Top Chef’s Jim Smith Talks To Us About The Pressures Of Being A Chef

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Chef Jim Smith got eliminated halfway through season 14 of Top Chef in Charleston, two seasons ago, which is a whole lifetime in reality show years. And yet time hasn’t much dimmed our memory of Smith as a competitor, the dapper southern gentleman who cooked freshened up versions of southern classics. Few mid-pack competitors make such an indelible impression, and if it seems like maybe he went home earlier than he should have, well, he hasn’t been able to forget it either.

“Being eliminated from Top Chef in Charleston is one of the most consistent recurring nightmares that I have,” Smith says. “I constantly think about what minor changes I could have made.”

Smith had gone from finishing in the top three the episode before to getting bounced in a sudden-death quickfire challenge — that’s the first challenge in every episode, the one that doesn’t generally end in elimination — over an astrology-themed dish, which made the elimination seem especially abrupt and heartless. And he was so sweet! The Top Chef gods are fickle.

Smith, who works as the executive chef for the state of Alabama (can you believe that’s a job?), will get a shot at redemption this season, albeit a small one, when he returns to compete on Last Chance Kitchen, along with fellow returning competitors Brother Luck and Carrie Baird. In order to win this season, he’ll have to beat 10 or 11 different previously-eliminated season 16 competitors and his fellow returnees. At least, barring some kind of twist — of which there is sure to be one. Last season, Lee-Anne Wong beat out three other returning competitors in Last Chance Kitchen and rejoined the show in episode five.

I spoke to Smith by phone this week, and we discussed Top Chef, the psychological pressure on chefs, the culinary school question, and the eternal struggle between creativity and commerce.

What were the dishes that got you eliminated?

The first dish I made was a dish that had to represent my sign. I’m a fire sign, and so I did a blow-torched bison with a watermelon miso and then a charred Thai chili mascarpone whip on top of it, with sunflower seed in the dish. And I thought it was a dish that really embraced fire with the peppers and the blow torch to cook the meat. But then, because I had to serve a liquid in it, Padma and the guest judge thought that it was more watery than fire. And so even though it was a cool dish, it maybe didn’t quite meet the challenge needs the right way. The sad that thing is that it was really cool and had a lot of neat flavors in there.

So that landed me on the bottom of the Quickfire Challenge, and then it was steak tartare that sent me home. And steak tartare is such a traditional dish, it can be difficult to interpret it in different ways. I definitely took a slightly different approach. It involved a spinach sauce and really more of a bright, lemony steak tartare than a more traditional, you know, cornichon, kind of heavy pickle ingredients in there. It was heartbreaking, and I remember it like it was yesterday.

Does it seem like sometimes they want you to take the challenge as like a jumping off point to make just something that tastes good, but then other times, it seems like they want it to really fit the challenge?

That is one of the toughest decisions that you have to make in the spur of the moment on Top Chef. Once you hear what the challenge is, do you take it as license to be as creative as possible? Or do you try to stick to the parameters that they set, and do something that in their minds is within the realm of what the challenge is? You’ve got to dance that line really carefully. I think that if you make something that’s good that’s a little outside of the lines, it’s usually okay, but that’s one of the trickiest things to decide.

What do you think is your brand as a chef? Is that something you think about at all?

Yeah. I mean, for me as a chef, I’m definitely rooted in Southern food traditions, that’s something that’s really close to my heart and the food that I grew up eating all my life. I also consider myself to be someone who uses a good bit of modern techniques. And even though it may not be splashed on menus that you might see from me, there’s a lot of modern thinking and interesting ideas that I put behind that sort of traditional Southern palate.

What do you think are common misconceptions about that style?

I think Southern food is almost always thought of as super heavy dishes, that are loaded with lots of pork and pork fat. And there is a certain level of truth to that, but I think that in modern Southern cuisine, there are lighter flavors and there are lots of other approaches that are embraced and have always been embraced by chefs in the South, even if those may not be the types of foods that show up on Southern menus in the North or on the West Coast.

You know, Southern food is often about seafood and light flavors, and amazing citrus and almost all of the South has amazing agricultural communities, so there’s a lot of great produce and lots of good, local vegetables that play a huge part in Southern food. Lots of times, those Southern vegetables are paired with a big ham hock, but lots of times they’re not.

