Back of the House

Defeated Cheftestant: ‘That Night Was Crushing’

A Top Chef finalist relives last night’s episode with us. Spoiler-filled interview below!

Not even a

Which two contestants should have been in the finale with you?

If it were going to be anyone different than who was actually there, Dale is a super-talented chef. You’ve got to look at the people who showed you something, showed a new technique or brought something new to the table. Dale was definitely one of those people.

You taught Eric Ripert something about liquid nitrogen.
That’s what really embodies what being a chef is all about. That was an unbelievable moment. Not because I’ve just taught one of the best chefs in the world something. But actually because we’re learning this together. Isn’t this an amazing thing? It was a genuine moment, something I’ll take with me as one of my biggest accomplishments. Just to be in that think tank for a few minute with Eric and to have that response: “I’ve never seen that before, and it’s really interesting.” I can’t do an Eric Ripert accent or I would. My wife does a good one.

You told the judges you choked. Was that a mistake?
One of the difficulties I had with the challenge was, “Cook the best meal of your life.” I can’t even understand that. I don’t think I’ll ever walk away from something I do and say, “Wow, that was perfect.” It was a moment of being self-aware. But I don’t feel like I was Bill Buckner on the ‘84 Red Sox. It wasn’t like I sent out a burnt steak or dropped the foie gras on the floor. The term “choked” was a little rough on my end.

What went wrong for you in the kitchen?
I hate to use the term writer’s block, but it’s the closest thing I can think of. I think Tom said it, actually: “You probably have a thousand ideas running through your head.” And I did. I wanted it to be superpersonal, which it was. And I wanted it to be presented as a story. I needed to be free of that block and be a little more fluid.

Would it have been easier to have a sous-chef on day two?
I tend to do a better job when I’m in a team situation. That was a curveball. I wasn’t expecting to see Dan Barber that day, but I was expecting to have someone. I don’t know if this was the first final competition with no assistance. It certainly would have helped to have an extra set of hands. While I’m conceptualizing, they could be chopping things.

What was the story line of your meal?
The first course was about being in Puerto Rico. Literally mangoes were falling out of trees as we were walking down the streets. It was like Candy Land for chefs. It was surreal, these mangoes. The second course was really about my French training and all of these little tasty nuggets of things you love: a lobe of foie gras, a beautiful sous-vide egg, some pulled duck meat. I also think pulling off bacon ice cream when bacon’s not one of your ingredients is pretty neat, too. I didn’t have bacon; I only had pork belly, so I had to engineer a bacon flavor pretty quickly

How did you deal with the disappointment?
It was mine to lose. That night was crushing. I don’t care about the $100,000. It would have been neat to have the title, but it was really a personal journey for me to commit myself to that and risk total embarrassment on national television every week. To have come that far and then not win it — what’s worse: getting blown out of the water or losing on the last shot of the game?

What was the highlight of the experience for you?
The highlight was the totality of it all, the free flow of it. There was the fun of being able to walk into a kitchen every day and play for an hour. There’s more on the line in restaurants. People are paying for your food, and there’s sometimes not a lot of time to experiment or have fun or run around like a maniac for 30 minutes.

Michael Alan Connelly

Read more interviews, recaps, comments, and lists in Grub Street’s complete coverage of Top Chef.

Defeated Cheftestant: ‘That Night Was Crushing’