We just got off the phone with 10 Arts’ chef Jennifer Carroll, one of the two Philly-based Jennifers competing on the upcoming season of Top Chef, which premieres August 19. While Grub Street NY has the skinny on the famous faces you’ll see this season - Natalie Portman! - contestants are not allowed to reveal anything at all about what happens on the show during interviews with the press - not even who or what encouraged them to audition for the show. We did manage to find out some interesting details from the seemingly mild-mannered Carroll, who says growing up in Northeast Philly taught her that “you don’t take shit from anyone, which helps a lot when working in a kitchen.”
You grew up in the Northeast - me too! It’s not exactly a hotbed of culinary activity. Can you tell me what led you to want to be a chef of your caliber? Did you have a transformative culinary experience?
Hahahaha - yeah! Growing up I always cooked with my grandmom - she lived around the corner and we had huge Sunday dinners - my mom is one of six. I always ended up in the kitchen helping her. Everyone else was outside playing and having fun, but I was having fun in the kitchen. I never though of it as a career path - I wanted to be a lawyer and was planning to go to law school.
One summer I was working in kitchens down the shore and I decided I really loved it and was passionate about it and wanted to pursue it and go to the Restaurant School. So I dropped out of college. I lived in Manayunk and worked for Derek Davis too. One thing that got me moving was chef Patrick Feury [from Nectar]. He came from New York and worked at Le Cirque - he inspired me to become more detail-oriented and to focus on food and the quality of products. It made me drive myself to get to the top level and prove myself. I wanted to be the best of the best.
So as one of the first Philly chefs to ever appear on the show, what kind of uniquely Philly perspective do you think you bring?
I definitely think I have the Philly attitude. And you’ll hear my Philly accent come out on the show - I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. Growing up in the Northeast, you don’t take shit from anyone, which helps a lot when working in a kitchen, especially when you’re working with all guys. Another thing about Philly is it’s always the redheaded stepchild - people think it’s just a stop on the way between New York and D.C., not a destination. But it’s a great food town and if anyone’s in Philly they should come to my restaurant!
You worked for Eric Ripert at New York’s premiere seafood restaurant Le Bernadin for five years (and technically still work for him at 10 Arts). What did you learn working for him that gives you a competitive edge over other Top Chef contestants?
Working with Eric, what he really ingrained in me - and he is definitely my mentor - is that the fish is the star of plate. My mantra is also whatever protein I’m using, instead of covering it with garnish, you have to make it harmonious and make the ingredients work together. You don’t need to have exact balance, but you need to have harmony. Also, working for Eric, my sauce making got so much better. With him at Le Bernadin, the whole thing was ‘the fish and the sauce.’ The cooking techniques of the both have to be perfect. It seems simple, but you can either do simple really really well or it can be screwed up very quickly.
What did Eric Ripert say when you found out you were chosen to be on the show?
Eric was so excited for me. He said “it’s’ going to be the absolute best thing for you. Whether you do good or bad I love you either way.”
What would you say is your greatest weakness as a chef? How did affect you on the show?
Greatest weakness? One of my weaknesses is I tend to overthink things and become too focused on things where I start to paralyze myself. Instead of moving forward and being creative I get caught in minute details, but I do think it makes me better in the end - it just takes a little longer than I hoped to get there.
Did you know Jen Zavala before Top Chef?
I didn’t know her, we met on the first day.
Are you still in touch?
Yep, we still talk.
Can you tell us some of your favorite places to eat in Philly?
Zahav, Meme, Vetri, Amada. I have a whole list - I love Osteria, too. Another one of my favorite restaurants is Pierre’s [Calmels’] place Bibou - that restaurant is unbelievable.
How about some more low-key stuff - some street food? Pretzels?
Well, if I wanted to eat pretzels in Philly, I’d eat the ones I make at my own restaurant! Oh, I love Tony Luke’s and I love Nick’s Roast Beef.
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.