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Pickled Ears, Watermelon, Caviar, Cucumber, Peas, Herbs

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So coming back again for Last Chance Kitchen, how much of that is something that you don’t necessarily love, but you do because you know what kind of publicity it means for your restaurant, and how much do you genuinely enjoy the competition aspect?

Well I mean for me, it’s definitely about the competition. I love being challenged, I love when people force you to be creative on the spot. I really enjoy those sort of mental exercises, and I’m definitely someone who is a fan of reality television in general. I love competition shows and seeing what real people do when put in those kinds of circumstances. For me, obviously, publicity is great, I’m in the process of opening a restaurant, and those are the types of things that matter to me as a businessman. But as a chef, being on Top Chef and competing and really being thrown in there with the best chefs across the country is what makes it so special.

What are some of the aspects of being a restaurant chef or a chef-owner that you don’t see being challenged on Top Chef?

I’m still currently the executive chef of the state of Alabama, and so I cook for the governor every day and right now, it’s the holiday season, there’s a party almost every day, and so there’s lots and lots of cooking involved, and lots of it is very similar to what happens in Top Chef. I don’t have a crew, it is really just literally me in the kitchen every day, so I may have to make heavy hors d’oeuvres or a five-course dinner for people and it’s always just me.

I think that a lot of chefs who own their own restaurants and are maybe a little bit less connected with chopping onions. I mean every chef remembers how to chop an onion, but if you don’t do it every day and you haven’t for the last two years, you sort of… you might forget the small sort of work that has to be done for a dish.

And then with your job specifically, do you enjoy that aspect, of maybe getting to be an artisan as opposed to having to be more of a manager?

I think that every chef, no matter who they are, considers themselves to be an artist, and always has to struggle finding the right balance between themselves as an artist and what it takes to make a restaurant be successful. I think that is a constant struggle amongst all chefs. It’s a big struggle every day to try to find out how to continue to express yourself creatively, how to be fulfilled in the food you make, and still do what it takes to stay afloat in an industry that has a lot of trouble with staffing. And there are lots of trouble facing the restaurant industry as whole these days.

What do you think some of those struggles are?

Well I think definitely — it’s all splashed all over the media, especially with the loss of Anthony Bourdain — being a chef can take a real psychological toll on you. And it’s not about being a tough person or overcoming, it’s just when you put people who are naturally artistically driven and people who like to please other people and be the host of the party, when you put them into an economic world where the finances are so tight, and so many restaurants failing, and having a hard time finding people who can hold a knife the right way, it becomes sort of a huge stressful situation where you want to find yourself emotionally and creatively.

Do you think that we sort of maybe fetishize this idea of these chefs that work these crazy hours, where it seems like it’s almost a bragging rights thing about who can work the most hours a week sometimes?

Yes, though I think that that kind of mentality is maybe not there as much as it used to be. I think that people do have this idealized image of the chef and they see chefs on TV and they like and respect what they do and they think, oh, that’s so creative, but so much of what being a chef is, is not about that. It’s hard to draw a line between what people view as a chef… It’s almost like those memes where you’re like a … What you actually do vs what your mom thinks you do, you know what I’m talking about?

I do.

And there really is some truth to that, when it comes to being a chef. It’s definitely not all glamour and opening bottles of champagne. Most of it is paying bills and trying to make ends meet.

I guess I just mean how much do you think long hours are due to the culture of it and how much do you think it’s just straight economic realities?

I think it’s a little bit of both. And there definitely used to be more of this machismo attitude, of you know, “I can work all these hours a day, and I’m the only person who’s needed to be there!” and I think that mentality is starting to fade, thankfully. But I think that a lot of it is just sort of the stark economic realities of what it means to run a successful restaurant.

Do you have thoughts on any way that might change or ways that we could make that better?

No, that is the toughest question imaginable. I mean, you want to ease the pressures on people who are in kitchens and yet obviously, you can’t charge 100 dollars for a plate of food in a normal restaurant situation. So it’s really difficult to find any sort of balance there that doesn’t involve the owner and the chef working very hard and working for a long time. I don’t know what the solution is. I wish I had the magic answer to that one, but I really don’t know what it is.

