Yesterday, we brought you the first word with Jennifer Carroll, one of the two Philly chefs (named Jennifer!) competing on the upcoming season of Top Chef. Today we bring you an interview with Jennifer Zavala, formerly of El Camino Real and now of Xochitl. Despite having to adhere to a Bravo-dictated gag order on show details, Zavala opened up about who was hardest to cook for during the show, whether being a self-taught chef is a plus or a minus on Top Chef and more on why she decamped from her executive chef position at El Camino Real.
Were you a Top Chef fan before auditioning for the show? Did you want to audition?
Yes, I have always been a fan of Top Chef. The first season when they had to go to a gas station and make a meal from that kind of food, I was hooked! It’s been hard to follow every season since I work so much, but I catch it when I can. As far as auditioning, I did not want to do it at first. El Camino had been open for 7 months and having to leave for so long would and did weigh heavy on me, as [did] as leaving my family for such a long period of time. (When I landed in Vegas, though, the guilt kind of dwindled away, slot by slot.)
You’re a self-taught chef. How do you think this helped and hurt you during the competition?
Being self-taught I felt helped me because I had to work harder, and in a different way, then most in my career. I couldn’t go to a fancy school or have a major-name chef be my mentor. If I wanted it, I literally had to put my head down, shut up, and work. Take advantage of everyone who could show me anything. I wanted it that bad that I did what I had to do. I worked as a dishwasher, server, prep — anywhere and everywhere. It may have hurt me in sense — maybe it looks like I haven’t worked that hard because [my Bravo bio] doesn’t say when I finished or give an indication when I started, but I’ve been in the game for a while and plan on staying.
Can you describe your cooking style in three adjectives?
Organic, local, sustainable.
On reality TV, people often are made into characters. With your tattoos and stretchers, people may perceive you as tough, but everyone I’ve talked to has described you as a “total sweetheart.” Which do you think will come across on the show?
I think that “character” part of any show is just a clear reminder that it’s a show. I was me. I’m a mom, so I can only be so hardcore or I’m gonna get kicked out of the PTA.
Did you and Jen Carroll know each other before the show? Had you eaten at 10 Arts?
I did not know Jen prior to the show and I had not eaten at 10 Arts, just as she had not eaten at Camino. Still haven’t been there.
Which of the judges were you most nervous about having to cook for?
I wasn’t at all nervous to cook for anyone. It was at the cast house that I was most nervous to cook. Tired, hungry, delusional, stressed, then we had to go home and cook for ourselves — I didn’t want to give anyone the impression I was an easy out in my weaken[ed] state. Plus [the castmates] are judging more than anyone.
Are you going to watch yourself on the show when it airs?
I am not going to watch myself when it airs, no. I loved my experience, I loved the people, but it’s just one of those things — I’m gonna see it and say ‘can we redo that?’ It’s going to take me a while before I can watch it….I’ll probably wait till I get home and sit alone in the dark with a blanket over my head that night with a bag of chips and re-play it on DVR.
You recently (and seemingly abruptly) decamped from El Camino Real to Xochitl. There’s been a lot of speculation about why — can you clarify?
Ahhhh, the Ol’ El Camino Question. Okay, this is what I will say. It wasn’t abruptly, I had given plenty of notice. Xochitl is more of the kind of cook I am and going [in] the direction I would like to go with my future as a cook. I worked my butt off at El Camino and I take great pride in my experience there and my hard work that I did put into it. But you have to follow your heart, so I did. It’s business, nothing personal.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant, would you stay in Philly? What kind of restaurant would you like to open?
I plan on staying in Philly for a while. I Love it here, since day one I have loved it here. This, to me, is the coolest city, great people and what Philly is doing with the local movement and the powerful food that’s been showcased from some of the best chefs here, I’d be a fool to leave any time soon. As for my own place…it’ll happen, and I’m not dishing.
Where are some of your favorite places to eat in Philly?
Great question. Xochitl, Zahav, Sang Kee, Meme, Amada, El Camino, Vetri, Vietnam, Kanella, South Philly Tap Room, Bar Ferdinand, Full Plate, Honey’s, Taco Loco Truck, Geno’s, Dante and Luigi’s, Porky’s Point, Buddakan, Pub and Kitchen, Bocca.
Top Chef: Las Vegas premieres Wednesday, August 19 on Bravo. Jennifer Carroll’s restaurant 10 Arts is hosting a premiere party, check out the details here. To read what Ash Fulk, New York’s sole contestant on Top Chef: Las Vegas had to say, visit Grub Street NY.