On last night's episode of Top Chef All Stars, two chefs were sent home. Their dishes—made from fish they caught earlier in the day and served in a casual beach-party setting—didn't please the judges. We snagged an interview with both of them, who talked to us about judges table, the evolution of Top Chef, who to watch for going forward, and what's next for them.
After the tennis challenge, when you didn't serve your chickpea dish, Richard Blais said you "have a story going." He was referring to when you cut your finger earlier in the season and missed cooking because you had to go to the hospital. Looking back, would you do anything differently?
When I cut my finger, it was 5 AM, I had slept 45 minutes in two days, and the medic said point-blank to my face "you need stitches." He didn't give me an option of taping it up. I've never been to the hospital [before that]. In my 45-minutes-of-sleep brain rationale, it wasn't about the competition, it was about my health and taking care of myself. Do I have regret? No. My finger works, I don't have any nerve damage, and I can do what I do on a regular basis. [With the tennis challenge], there's a lot that you don't see based on how the show is put together. I wish I had used canned chickpeas instead of using dried chickpeas, and I wish I hadn't listened to my teammates about that.
Which teammates do you wish you hadn't listened to?
Angelo and Tiffany. They said, "you can't used canned chickpeas, this is All Stars." I tried explaining to them that I wouldn't get the chickpeas cooked in time, and they said, "you'll be fine." Looking back on it, I'm like, "why did I listen to them?" I should have known better. I was bummed that I didn't get to serve that dish to the judges. To have [the show] edited to look like I didn't cook at all is just stupid. Angelo puts his hands on others' food. He did that to Spike. He tried to do that to me. That's just him. He does do it.
Was the fishing challenge fun, or were you all too stressed about what was coming afterward to enjoy yourselves?
It was one of the first times in the history of the show that I did actually have fun. I had never been fishing before in my life. Once we started catching fish, it was so fun. It would have been different if we hadn't caught any fish. It was incredibly exhilarating [to be outside] when we're constantly cooped up in a room. I thought it was a great challenge.
Did it strike you as odd that they knocked out two women while the men's team—Marcel, Richard, and Fabio—had done only one dish and nobody took full credit?
Tiffani and I talked about that. I thought it was a little bit strange. There were definite flaws from their dish. I was a little bit surprised. As much as [the judges] say [who gets kicked off] isn't cumulative, I think it must be a little bit. I think that's part of their decision to send people home. I remember looking at Antonia and apologizing to her because I felt like we had dragged her down to the bottom.
Who should we watch for going forward in the show?
Richard Blais and Antonia.
Tiffani, you got slack for leaving the bloodline in the bluefish that you cooked. Was that intentional? Do you regret it?
The confusion for me was that there wasn't bloodline—that was all gone. There was fat content between the skin and flesh, and that's something that New Englanders eat all the time. That's how it's cooked here [in Boston, where she lives]. I'm still a little surprised that it was seen that way.
How does it feel to have the judges say that your dish "lacked any finesse or refinement"?
Some of the critiques felt disconnected—like the [comment that the dish was] heavy-handed. Everything was fresh from the farmers market. It was all beautiful produce and all delicately produced. Bluefish is something that I'm familiar with. [The way I cooked it] is not something that's culturally odd here. I was trying to discern from the comments what was valid and what I would actually go back and change.
Do you think it would have helped your team if Antonia had been more critical of you and Jamie, as the judges suggested?
There was an inherent disconnect between asking Antonia to step in and critique our dishes. I think she's a strong cook, but I don't see her as someone who's a better chef than I am. It's a double-edged sword, asking her to step in—that assumes that she's a better chef than us. You have three strong male chefs on the other side [Marcel, Richard, and Fabio—the other losing team] who were all responsible for one dish, and they weren't held responsible in the same way we were. It was interesting to me that these three people never had to answer to the larger picture. We chose to do three separate dishes, and somehow Antonia was being held responsible as mother hen to our team.
How far has Top Chef come since season 1, when you were first on the show?
We joke that the only thing that's the same is the name and that Gail and Tom are still there. It's become a big brand and has a vested interest in keeping this brand. That's important in the [restaurant] industry. It's been incredible to watch it evolve. We were Thomas the Tank Engine [in season 1], trying to get up the hill. It's a lot slicker now.
Do you think you were able to show more of yourself in this season than in season 1?
I'm a different person than I was five years ago. I never felt like I was there five years ago, that it was me. It never felt like me, and a lot of friends and family said that, too. I'm happy with the fact that I watch episodes now and see my humor and sarcasm.
What happened with Rocca, the restaurant where you were chef most recently in Boston, closing on January 1? What's next for you?
It was unexpected. The people who were working at the restaurant weren't privy to the information that the restaurant was closing until the last service. It's 2011 kicking me in the ass and saying "it's time to do your own thing." I've been looking at spaces in Boston. [I want to open a restaurant] that has me written all over it from top to bottom. I don't want to give away too much information, concept-wise, right now. There'll be lots of bluefish.
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