'Top Chef's' Chris Scott Explains 'Amish Soul Food'
In the first leg of the Top Chef finals in Telluride, Colorado, the chefs had to prepare a high-concept fine dining dish that included a baked element at North America’s highest restaurant, sitting pretty at 12,000 feet above sea level. The four remaining cheftestants prepared some of the best dishes of the season, so the judges were forced to nitpick small mistakes, causing chef Chris Scott to pack his knives for his slightly overcooked quail and what was deemed a less-refined take on the challenge. Throughout the season we watched Scott elevate soul food cuisine in challenges from gourmet food trucks to a Super Bowl-inspired tailgate party. He took home a couple elimination challenge wins and narrowly avoided elimination during Restaurant Wars when his team turned on each other while facing the judge’s panel.
Prior to Top Chef, Scott honed his skills as a chef in Philadephia working alongside Top Chef alumni Kevin Sbraga and Mike Isabella, and later as the executive chef for CNN and Time Warner in New York City. Most recently, he and his wife opened Butterfunk Kitchen, a soul food juke joint restaurant in Brooklyn. Scott, who was known on the show for blending his soul food with the influence of Amish cuisine, emailed us about bringing his family’s recipes and heritage with him this season.
Food & Wine: Can you talk a little bit about the intersection of Amish food and soul food? What does that cuisine look like?
Chris Scott: Both the Amish and the freed slaves came to Pennsylvania for reasons based around religious freedom and a better way of life. Along with them came their culture and their cuisine. Both cultures were very financially poor and made the best with what they had... this included the food. The same way that the freed slaves used all parts of the whole hog, i.e. pig feet and chitlins, the Amish did the same with scrapple. Both cultures were extremely resourceful when it came to sustaining their people. If you grew up in my neck of the woods, then you had this "Amish Soul Food" right in front of your face the whole time. The southern black culinary influence mixed with the Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine. Just the same way that southern food in the Mississippi Delta has Mexican influence, my southern food has Amish influence.
FW: We heard a little bit about your family heritage on the show—how do Amish culture and cuisine tie into your family and your personal story?
CS: My family started in Rappahannock, Virginia seven generations ago. About four generations ago the made the trek north to Coatesville, PA. We brought with us our southern food culture. Throughout the years, because of where we now live, the Amish culinary influence slowly bled into our southern food culture.
FW: What’s something you wish people knew more about Amish and soul cuisine?
CS: I would absolutely love for people to know the following about Soul Food...
Soul food is more than fried chicken. Soul food is more than ribs. Real soul food has nothing to do with red velvet anything. Black folk were too poor to turn food red just for fun. Waffles and red velvet are distant cousins of what real soul food is.
Southern agriculture is so integral to what my people ate. There are tons of grains, beans and various strains of rice that speak volumes in southern food culture.
FW: What’s something you wish you'd had the opportunity to prepare on the show that you didn’t have a chance to?
CS: Scrapple. It's such a long process, I would have never had enough time to get it on the plate.
FW: Do you feel like you deserved to go home for that quail dish?
CS: It's all part of the game. There were certainly some technical flaws with the quail, but I was able to successfully bake that cornbread at high altitude. It could have gone either way. Even though I would have obviously wanted to advance, I’m fine with the outcome.
FW: During Restaurant Wars you declined to take on the responsibility of being executive chef, but in front of the panel you wanted to take responsibility for the team’s shortcomings. Why did you choose not to be executive chef but still shoulder the responsibility of potentially going home for your colleagues’ mistakes?
CS: I felt if Claudette wouldn't shoulder the responsibility, then I would. I chose the team and put them where I thought they would succeed. When she began to throw blame, I needed to step up. My team deserved a leader, even if we were at the bottom.
FW: Your dish two episodes ago about your journey on the show was inspired by your competitors—what kinds of things did you learn from the other chefs on the show?
CS: Mainly what I learned about the other chefs is how incredible they are. Not just as cooks, but as people. These guys are the most passionate, incredible bunch of individuals I’ve met in a long time. All of them so giving and amazing... I can’t wait to see how they all save the world through food in the years to come.
FW: What dish are you most proud of from this season?
CS: Good Question..... there are a few dishes that stand out for various reasons:
Of course, the Chicken and Biscuits dish was a good one. It spoke to my family and my history and heritage. But I also like the deconstructed Chicken Rilette Taco in the kids Quickfire..... that one marked when I started getting into a groove. I liked the pastries that I made all season, each one was a hit. The Feta Ice Cream and Beignets was Padma’s favorite dessert in the history of Top Chef, The Beet Donut was a good one, and The Chocolate Buttermilk Cake was also a hit at the Stanley Hotel. Maybe the dish I made at the Governors Mansion was my favorite (most proud). Although it was on the bottom, what it actually meant spoke volumes. You can best believe I'll be making that dish again at some point in the future... just with a little more practice first.
FW: After you and Carrie won that tailgating challenge, what was it like to see the Eagles win the Super Bowl?!
CS: It was a surreal moment. I still can’t believe it. I’m just glad that I was able to take a piece of every Eagles fan back home with me into that stadium (spiritually). Also glad to share that moment with Carrie (Baird), My wife Eugenie, and Blake (Carrie's boyfriend).
FW: If you could go back and redo one challenge from this season, what would you do and why?
CS: I'd redo the Amish Dumplings. Even though Tom enjoyed them and spoke highly of them, they just didn’t hit the mark in my eyes. It was the first dish ever made by me on the show. So, of course, I was a bundle of nerves. This time I would do it calmly.
FW: You applied to be on the show five times and you finally had a chance to show your stuff this season, what was that process like? How was actually being on the show different from the way you might have imagined it?
CS: The process is rigorous, especially on your spirit. I would imagine that every chef in America who's just on the cusp of achieving greatness always dreams of going on Top Chef. Not only does it literally catapult your career in ways you would never imagine, it also validates your skill to you and the rest of the world... especially if you do well. The closer you get to being selected gets you excited, and when you’re not it can be quite deflating and can make you believe that you’re not even worthy. I did this 4 times. When I was finally selected, I was very happy, but also laser focused. I didn’t want to lose badly nor make a fool of myself. I’m just glad that I did well. In a million years I would have never thought it would turn out like it did.
FW: Would you ever come back for another season of Top Chef?
CS: Absolutely!!!!! But I’d need to bring my family this time. Maybe they can vacation in the host city while I compete. Or—get this—some family challenges!
Catch the next episode of season 15 of Top Chef in Colorado this Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on Bravo.