As helpfully laid out at the beginning of every episode of Top Chef, winners receive $125,000, as well as features in Food and Wine magazine and a trip to the Food and Wine Festival in Aspen (I’ve watched the show enough that I could recite that bit by heart). But if your ultimate goal is to open a restaurant, $125,000 barely makes a dent.
“You can buy like 12 tables,” said this season’s winner, Joe Flamm.
What you really need, if you’re trying to open your own place, is investors. And in an industry that still relies heavily on cachet, Top Chef means something to people with money. Unlike the ever-abundant crop of singing competition shows, whose winners can maybe expect to headline a state fair or two, most of Top Chef‘s winners turn into big names overnight, even after 15 seasons. Of course, Top Chef isn’t plucking dreamers off the street like those shows; its competitors are already pretty well established. Mostly, it takes promising chefs and gives them a boost. (Maybe it’s these more modest goals that have helped the series last so long.)
Season 15 winner Joe Flamm already had a solid career going when he was picked for the show, serving as executive chef for Michelin-starred Spiaggia in Chicago (under Top Chef Masters contestant Tony Mantuano), after past stints with Art Smith (also a Top Chef Masters contestant) and Stephanie Izard (Top Chef season four winner). Even with that kind of pedigree, he still seemed like at least a mild underdog, up against chefs like Bruce Kalman, who already owns a restaurant and seemed to be on a first-name basis with every guest judge.
“Underdog” maybe a bit loaded, but Flamm didn’t have a top three finish in a challenge until episode seven, and didn’t get a win until episode eight. That was the Restaurant Wars challenge, and Flamm won for his front of the house management. Which is all to say that early on, Flamm’s greatest asset seemed to be his charm and general likeability. When he got eliminated in episode nine, the other contestants reacted like they’d lost a family member.
The reaction shot looked like a painting from the romanticism movement.
But Flamm got a second chance by winning Last Chance Kitchen. He returned to the show and eventually made it to the finale against fellow Chicago South Sider Adrienne Cheatham. Flamm’s show stopper was his pasta course (naturally), a pig’s head tortellini made with gran arso flour — a type of singed wheat, giving the pasta a smokey flavor and a color the judges compared to river rocks. That dish carried him to victory, making Flamm the second Last Chance Kitchen winner to take home the grand prize.
If not life-changing, the victory was one of the highest forms of career validation — albeit a private one, since we saw the finale last week and the show has been wrapped since September. Now that his news is finally public, I spoke to Flamm by phone about how hard it is to keep something like that to yourself and his finest pasta tips. He also fed me some crow for not putting him in the top of my rankings all season. Fair is fair.
So, you celebrating?
Yeah, we celebrated pretty hard last night, but we’re still out and about today. Just continuing the ride. We went … one of our favorite bars in Chicago, this little dive-y place called Sportsman. We took the whole place over. Just partied late into the night.
Were you allowed to do that right after the win or did you have to keep it secret until this week?
I had to keep it secret ’til this week. When I was there in, when that moment happened, when we were in Colorado. It’s crazy. You don’t get to celebrate, ’cause they sweep you out of the room right away ’cause you have to go into interview. And we were on top of Aspen Mountain, so I had a half hour gondola ride down. And it was just me and the talent handler, Maria.
So I was sitting in a gondola in the dark for a half hour and it was just like, “I just won Top Chef,” and it was the weirdest thing ever. You have so much emotion and energy. This is where… It’s one of those weird things because it happened, but now it’s like really happening. It’s amazing.
Were you allowed to tell family, like your wife, after it happened?
I got to call my wife. They let me call her on the episode and tell her that I had won, but nobody else.
PUBLICIST: And Tony you got to tell.
Oh, I got to tell Tony [Mantuano, his boss at Spiaggia]. And they also let me call Stephanie Izard.
How did that feel, having won and then not being able to say anything about it?
It’s insane. It’s a ridiculous, crazy… you know, you’re sitting on this secret. Especially ’cause I got kicked off. People were like, “Oh my God, I’m so sad. It’s over,” but coming back it’s … It was hard, but the payoff’s so worth it. Standing in a room full of people last night, and everyone when they heard that, just losing their minds. Like that’s the part that made it easy. You knew the payoff was coming. You knew it was going to be so great for me to be able to have this moment with my friends, with my family, with my cooks, with my sous chefs.
With the show being set in Colorado were you surprised there wasn’t a weed challenge?
Yeah, we definitely thought we were gonna get one at one point, but I think it’s a no fly zone for the TV networks.
