Top Chef Master Rick Bayless.
||We spent the weekend enjoying a Top Chef Masters marathon on the DVR. We were thrilled with every contestant; anyone who loves great food—and especially those of us who try to cook it—can’t help but give thanks daily for all of the people who expend so much passion, backbreaking labor and stress to please us with their fine cuisine (or great burritos, or whatever). We have experienced the cuisine of all three finalists: the Mexican cooking of Rick Bayless at Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago; the Italian-influenced California cuisine of Michael Chiarello at Tra Vigne in Napa Valley (the restaurant is still thriving in St. Helena although there have been many chef changes since; Michael recently opened Bottega restaurant in nearby Yountville); and the elegant food of classic French-trained Hubert Keller of San Francisco landmark restaurant Fleur de Lys.
Last week, we caught up by phone with the winner of Top Chef Masters, Rick Bayless, and chatted about his win on Top Chef Masters, against a formidable field of America’s most lauded chefs. We had the chance to ask what really happens behind the scenes on the show.
|TN: Because of your celebrity, were the master chefs treated better than the regular Top Chef contestants?
RB: The only difference was that we had private rooms in a nice hotel [as opposed to sharing rooms in a group house]. Otherwise, we ran ragged day and night. I lost 10 pounds. I didn’t have time to phone my wife or restaurants once in the four-day finale. Not a minute to make a call—that’s unheard of for me!
TN: Did you really have absolutely no help to get all that work done—especially in the finale when you were plating food for nine judges (Top Chef judges Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi and Gail Simmons as well as the five winners of the original Top Chef program)?
RB: No help at all. We did everything ourselves, including peeling and chopping garlic and washing pots. If you needed a certain pan and there was only one of them, after another chef used it, you had to wash it yourself.
TN: Given the skill level of the master chef contestants, what do you consider the keys to success in the competition?
RB: The ability to handle the stress and to get it all done with no help. Chefs at the masters level have been working with a team of assistants for a long time. We were on our own. I was shredding 180-degree tongue with my bare fingers against a clock, burning my hands. There’s also the luck of the draw; with the street food challenge, for example, as well as with the ingredients you’re given. I’m very comfortable with making street food, I was very comfortable with my ingredients; I won the challenge. Finally, there’s the luck of making the right decision in the first place. If what you’ve chosen to do isn’t working, there’s no time to go back and change things.
TN: You’ve won $100,000 for the Frontera Farmer Foundation, which gives grants to family farmers for equipment that helps them in important ways. It will be a huge help for the Foundation. If you could do Top Chef Masters again and potentially win another $100,000, would you be game?
RB: I’d have to think long and hard about it!
You can learn more about the Frontera Farmer Foundation and make a contribution to this worthy cause. If it weren’t for family farmers, there wouldn’t be such exceptional produce and meat—not to mention cream, cheese, herbs and so many more types of food—that go into making meals so special at the fine restaurants we love so much.