkey’s crazy ice creams were pretty good.
At what point in your life did you realize that you wanted to be a chef, and what had been your plan up until that point?
STEPHANIE: I’ve never had another job. I’ve never had a job outside of cooking in restaurants other than babysitting, and I didn’t see that as a lucrative or long-lasting career. I went to boarding school. My parents had already invested so much time, energy, and money into my education. When I told them I wanted to go to culinary school, they were just stoked that one out of their three children knew exactly what they wanted to do. So I had complete support from everybody around me. And thank God because it’s the greatest career I could ever ask for. But I knew when I was little that I loved to cook and I love the process. I loved the sounds, and the sights and the smells, and the whole thing really resonated with me.
BRYAN: My first job, I was 13, I washed motorcycles at a Harley-Davidson dealership so I could afford baseball cards. And then when I was 14, I got a job at a Holiday Inn as a busboy. I didn’t like clearing plates and running room service, but when I saw the cooks in the back using knives, there’s fire, clinking pans, everybody was cussing and having a good time, that seemed like fun. So I asked the chef, I told him, look, if I take this culinary program in high school, will you let me cook? And he said yes. So that’s where I got my first shot. Then I did it because it was cool because I was making money. I could buy myself my own clothes, I had a car, but then it came time to make a career choice. And I was persuaded by a lot of people who were around me to try to enroll in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. And so I was accepted and I went and that’s where it went from job to career.
Steph, I have to follow up on the boarding school thing. That’s not like a usual thing…
STEPHANIE: No, I did it at several high schools. I went to three, so I went to a little private school from first through ninth grade. And I liked school enough, but I wasn’t a phenomenal student. The town I grew up in had a great public school, but I was going from a class of 30 to a class of like 300, and I just wouldn’t go. My parents were like, “I don’t know what to do with this one.” So we went for a couple of tours. The first one they took me was an all-girls school. And I was like, I don’t think so. My mom was like, “No, it’s perfect!” I was like, I don’t think so. And then they got me pretty much as close to Canada as possible. So I went to this really beautiful school up in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. And I have to say it was a blast. I mean, that’s not what you’re supposed to necessarily say about high school, but I did a lot of stuff that was pretty cool including just going, because they would come wake you up. If you said you weren’t going to school, the nurse would come to your dorm room and be like, you’re going to school, it’s four feet away. Not traditional, but like it made me really good at having roommates for most of my life.
Ever since this quarantine started, it feels like some of the things that were a problem with restaurants, they may be exacerbated or worse now. Do you guys have ideas on how we make the restaurant industry more sustainable?
BRYAN: I know that Tom has been very public and vocal about what the downside of this is going to be, what the reality of this is going to be. If there isn’t a lot of help and assistance with restaurant owners and small businesses, I just heard a prediction that possibly 85% won’t come back and reopen. I know a lot of colleagues who are not opening restaurants again. Mine are still closed and some are going to be reopening here in hopefully the near future. I know one we’re opening at the end of this week and then the other ones thereafter. But what we’re going through now is, what is the experience is going to be like? It’s very much changing now from the guest’s perspective.
I ended up closing my restaurants and not doing takeout because I saw other restaurants were announcing that they had an outbreak and that got me really nervous. I didn’t want my team getting sick. I mean the last thing I was going to do is say “Hey everyone come back to work so we can help be a part of the problem.” What makes me nervous is that we’re going back into the Fall, everybody’s predicting that there’s going to be a second wave, that it’s going to get possibly even worse. That’s the part that worries me the most — how do we sustain a full year of closure for a lot of restaurants? I definitely see that there’s going to be a new model that might need to happen.
However, can you imagine life without restaurants at all? It’s going to be horrible. So I know there’s a lot of people who invested a lot and actually for me, fortunately, because some of my partners are larger corporations and hotel companies, they’re putting a lot of effort into making sure that a lot of scientists are involved in what the service model is going to look like. So at least I’m benefitting from that learning and able to apply that in my independent restaurants. And so it’s a day by day process.
On the flip side, it seems like now, everybody’s kind of cooped up and a lot of people are learning to cook at home more. Do you see any sort of opportunities in that area?
BRYAN: For sure. I mean, I’ve participated in a lot of ways already online, whether it be a direct connection, cooking classes with clients, or working with partners. I did some stuff with MasterCard, for example. I’ve done some things where I felt like I was able to create an experience for people, where they were cooking alongside, or just a demonstration, so I know that there’s opportunities out there.
STEPHANIE: Before COVID started, I had an idea, because I live in a small apartment and when my husband and I moved in here, we didn’t really think about how bad our kitchen was. So I came out with a series called “My Shitty Little Kitchen,” where I try to prove to people that regardless of what you have in your home, you can make a great meal. And that brings me joy and laughter, and I hope it brings other people joy and laughter too. But a lot of the chefs, I mean, Melissa does live demos. Nini does demos. A lot of chefs are taking the time, and it also helps us connect to people who we probably wouldn’t have if they didn’t have the access on some of these channels. I’ve got this friend in Winnipeg, I’ve never met him, don’t know him, but I talk to him every day on Instagram because he loves to cook and he makes all of the Top Chef dishes.