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In terms of the show, if you have someone that you work with, or a friend that’s about to go on the show, what kind of advice do you give them?

I really think that it’s important to not try to be something that you aren’t, and also to really embrace who you are personally and what your story through food is. And I think that a lot of times, chefs try to do too much and they forget something simple like just the right amount of salt, which in many cases of Top Chef, is the difference between who stays and who goes.

In terms of either competitive chefs, or just regular home cooks, what’s something that you see a lot of people cooking wrong?

I do lots of work with seafood, and I think that a lot of times people are scared of fish. Fish and other seafood. And when they get it, they think that they really have to cook it a long time, and I think that home cooks may not understand how delicate fish is, and that really, once you put it in the pan, it’s not going to take a lot of time. So I think that overcooked fish is certainly one of the biggest mistakes that chefs make. Probably the biggest home cooks mistake, and every chef will probably tell you this, is that salt is so important, and home cooks are just scared of seasoning correctly, and don’t understand that just a little bit more salt will change the entire complexion of a dish.

On the subject of cooking fish, it seems like raw fish preparations like crudo are huge, I swear like every episode of Top Chef now, like the top five, there’ll be like three crudos or ceviches.

There are a lot of strategic reasons why it makes sense to serve a crudo or a ceviche in Top Chef, and people might think at home who are just watching that it’s a cop-out to not cook food, but often times, not cooking food is harder than serving it cooked. And to make a beautiful crudo does require a lot of skill and expertise. At the same time, it does make sense strategically, if you can eliminate ten minutes of cooking time, that’s going to save you time to refine the dish in other ways.

What do you think is the highest risk, lowest reward thing that you see people cook on Top Chef?

High risk, low reward, I mean for years and years on Top Chef, there was a risotto curse and some people have done it well, but very few. And for me personally, when my friend from Italy, Silvia, served me risotto, it was even less cooked than I’ve had it at some of the best restaurants in the South or really around the country that serve risotto. For me, it is such a delicate art to get it exactly right. It is a huge risk, but then if you do it right, I’m not really sure that you get a huge pat on the back from the judges for doing a well-executed risotto when they expect the dish to be well executed no matter what.

It seems like there’s less margin for error with certain, like especially Italian food, because it seems like their standards for it are very rigid and specific. Does that seem right?

Yeah, I think that’s definitely fair, and I mean Tom Colicchio has awfully good stories about what it means to be an Italian chef, and he’s an expert really on every area of food, but I think there is a certain rigidity that comes with ideas of what it means to make a well-executed pasta or risotto, or even more traditional Italian-style foods.

So I’ll just give you one last question. So how do you think coming up as a chef is different now than it was when you were first getting started?

You know, and I hear chefs talk about this really all the time, is that I think that lots of people, like for me, when I knew I wanted to be a chef, I mean, there were TV chefs, but when I started working in restaurants, there really weren’t, there really were only the sort of old-school PBS shows that you could watch. But these days, I think that a lot of kids are sent to culinary school with this idea that, oh, I can just go to culinary school and I’ll come out and I’ll be the next Gordon Ramsay.

But the reality of the situation is that young culinary students don’t really know, or understand often, the amount of work in apprenticeship and studying and skills you have to develop over time before you can be thought of as a good chef, or a great chef. Just because you went to culinary school and work in a great restaurant, it doesn’t mean you’re going to make it on TV.

Or once you enter this industry, you realize that you have a stark awakening and then just immediately choose a different job. So I think that’s part of what makes finding inspired young chefs difficult, although there are plenty of them out there. There’s a definite sort of difference in attitude from when I started working in kitchens to these days.

Did you go to culinary school?

I did go to culinary school. And actually I’m one of the people who, I spent probably 15 years working in restaurants and kitchens before going to culinary school, so I think it’s one of those things where if you have experience in the field and you know that you want to go to culinary school to refine your craft and to learn from experts things you might not have been getting in a restaurant, it really is a huge advantage to do it that way as opposed to someone who just graduates high school and are trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives and they think it’s going to be cool to go to culinary school because chefs are cool. Those people usually are the ones that have sort of a rude awakening once they get into the world of restaurants.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can find his archive of reviews here.