Back of the House

Sanitation Is Important to Howie Kleinberg, and He Never Lost His Temper

The loneliest bulldog: Howie Kleinberg.
The loneliest bulldog: Howie Kleinberg.haha

Top Chef villain Howie Kleinberg, beloved in some corners but reviled in most, was finally eliminated last night. Despite his last-minute conversion from self-serving aggressor to avowed team player, the judges unanimously agreed that his hors d’oeuvre lacked imagination and flavor. Today Howie talks to us about his sweaty head and why you don’t want to be his enemy.

You tried to sacrifice yourself to save Brian. Did you honestly think they would let you withdraw from the competition?
I didn’t necessarily think I was jumping on a grenade for him. To me, he was the first person to show leadership and I thought it was important to express support for him. I thought my dishes went over well, but when I found out later they didn’t like them, I thought maybe I would be eliminated. I was ready to be done with the show, and I didn’t want to see Brian get sent home for something I did.

In earlier episodes you seemed almost eager to blame other chefs, particularly Sara Mair and Sara Nguyen. When did you decide to become a team player?

I don’t think that I went out of my way to put anybody in harm’s way. If you’re a member on my team but you’re not really on my side, you’re making an enemy with the wrong guy. With both of the Sara situations, the instances that made me say “screw you” weren’t shown. That could be because somebody needs to be the bad guy. You have that ammo in the back of your head for the worst-case scenarios. If we had done well, none of that stuff would have come up.

What did you think of guest judge Michael Schwartz?
I don’t think much of Michael Schwartz. I don’t think he should have been selected. I don’t know how you go from Daniel Boulud to Michael Schwartz. I knew him in Miami because he and I had shared a publicist. That’s kind of not above board [for Top Chef rules]. He puts more emphasis on the way food looks than it tastes. Every word out of his mouth is about looks and not flavor. I’d rather have food that tastes good and looks like crap than have it look great and taste like nothing.

Do you regret initially making enemies with most of the contestants?
Little by little people in the house showed me they weren’t loyal. I’m so loyal it’s ridiculous. I’m a double-edged sword. I’ll kill myself for you if you’re loyal, but the minute you show me betrayal, I’ll write you off. Once that happens, the gloves come off.

Do you still talk to any of them?
I talk to Tre. He’s pretty much the only person I talk to. You don’t see it on camera as much, but he was definitely the one person in the house I was an ally with. It was a huge blow to see him go home. Everyone knows I wasn’t going out and trying to make friends.

People devoted a lot of words to your head in all of its bald and sweaty glory. Did this seem like an odd obsession to you?

I don’t think it’s odd. If a beadlet of my sweat dropped into anything on the show, I didn’t realize it. I’m sweaty because it’s hot. You’re in a warehouse in Miami with heavy coats. If you see me in my element, I’m not the guy who’s cooking everything you’re eating. I’m not sweating over stoves anymore. But you have no sous-chef and anything that goes on the plate is done by you. It’s kind of a stupid thing, but I don’t want people to think sanitation isn’t important to me because it is.

Was there a moment when you almost catastrophically lost your temper?
I never lost my temper. People who think I have a bad temper based on that show don’t really know me. There were times when I was angry. I’ll start off and escalate, if things need to escalate. I lost my temper a couple of times, but I never had any type of explosion or something. I knew exactly what I was doing.

What are you up to now?
I went on Top Chef to put myself on the map. I wanted to show the world that I could cook and I think I showed that. Now I’m getting some investors together and trying to open my own contemporary American restaurant in New York. It would be a vehicle for me and my food.

Who do you think will reign as Top Chef?
I think it’s a little close to call, but I think Dale or Hung can win. Seriously, the best chef got sent home before me. Dale is the whole package, and he’s got a good temperament. Those things make a difference.

So you do occasionally think you’re wrong?

I’m wrong a lot more than just occasionally. I can go back and admit that I’m wrong. But I am hardheaded and it’s made me successful. I’ll be damned if I’m not fighting for myself. The moment I stop fighting for myself is the moment I’ll be in my grave.
—Rebecca Ruiz

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Sanitation Is Important to Howie Kleinberg, and He Never Lost His Temper