That makes sense. So you won with some pasta. That was a big thing this season was people being tired of pasta. Were you worried making pasta in the finale that there had already been so much that they’d be tired of it?
No, I wasn’t worried at all. I felt like for the finale I just wanted to cook my food and cook my best food. Especially– you’re cooking for Jonathan Waxman; you’re cooking for Nancy Silverton. You gotta … they’re definitely not going to be sick of it.
When you do dough did you do egg yolks or whole eggs? Do you switch it up?
That was a yolk dough. But I switch it up. It depends on the dough. Like the agnolotti I did on the one with my grandmother, that was a whole egg dough.
Is that just ’cause it’s more traditional that way?
That’s just kind of how she used to make it. It’s a little bit chewier. It’s more about the texture of the dough than anything.
Do you salt the dough?
No. Not at all.
Did your grandma used to use tomato paste when she would make pasta? Is there still a place for tomato paste?
Yeah, she still uses tomato paste. They do like a couple cans of puree, but throw a little bit of tomato paste in there.
Do you ever use it in cooking at all?
Oh, yeah for sure. I use it a lot in stock. It’s really, really nice. To give it awesome flavor you just… So if I’m making a veal stock, like I’m doing a dark pork stock, I’ll use tomato paste in there and it really makes it super nice.
What was the best thing that you tasted this season that someone else cooked?
Man, the best thing I tasted this season that someone else cooked… Adrienne’s cake she made in Restaurant Wars was unbelievable. That might have been. That’s really, really high up there. That was really good.
I thought Carrie’s french onion soup fancy toast was stupid good. It was hilariously good. Like they cut it like me and Joe were talking shit about it, but we were really like… I had just eaten it and I was telling Joe, “We’re about to f*cking lose to toast again ’cause this is so good.”
What do you think was the worst thing that you cooked this season?
Oh, definitely the oatmeal catastrophe for breakfast for Brooke. That was a dog shit dish. It was just one of those things. It was like five in the morning and I’m trying to put this dish together. In my mind, I was like, “Oh, this is such a good idea,” but once I put it together and tasted it, I was like, “Man, this sucks. Thank God this isn’t an elimination challenge.”
What was your journey to cooking? Did you always know that you wanted to cook? Did you try other things and not like them?
I always liked cooking, but I was in school for accounting and I had always wanted to be back in restaurants. I had always wanted to own a restaurant. I didn’t like anything I was doing, so I just decided one day… I dropped out of college and then I was going to go to culinary school.
Where were you going to school for accounting?
I was going to NIU. Northern Illinois.
And then so you went to culinary school in the middle of that?
Yeah, well I went to a sales job for seven months, stashing cash for culinary school, but went and did that.
If you had to do it over again, would you still go to culinary school? Do you find culinary school valuable?
You know, it got my foot in the door. It was the right thing at the right time for me. I would do it again. I think I would probably go to a community college and do it, but I think that makes more sense now. Culinary school is like anything else. It’s like a f*cking art school. Whatever you put into it, you get out. There’s no guarantee. It’s just hard because when people ask if they should go to culinary school, it’s like it’s so expensive and the return takes a really long time.
When you’re cooking for the judges were you profiling them at all in terms of what they seem to like? Would you cook things differently for Padma, or Tom, or Gail?
No, I mean as much as you do overthink things, you don’t have the time to really do that. When you’re in the moment, you’re just trying to cook the best food you can.
If one of them was coming to your restaurant, what would be something that you’d tailor for them specifically?
Oh, man. I don’t know. I’d love to cook for them at my restaurant. I’d like to actually cook risotto for them at my restaurant. This is my proper-ass risotto not made with cauliflower.
That would be the number one dish I’d want to serve them.
Were there any chefs on the show that you think were a lot better than we saw?
Yeah, listen. Everybody on that show’s f*cking talented. It’s hard. It’s difficult. It’s not what you usually do to get yourself out of your comfort zone. Like Tyler’s crazy talented. He’s a really, really good chef, and he went out a lot earlier than anyone thought he would. But it’s just like that’s competition. It’s like March Madness. A one can lose to a 15; it just happens sometimes.
Joe Flamm’s first ranking.
What do you think was your seed going in?
Ooh, I don’t know. According to you, not very well. Some other people thought better. But you were sandbagging me all season.
(laughing) Did it feel good to prove me wrong?
Oh, yeah. That felt good. That felt good. That felt good. Especially like middle of the season, you were really anti Team Flamm. It felt good to wrap it up in the end.
