As helpfully laid out at the beginning of every episode of Top Chef, winners receive $125,000, as well as features in Food and Wine magazine and a trip to the Food and Wine Festival in Aspen (I’ve watched the show enough that I could recite that bit by heart). But if your ultimate goal is to open a restaurant, $125,000 barely makes a dent.
“You can buy like 12 tables,” said this season’s winner, Joe Flamm.
What you really need, if you’re trying to open your own place, is investors. And in an industry that still relies heavily on cachet, Top Chef means something to people with money. Unlike the ever-abundant crop of singing competition shows, whose winners can maybe expect to headline a state fair or two, most of Top Chef‘s winners turn into big names overnight, even after 15 seasons. Of course, Top Chef isn’t plucking dreamers off the street like those shows; its competitors are already pretty well established. Mostly, it takes promising chefs and gives them a boost. (Maybe it’s these more modest goals that have helped the series last so long.)
Season 15 winner Joe Flamm already had a solid career going when he was picked for the show, serving as executive chef for Michelin-starred Spiaggia in Chicago (under Top Chef Masters contestant Tony Mantuano), after past stints with Art Smith (also a Top Chef Masters contestant) and Stephanie Izard (Top Chef season four winner). Even with that kind of pedigree, he still seemed like at least a mild underdog, up against chefs like Bruce Kalman, who already owns a restaurant and seemed to be on a first-name basis with every guest judge.
“Underdog” maybe a bit loaded, but Flamm didn’t have a top three finish in a challenge until episode seven, and didn’t get a win until episode eight. That was the Restaurant Wars challenge, and Flamm won for his front of the house management. Which is all to say that early on, Flamm’s greatest asset seemed to be his charm and general likeability. When he got eliminated in episode nine, the other contestants reacted like they’d lost a family member.
The reaction shot looked like a painting from the romanticism movement.
But Flamm got a second chance by winning Last Chance Kitchen. He returned to the show and eventually made it to the finale against fellow Chicago South Sider Adrienne Cheatham. Flamm’s show stopper was his pasta course (naturally), a pig’s head tortellini made with gran arso flour — a type of singed wheat, giving the pasta a smokey flavor and a color the judges compared to river rocks. That dish carried him to victory, making Flamm the second Last Chance Kitchen winner to take home the grand prize.
If not life-changing, the victory was one of the highest forms of career validation — albeit a private one, since we saw the finale last week and the show has been wrapped since September. Now that his news is finally public, I spoke to Flamm by phone about how hard it is to keep something like that to yourself and his finest pasta tips. He also fed me some crow for not putting him in the top of my rankings all season. Fair is fair.
So, you celebrating?
Yeah, we celebrated pretty hard last night, but we’re still out and about today. Just continuing the ride. We went … one of our favorite bars in Chicago, this little dive-y place called Sportsman. We took the whole place over. Just partied late into the night.
Were you allowed to do that right after the win or did you have to keep it secret until this week?
I had to keep it secret ’til this week. When I was there in, when that moment happened, when we were in Colorado. It’s crazy. You don’t get to celebrate, ’cause they sweep you out of the room right away ’cause you have to go into interview. And we were on top of Aspen Mountain, so I had a half hour gondola ride down. And it was just me and the talent handler, Maria.
So I was sitting in a gondola in the dark for a half hour and it was just like, “I just won Top Chef,” and it was the weirdest thing ever. You have so much emotion and energy. This is where… It’s one of those weird things because it happened, but now it’s like really happening. It’s amazing.
Were you allowed to tell family, like your wife, after it happened?
I got to call my wife. They let me call her on the episode and tell her that I had won, but nobody else.
PUBLICIST: And Tony you got to tell.
Oh, I got to tell Tony [Mantuano, his boss at Spiaggia]. And they also let me call Stephanie Izard.
How did that feel, having won and then not being able to say anything about it?
It’s insane. It’s a ridiculous, crazy… you know, you’re sitting on this secret. Especially ’cause I got kicked off. People were like, “Oh my God, I’m so sad. It’s over,” but coming back it’s … It was hard, but the payoff’s so worth it. Standing in a room full of people last night, and everyone when they heard that, just losing their minds. Like that’s the part that made it easy. You knew the payoff was coming. You knew it was going to be so great for me to be able to have this moment with my friends, with my family, with my cooks, with my sous chefs.