Back of the House

Axed Cheftestant on the Perils of Working With Dale

“It still needs more Velveeta.”

Last night on Top Chef a wedding challenge pitted two teams against each other in an effort to cook for 250 people in fourteen hours. With the exception of Andrew and his “culinary boner,” the gang looked as limp as steam-table vegetables by the end. The groom’s team, headed up by Nikki Cascone, took to the chopping block for their sorry (and overly ambitious) attempts at Italian food. Earlier today, New York’s Michael Alan Connelly spoke with Nikki about Dale, her new project, and how Top Chef is good for business.

Was it hard to watch the show last night?
It was hard to watch, especially myself with that look. Throughout the competition, I really tried to smile a lot and be excited about the day-to-day challenges. I can see it on my face for the first time; I’m really emotionally drained.

What was the most difficult part of the wedding challenge?
We wanted to make the groom happy because it was such a big day. I knew that Dale was going to come into this challenge going “I should have been on the other team.” We knew the perils of working with Dale.

Do you stand behind what you served?
Not a 100 percent, unfortunately. Spike and Lisa did come to me a lot for input. Had we limited like the other team did and been a little smarter about our menu, there could have been more focus on everything. Then again, Dale was the one cooking all the food.

Should you have been the one to go?
Dale easily could have gone home in this circumstance. That’s the first thing that goes through my mind: “Great, this is Italian, this is my time to shine.” I have never cooked in an Italian restaurant, so other than my Italian heritage and growing up around Italian, I definitely had the most experience and love to cook Italian food.

Once [the other team] gave a pass on the groom and gave him to us, and he says, “I love Italian,” I thought, “Great.” You don’t get cocky, but I was certainly excited and eager to shine. If we were on the bottom, I was definitely going to be the one to be going home, hands down. I asserted myself a lot, and some people just can’t be led. That’s the way it is.

Are you happy to be back at 24 Prince?
We renovated our garden, and obviously, the show — to quote Tiffany from season one, “Top Chef puts asses in chairs.” I normally had four people in my kitchen and have had to double my staff. You leave Top Chef much more of a perfectionist than you ever were before. It’s not that I would ever put out garbage food before, but now it’s like more chefs in the kitchen, more to do, more to prove.

Are you working on other projects?
One was actually in the works before Top Chef began: a boutique hotel–slash–restaurant–slash–spa.

What kind of food will be there?
Light Mediterranean fare. ”This is what Nikki truly likes to cook as a chef.” I get judged a lot for 24 Prince being my food. But that’s absolutely not the case. It’s one of many restaurants I hope to have, and it’s the demographic of that neighborhood. We wanted it to be a neighborhood restaurant. You have to be a business person as well as a chef, and that’s why I’ve been in business three years.

Axed Cheftestant on the Perils of Working With Dale