Watch the top two chefs from season 15 compete in a special Mad Genius Live challenge for Food & Wine.
When season 15 of Top Chef in Colorado began back in December, it was probably pretty obvious by the beautiful weather that the show wasn't filmed in the winter or even the fall. In fact, the cheftestants vying for the title have been sitting on the results of this season since at last June, when the penultimate episode's elimination challenge took place at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. But after months of waiting, the top two have finally been (publicly) revealed: Harlem's Adrienne Cheatham, formerly of Le Bernardin and Red Rooster, and Joe Flamm of Spiaggia in Chicago.
Cheatham plugged away throughout the season, finally coming into her own in the latter half with bold flavors and more focused dishes. Flamm was actually eliminated but survived Last Chance Kitchen only to return and cook his way into the finale. We sat down with the chefs (just before F&W Culinary Director Justin Chapple hosted them in a special live Chef's Salad Challenge on a bonus Mad Genius Live) to talk about their favorite dishes, keeping the results a secret, and what advice they have for future competitors.
What was your favorite dish you cooked all season?
Adrienne: so far my favorite dish has been the gumbo, that was the one where our family members came and we had to recreate there dish. I just felt really good about the execution, the plating of the dish, and the flavor.
Joe: I think our best dishes are definitely yet to come, but maybe my favorite dish thus far with the trout I made in the last Quickfire with the black garlic beurre blanc and roasted mushrooms. It was just really simple and elegant.
Apparently, trout can't be served anywhere near raw. Did you know that going in?
Joe: Nobody knows that. After that episode aired my sous chefs were like “did you know that?” No, I just cooked it through and I was like “did you guys know that?” and they said no.
Adrienne: I’m thinking trout aren’t like bottom feeders or anything. Maybe it was the place that we caught them? But you learn something new every day.
What do you think was your least successful dish this season?
Adrienne: I think my entree on Restaurants Wars because that was one where I had a clear vision of what I wanted but along the way, I just kept second-guessing. I remember thinking “I can’t be done with prep already, there’s an hour and a half left. There’s got to be something else I can do, something else I can add, instead of just leaving it alone.” Second-guessing yourself, not being so sure of what you want to do really will get you every time. You overthink and you just tank it.
Joe: I think my worse dish was definitely the breakfast oatmeal risotto Nutella banana coconut stock thing. I apologized to [guest judge] Brooke [Williamson] on Twitter and told her I’d make her dinner in Chicago to make up for it sometime. My true worst dish was the dish I went home on, during the flower challenge, the cauliflower risotto…
Adrienne: But was that your worst dish or the worst of the three?
Joe: It wasn’t my worst, but I was cooking a David Kinch dish for David Kinch. I don’t recommend doing that.
What challenge would you like to go back and re-do?
Adrienne: I would redo that. Especially because there was such a discrepancy in my dessert and my entree dish. But also because it’s a team challenge and you feel like you’re letting your team down if you have a bad dish.
Joe: We're here. It worked out.
Were you confident you’d make the top two or did you have doubts?
Joe: Obviously for me, I was sent home. When I came back I had this “oh shit” moment when I realized “oh, there’s only four of us. there’s a fifty percent chance of being in the finale right now.” When it was just me, Adrienne, and Joe, I felt like we were all on the same arc, at the same time, we were all cooking at the same height, I felt like it could have been any combination of us in the finale.
Adrienne: It’s such a crapshoot. You’re obviously there to compete and you obviously want to make it the end but along the way you get so focused on each challenge and “let me just make it through this and hope I’m not on the bottom and I don’t get sent home.”
How hard has it been to keep the winner a secret?
Adrienne: After you read the terms of that contract, it’s not hard at all.
Joe: It definitely depends on your sobriety level. It’s been difficult, especially coming home because you have to pretend like it none of it happened and then finally the season is announced, then it’s week by week. The hardest thing for me is I get kicked off and I had to pretend like I didn’t know I was going to come back. People are coming up to me at the restaurant like “Oh my god, you did such a good job, you shouldn’t be disappointed. You’re going to be okay.” You just want to be like “give it a couple weeks…”
Are there lessons from Top Chef you will take back to your kitchens?
