'Top Chef's' Michelle Minori: We Live in a Salad Bowl, Not a Melting Pot
The California chef talks combining cultures, kitchen assassins, and her "aha" moment from this season.
Michelle Minori came into Top Chef like a lamb and went out like lion. The shy, reserved chef who grew up in Lodi, California stayed to mostly the middle of the pack through most of the competition until week nine when she rose to the top and cooked the winning dish for that week, inspired by her late father. The emotional impact of the challenge could be felt by each of the judges (and the viewers!) and was a highlight of the season so far. Michelle went into week ten with more confidence than weeks prior and it seemed like she would coast clear into the finals. But a basketball challenge where she served what Tom Colicchio called “wet ribs” sent her home.
We emailed Minori to ask what she learned about herself in the Top Chef kitchen, if she would make something other than ribs for the basketball challenge, and why she’s so excited to get into Last Chance Kitchen.
Food & Wine: What inspired you to compete on Top Chef?
Michelle Minori: Top Chef is the ultimate cooking challenge. I was inspired to compete to prove to myself and to everyone who may have doubted me, that I am a badass chef. I LOVE to compete and usually rise to the top of the competition. I wanted to prove that you don’t have to be loud and have a big ego to show that you know what you’re talking about. I may be a quiet, nerdy kid who loves trivia and cats, but I can still kick your ass in the kitchen.
FW: What did you think when you first met your competitors and saw them in action?
MM: The moment I saw all of my competitors cooking together I knew this wasn’t going to be easy. All of the chefs on this season are extremely talented and unique. Nini caught my eye in those crazy jumpsuits—I figured she has to have a lot of guts to wear something like that, and I was right. She’s a killer. Eddie and Natalie were both really intimidating with their stone cold looks and sleeve tattoos, but they are teddy bears… kitchen assassin teddy bears. In the end, everyone deserved to be feared, and they all proved that with their skills in the kitchen.
FW: What do you wish you had done differently in the elimination challenge?
MM: I wish that in my elimination challenge, I would have taken more advantage of the firepower we had in our prep kitchen. I was depending on the fact that we would have an oven on the court, where I could reheat and add some char to my ribs. But they were more like a play oven, in which I could barely reheat anything. One tip for future contestants: Don’t assume anything. If you have a resource, use it while you got it.
FW: If you had to do the basketball challenge again, would you pick a different dish?
MM: I haven’t really thought about what I would make if I could remake my dish for the basketball challenge, but I think I would make something vegetarian. Almost everyone else made an animal protein. When you go to a game you see a lot of that too. There aren’t enough delicious and fun options for vegetarians out there. I think I would’ve made a smoked and fried maitake mushroom with Calabrian chili aioli with lots of lime and furikake (without the dried fish). That sounds like a fun snack.
FW: Do you feel like Sara should have gone home instead of you at the end of the basketball challenge?
MM: Taste is subjective. Everyone has their own opinions for different reasons. Also, it’s really hard to say if someone is “better” than someone else. We are all so different. I respect the judges for their decision, and I believe I handled myself with grace and respect, which in my opinion, is more important than getting sent home for a technical error.
FW: Do you have any specific dishes or techniques that you wish you had gotten the opportunity to show the judges?
MM: I wish I could have showcased my ability to combine cultures a bit more. My specialty is Italian cuisine, but what makes me unique is my ability to add in flavors or techniques from other cultures. I like to say that we live in a salad bowl, not a melting pot: everyone comes together but still maintains their own identity. This is something I find really beautiful about food, and people.
FW: Who do you think is going to be Top Chef? And who are you rooting for?
MM: I still have a chance to get back in the competition if I win Last Chance Kitchen, so I think I will win Top Chef, of course! But to be honest, I think Eddie is ridiculously talented. Even if he doesn’t win Top Chef, he’s a winner in my book. He pretty much blows everyone’s mind on a daily basis with how he thinks of food, and he does it with humility.
FW: What did you think when you saw who you would be competing against in Last Chance Kitchen?
MM: When I saw David [Viana] waiting for me in Last Chance Kitchen, I knew it was going to be a tough fight. I knew I would have to do something to really impress Tom when it comes to technique. David is the Quickfire king. He is super talented and a strong competitor, but I’m prepared to bring everything in my arsenal, no matter who I came up against.
FW: What's your strategy going into Last Chance Kitchen?
MM: I love Quickfire challenges, so I’m excited for Last Chance Kitchen. My plan is to have fun. I cook well under pressure if I allow myself to have fun and not think too hard, so that’s my strategy with LCK.
FW: What was the biggest lesson during your time on Top Chef? Did you learn something new about yourself or your cooking that you'll take with you?
MM: I learned that I’m a lot stronger than I thought I was and that I have a very impressive resume. One moment that really stuck with me was hearing Tom praise my agnolotti in Restaurant Wars. That was an “aha” moment for me. It took that for me to realize “yeah, I’m really good at making pasta!” It’s something that I’m deeply passionate about and I can’t wait to see where that passion takes me next.