‘Top Chef’ at 10: Former Contestants Dish Out Emotional Memories
As Top Chef finalist Jeremy Ford waited for host Padma Lakshmi to name a Season 13 winner on the show's March 17 finale, the single father considered how one last four-course meal might have won or lost him the war. Could chili-dusted foie gras prepared two ways have forged a definite path to victory? Might an under-cooked slice of duck breast dressed with lemon and buttermilk have been his undoing?
In an instant, Lakshmi mollified Ford's fears, named him the series' newest champion and reduced the former hair-metal musician to tears.
"Holy s---," Ford barked as he settled his hands on his head, exhaled and caught his mother's glance from the final judgment's small audience. "I really wish my daughter Madeline was here right now...She's gonna be so proud."
Since debuting on Bravo in March 2006, Top Chef has succeeded in heralding new talent — amateur and aspiring cooks in early seasons, James Beard Award nominees and Jean-George proteges in more recent installments — while beating hopefuls down until they're raw as finely-sliced ceviche. Across 10 years, the Emmy-winning culinary gauntlet has made grown men weep (Season 9 winner Paul Qui memorably broke down at the sight of his visiting mentor), compelled women to kick over folding chairs in frustration (a Season 4 spat in a holding room amounted to WWE-worthy vitriol) and set free enough f-bombs to raze a major metropolis. When viewers spot a fiery entree emerging from the show's kitchen, they can typically assume its preparation was doubly so.
So what is it about the competition that drives contestants to sometimes literally cry (or scream) over spilled milk? Food writer Ellen Kanner, author of Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith and What to Eat for Dinner, told PopCrush that the show compounds stress that can often leave chefs in shambles.
"The egos, the tension — you’re out of time, your equipment fails, your sauce breaks — is enough to make anyone snap," she said. " And that’s why it’s lasted 10 years, it’s all about the drama."
Still, Lisa Bahar, a licensed clinical therapist who specializes in emotionally reactive behaviors, argues that the act of cooking can awaken dormant demons even when cameras are nowhere to be found.
"Control tends to turn into perfectionism, and can manifest into a feeling of anger or even rage when a meal preparation does not turn out as expected," she said. "It also has a pace, adrenaline and choreography to it that creates a mindful, sustaining 'what is going to happen next' type of curiosity."
Is the drama a cooked-up condition of the show's production, or a more general facet of any professional kitchen? We talked to six of Top Chef's most memorable contestants — from Season 4's Antonia Lofaso to Season 13's Marjorie Meek-Bradley — to get a better sense of what it's like to trade a chef's apron for a Top Chef jacket.
Lured In: Lizzie Binder
Lizzie Binder, a South African-born mother of two specializing in Northern Italian cuisine, told PopCrush she had no interest in joining the show when producers first approached her. They were looking for strong women, she recalled, and her command over San Francisco's Bar Bambino made her a seemingly perfect fit.
After conceding to join Season 10's cast in Seattle per the urging of mentor Traci Des Jardins, Binder validated Top Chef's faith in her talent: She earned a fourth-place finish after dazzling the judges with an innovative take on surf and turf in one challenge, and by modernizing antiquated '50s cuisine in another. But Binder wasn't prepared for what came when the competition moved to Alaska for its final few rounds: She was forced to face the memory of her recently deceased father, a seasoned fisherman, while gutting sockeye and king salmon on a series of picturesque docks.
"He was so very special to me," Binder said through tears in the episode's confessional interview. "I was daddy's girl. I know that he would love to watch me today."
Binder, who said she's still too embarrassed to watch the episode, remembers being reluctant to share the memory. But fans responded to her decision to submit to her sentiments and bare her soul.
"It was still very raw," she recounted. "It had just happened and I hadn’t really processed it in my own head yet and it just made me feel so sad. All the fishing — he would have just loved it. It was just so him. I feel myself getting a little emotional."
"I remember when I was a tiny little girl, I had one of those tiny belts, like a bucket, that you put around your waist, and you have your tiny little rod," she continued. "And we’d stand next to him on the beach. I can still cast like nobody’s business. I always surprise people. I don’t fish anymore that much, but when I do, I’m always so surprised."
While the challenge proved to be a bit of a curve ball, the fact that it stirred up such emotion was no surprise to Binder, who sees food and memory as inextricably linked.
"Oh my God, it’s because the smell, and the taste and all of those things," she said. "I think it’s just science, isn’t it, that all of those things are connected?"
Addicted to Stress author Debbie Mandel, who's studied the connection between emotion and food, all but confirmed the notion to PopCrush.
"Initially, [smell] is the basic emotion associated with the memory," she said. "But then the memory becomes linked to what is going on in one’s life presently: Stressors, failures, a lack of empowerment, a missed opportunity, or grief regarding a loss. An old hurt gets linked to a new hurt which creates an intensity. And if you can’t decode the initial memory, understand why you are feeling what you are feeling, you will keep repeating the emotions — your buttons will always be pushed."
And while Binder, who now operates the Bay Area's Hand-Crafted Catering, was as even-keeled as they come, button-pushing proved to be a favorite pastime of some of her fellow chefs. But that tension — which Binder also said is apparent in most professional kitchens — amounts to story lines that have kept audiences captivated.
"This field of work attracts all different types of characters," she said. "And it’s stressful, so it can get quite volatile. It’s hot and it’s busy and you’re tired most of the time because you work way too many hours...It’s just interesting how everyone dealt with the stress differently. I wasn’t quite prepared for the showmanship of the show, [but] that’s what’s so clever: It’s not just about the food, it’s also about the story."
Biting Back: Grayson Schmitz
Grayson Schmitz, who was 28 and when she appeared on Season 9's road trip across Texas, seemed destined to fight uphill battles. In the competition's qualifying round, a teammate butchered her pork incorrectly, forcing her to scramble to put out a dish that helped her avoid elimination by the skin of her teeth. And while she and head judge Tom Colicchio often butted heads through Schmitz's eventual sixth-place finish, audiences cheered her resolve and boldness, which most famously erupted during a fight with Colicchio over what the restaurateur saw as Schmitz's underwhelming chicken salad sandwiches.
"One thing that people have to remember about Top Chef is that we’re actually chefs," Schmitz told PopCrush. "It’s not pretend, and when you truly believe in something, or you’re just trying to stay above water, you fight for it. That’s a lot of where the emotion comes from, I think. In our every day lives, we’re very passionate and intense people. It comes from how much we care about what we do. When somebody’s knocking you for it, it’s like a personal attack."
When Schmitz was invited back for Season 13, she wasn't the same bubbly goofball that viewers remembered. Her sureness began to register as recalcitrance and Schmitz, who said she was hesitant to return in the first place, was frustrated that she'd become pigeon-holed as a character she couldn't recreate. She finished 14th after throwing up her hands and surrendering (real reason: unappealing corn texture in a dish she served on a golf course).
"The difference was everybody wanted it to be the same me,” she explained. “I’m four years older. I’m a little less funny and a little more cutthroat now. I think New York has hardened me a little bit more. They wanted Grayson from four years ago, and I wasn’t, and that’s partly because the judges were like ‘We know what you can do.’ Maybe what I did for them wasn’t up to standard."
Schmitz now works in recipe development. She said "Chance Three is nonexistent" in the event another go-around were to manifest ("No way, Jose," she added). Still, she doesn't regret her time on the show, and said she'll forever be grateful for her induction to the "Top Chef fraternity."
"It’s just fun to have friends literally all over the country," she said. "That’s what I took from it."
Next: Carla Hall's Peace and Peas