'Top Chef' Fan Favorite Jamie Tran Almost Didn't Become a Chef
The star Las Vegas chef reflects on cooking school, her time on the show, and the cheese dish that got her cut.
Despite falling in love with cooking at a young age, Jamie Tran never wanted to be a chef. Her father, who had fought in the Vietnam War before immigrating to the United States, had worked as one in someone else's restaurant. "I saw him struggle," she says. "My dad was always saying, 'It's a hard life.'"
Before landing on cooking, she contemplated becoming an optometrist, physical therapist, orthopedic surgeon, and an accountant. "I tried to fight it as best as I could, not to be a chef," she says. But she was cooking all the time.
"My sister just told me, 'Face your destiny,'" she says. "And then I did. And I never looked back."
After working for Charlie Palmer and Daniel Boulud, she opened Black Sheep in Las Vegas in 2017, to near instant acclaim. Despite her growing visibility, she had no desire to be on Top Chef until producers approached her. "I'm not big on competition because of my anxiety. I've never done any sort of competition," she says. "In college, my friend and I were watching Top Chef, and I was a big fan. She asked me if I'd ever be on it, and I told her hell no. Now watching it, I still can't believe I was on it."
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She only told a few family and staff members -- who had to sign releases -- that she was leaving last fall to film the show in Portland. Her bartender told people she went on a vision quest. "Everyone thought I finally took a vacation," she says. "It was believable because I hadn't taken one since I opened the restaurant, so it's been a while. They're like, 'Is she in rehab? Where's she going?'"
Tran beat out eleven other chefs to make it to the top four, finally getting eliminated in episode twelve. Over the course of the season, she endeared herself to fans with her vulnerability, and a collaborative spirit that's frankly antithetical to good reality TV. At one point, in episode eleven, she offered to go home so fellow competitor Maria Mazon could stay. (Mazon graciously declined.)
"Honestly, I wouldn't change anything," Tran says. She defends the cheese-laden sea bass dish that got her cut, part of a Tillamook-sponsored challenge. "I just wanted to test something out. And I helped my friends during the competition. Even in that challenge, I was still me. I still had fun."
After packing her bags, she stayed in Portland for a day and rented an Airbnb with some of the other contestants she'd befriended on the show. Now back in Vegas, people stop her in the grocery store to ask for pictures -- something she's still getting used to. "Some people start tearing up and crying," Tran says. "And I'm like, I'm not the Backstreet Boys. I'm not a boy band."
Bookings at her restaurant have gone up, predictably -- even though it had already been well-known. "We get a lot of fans of the competition who show up and say that they came because they saw me on Top Chef, and it definitely helps out," she says. "It wasn't right away because when I came back, we were still in restriction. We were at 25% [capacity], but now we're at 100%."
Now that the restaurateur is in her successful fourth year, aspiring chefs look to her for guidance. Her advice? Get some business education, like she did. "If you want to open a restaurant, you don't have to get a bachelor's in business, but at least take some courses at a community college," she says.
"If you don't know the business side and think cooking is what will drive your restaurant, that's not the case," she adds. "You can't run on debt and think you're going to make it by having revenue every day, because there are going to be rainy days." This cautiousness is what helped her endure the COVID-19 shutdowns.
Tran's bachelors in business also gave her confidence when she launched Black Sheep. She insisted on getting every single detail in writing, and she refused to settle for anything less than equal partnership. "I set my boundaries, and [that's] key for opening up a business with someone you may know or not know," she says. "There's a lot of chefs I know who got screwed over because of not having an agreement that's in favor of them."
She adds, "If you open a restaurant, your role doesn't just exist in back of house. It's the whole restaurant. You need to know every position. I'm the only one in my restaurant who can work every position."
Now a successful restaurateur with some years under her belt, Tran supports entrepreneurial streaks in her employees -- even if it means losing them. "I don't expect people to stay with me forever," she says.
One of her servers, for example, wants to be a nurse practitioner. He had suggested he could stay on with Tran instead and help her grow her restaurant. But she refused. "I said, 'No, you're not going to give up on school. I want you to go for your dreams,'" she says. "I'm very much an advocate of people pursuing their own goals. If they want to be entrepreneurs, I want to give them tools to open their own businesses."
"That's what I needed," she says. "I want to give opportunities to people that were doubted. And I guess that's why I'm the black sheep."