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.