Adrienne: Definitely. If you think about what you’re giving a judge the same way you think about what you’re giving a diner who comes in and orders one dish, you have one dish to put your best foot forward. So you can’t have any slackers on the menu. every dish has to hit all those high notes, it has to have acid and texture, sweetness, savoriness, all of that. So reevaluating all of your dishes for what you might need to add or just scrap altogether.
Joe: There’s definitely been points since I’ve come back when I’ve had those monster prep days and I’ve only got an hour and a half to pull all this shit together and you’re like “hey, one time I made 200 plates for two hundred people in under an hour in a rainstorm in Denver.” Things don’t feel so big.
Do you have any advice for people who want to apply for the show, any skills you wish you had brushed up on?
Joe: You’ve got to stay calm, it’s such a mental game. It’s easy for people to get flustered in the heat of it and once you’re there you’re in a downward tailspin or you’re not sure what you’re going to cook or you’re on the bottom once and never mentally recover.
Adrienne: If you’re at a restaurant or at home and you cook a dish that comes out bad, don’t be afraid to cook that dish again. Cook it again, try to do it better, then cook it again and try to do it better. If you have bad service one day, you don’t quit, you don’t not come back the next day. You just try to up your game the next time.
What about the competition helped you focus and personalize your cooking?
Adrienne: You see people who are very confident cooking their food. Like Fati[ma Ali], although she’s worked in different types of cuisines and restaurants, she was comfortable and made the decision to cook Pakistani food. Tyler [Anderson] has been cooking his food in Connecticut, Chris [Scott] has been doing his food, you have all these people who own it, they’re happy with their food and the dishes they create, and I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with that at first so it took me a while to go for dishes that I developed. It just took having the confidence to actually cook them.
What is “Adrienne’s food?”
Adrienne: It’s the same I thought it was going in, only now I’m actually doing it—technique driven, sophisticated, regional southern cuisine. Showing the crossover between Korean food and fermented table condiments in Mississippi and showing how you can change out ingredients, showing the commonalities in food.
Joe, did the show help you define or change your style?
Joe: For sure, it forces you to put who you are on a plate and to not cook within someone else's boxes but to cook within your own and decide what those parameters are going to be. I don't know if that food is my exact style, but the food we cooked for the finale, the ideas behind it, represent the food I like to cook.
What was it like working your way back from Last Chance Kitchen?
Joe: It was crazy. But I came in with such a different mindset, I was like "I'm just going to cook and have fun. I've already been sent home, I've already faced that fear. I'm doing better than I'm supposed to do." It was all gravy from that moment. I cooked what I wanted to cook and then if I got sent home again, at least I was happy with it.
What was it like cooking at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen? Was it difficult to cook vegetarian?
Adrienne: It wasn't just a vegetarian challenge. You had to cook on a cauldron and you had three hours to prep for 200 people, and some of those people are the most experienced and biggest names in food. So you're just like "okay, let's go."
Joe: We're cooking for a party that half of my bookshelf is at. But that felt so cool, we had come to a pivotal point in the season, it was palpable. It was a huge opportunity to put your food in front of these people. Doing vegetarian was another wrinkle they put in because you couldn't do what you wanted. But I had a lot of fun with that one.
Adrienne: I definitely thought a lot about who we were cooking for and how to impress these people, how you set yourself apart. So, I figured do something unexpected, that the judges haven't seen from me and that will be a surprise to the palates of the guests as well.
You're both Chicago natives, what is the most underrated or misunderstood part of the Chicago food scene?
Adrienne: I think people underrate it because it's so casual. It's blue collar, but cool as hell. Yeah, you can wear your Chucks and a hoodie but still have Michelin-star level food in a casual looking environment. Every time I go home I go to new restaurants. I left Chicago in 2000, but every time I come back I'm like "damn, this city just blew up." If it had been the city that it is now back then I might never have left.
Joe: I think Adrienne's right. But one thing I've got to say to you New Yorkers: Deep-dish is a different kind of pizza but we have a thin crust style of pizza in Chicago that's so much better than anything. I think that's totally misunderstood. There's such a great range of food there, from little greasy spots for a 3 a.m. Maxwell's pork chop or Polish sandwich to Alinea, Smyth, Oriole. There's such a breadth of options. And our food community is so tight, it doesn't matter if you work in the best spot or the most casual spot. Everybody's on the same team. It's like family.
The season 15 finale of "Top Chef" airs Thursday, March 8 at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT on Bravo.