In a season that’s been lagging of late, it was a surprise to suddenly find that it was time to determine which cheftestants would move on to the final leg of the competition. It was also a bit of a shock to see such a simple, straightforward challenge for this definitive challenge, which involved cooking “last suppers” for food-world luminaries inside the cavernous Capitale. But the episode was not without drama: Fabio broke a finger, Carla made green eggs and ham, and Stefan managed to ruin salmon. Carla and Fabio got the thumbs-up from the judges, leaving the other three on the chopping block. In the end, it was Leah Cohen, the youngest and least experienced of the remaining cheftestants, who was instructed to pack her knives. We spoke with her earlier today about why she was ready to leave the show and what she thought about kissing Hosea.
Everyone wants to win Top Chef. But once the competition started and you sized up your competitors, how far did you expect to make it?
My personal goal was to make it at least halfway through. Top eight would be great and anything more than that would be really great. I didn’t think I was going to make it as far as I did.
In terms of the specific challenge, “the Last Supper,” did you feel that of the three of you, Hosea and Stefan, that you deserved to be eliminated?
Stefan hammered his fish. It was completely overcooked. And Hosea’s shrimp scampi was a little 1980s. I thought I was fine, totally making it to the final four. But after the judge’s table, before they deliberate, when they just give the rundown of everyone’s dish, I realized that I was going to be sent home.
There were three of you who sort of stumbled in this challenge. Do you think it was just because the pressure was so high?
Yeah, I mean the panel of judges that we had to cook for was [of] the highest caliber, and that definitely played a role in the stress of this challenge. Everyone wanted to make it to New Orleans and be in the final four. It wasn’t a hard challenge — you’re creating people’s last supper — and overall none of the dishes were complicated. It was just who we were cooking for that made it that much more challenging.
It also seemed like there was a lack of instruction. They just said, “make the dish,” right?
Do we go the traditional route? Or do they want us to be creative with it? It was a little undefined in what exactly we were supposed to do. I guess it should have been pretty straightforward, which is what Carla did and Fabio did.
If you had been able to pick any of the five dishes, instead of eggs Benedict, would you have made a different choice?
Maybe, maybe not. Eggs Benedict is pretty easy. I don’t know how I managed to fuck that up. They were all pretty easy, so any one of the dishes, I thought, were fine to have.
What was the best dish you made on Top Chef?
The white-asparagus soup for Grant Achatz that I won the Quickfire for.
At certain points throughout the season, it seemed like you gave up a little bit or were exhausted.
I was just over the whole thing midway through. I didn’t feel like being there anymore, I didn’t feel like dealing with the challenges and all the stress of the show. The game kind of took over and beat me.
What about your interaction with Hosea?
Everyone paired off and gravitated towards whoever they got along with the best. With Jamie, it was Ariane and Carla. With Danny, it was Gene. And for me it was Hosea. Did they portray it accurately? No. But we did have a connection and a strong friendship.
Did that get out of hand?
Yeah. That episode where we kissed should have never happened.
Do you regret that?
Yeah, absolutely I regret that happening. It was silly and it was a mistake.
Did Top Chef take advantage of New York?
I thought that it would be more city-related. We never went to the Greenmarket. There were all these people — I guess paparazzi, if you will — trying to find out what our next challenge was. So to keep it under wraps and not have anything be spoiled it was sort of difficult for them to be in the city, where there were all these people around. They were expecting us to go to the Greenmarket, so, of course, we couldn’t do that.
What do you feel like you learned from this experience? Did it change you as a chef?
I think that, prior to going on this show, I don’t think I would have been able to do what I’m doing right now at Centro Vinoteca. I redid the whole menu, and I’m running the kitchen. The show just gave me a lot of confidence. It was probably the most intense experience that I’ve ever had as far as culinary life is concerned. I’d never come up with dishes before the show. I’d never done a complete dish from start to finish. So now to have done the show and be running my own restaurant and have the menu be 85 percent my food is pretty amazing for me.