Do you feel that I contributed by giving you fuel?
No, absolutely not. It was already fueled.
Who was the weirdest chef to live with?
Tyler’s the weirdest person to do anything with.
Well, living with Tyler and Bruce was really weird. They’re just really funny guys. They’re really quirky. They’re just fucking weirdos.
You can’t elaborate on that?
I’m trying to put… I don’t know how to put into words what those two guys are. You know what I mean? Living with Tu was strange. He was always doing weird shit. Like always cooking, always just puts four pots on the stove at the house. It’s like, “Dude, we gotta go to the Quickfire now.” “Oh, yeah, but we’ll have soup later.” It’s like, “What? Why are you making soup right now?”
Joe Flamm atop the rankings after the finale.
So I asked Fati this, but how do the show’s time constraints change the way you cook, like when you can’t season protein ahead of time and stuff like that?
You really have to be adaptable to it. Really think about it and have a really good base of knowledge to be like, “Okay, well normally I would do it like this. How can I try to get as close to that result with the time restraint?” You have to get really, really creative. You can’t cook anything over night. That’s really hard. You have to cook smart. I think it helps to go lighter, go fresher. As opposed to going big, heavy flavors, because those take so much more time to develop. You just gotta make really good choices on how to get flavor into things quickly.
Were there any memorable catch phrases that stayed with you over the course of this season?
I taught everybody what a jag bag was. I thought that was pretty special. Bruce knowing everyone. It’s a joke with all of us now. It’s just like, oh full disclosure, Bruce knows everyone. Whenever me, Tyler, and Bruce hang out, we just talk about how famous Bruce is.
So did he even need the show?
Bruce? No, but I’m glad he did it, because he’s awesome. He’s such a character. He’s amazing.
Did winning the show change your career path at all? What’s your plan now?
No, I think I’m still on the same path. It helps give more momentum behind my career path. I do want to open my own restaurant and I think it’s going to open a lot of doors to make that happen.
Does the prize money make a dent in terms of trying to open a restaurant?
No, not really. Not unless you open like a taco cart. It’s like you think about it, like after taxes it’s what, 90 grand? Like 90 grand for a restaurant, you can buy like 12 tables.
But in terms of like exposure and investors it helps that way?
Oh, yeah. It’s a level of PR value that you can’t buy. You couldn’t purchase. Yeah, as far as just exposure and building a brand for me, it’s trying to create a restaurant.
It was a south side Chicago finale. Tell me about growing up there. I mean, it’s pretty segregated, right?
The south side?
Just Chicago, I mean.
The neighborhoods … Well, I mean, it’s kind of hard to generalize a city this big and say it’s … It’s weird. There’s different parts of it. But you know, I mean the south side it’s a special place. It’s a real blue collar-y, salt of the earth ass people. It’s awesome. It’s like one of those places, like people don’t move to it. Everybody who lives there is from there. They live there ’cause their parents lived there and their parents lived there. It’s just its own little pocket and identity of the city.
Do you have a first food memory?
Man, a first food memory. I don’t know if I have one. I think it’s just like … My first real cooking food memory is remembering being really young and rolling out the pasta for raviolis for Thanksgiving with my grandma. Just being tall enough to reach it, so I got to roll it.
Did you have to grate the Parmesan too?
Always. Always had to grate the Parm. I’m the youngest of my oldest cousins, so like when I was the youngest, it was like, “Well, you have to grate all the Parm.” We have a party for 50, 60 people. It’s some work.
Do you have a favorite or least favorite restaurant or food trend?
I like that fine dining is becoming more fun. I think that’s probably one of my favorite things. It’s becoming more accessible. More casual. And more relaxed, but it’s still got all the cool shit. They’re still doing excellent service. Great wine. Great food. But it’s still like you can sit down in there and it’s comfortable and the music’s more fun. The chefs are more fun. I think that’s probably, probably my favorite thing.
I don’t know if I have a most annoying food trend. Besides everyone having like four billion allergies under the sun now.
Is that … have you had to deal with that? Is that just something you end up having to deal with?
Yeah, you just deal. You know what I mean? You can either be the curmudgeon, the asshole about it or just figure it out.
What’s the most common one you end up having to work around?
Well, I mean we’re in an Italian restaurant, so for us it’s always like gluten. Gluten. Gluten. Gluten. Gluten. You’re like, okay. It’s an easy enough one to work around.
What are your work arounds, like if you’re making a pasta or pizza or something?
We don’t do pizza, but I mean most of our entrees and antipastis end up being kind of gluten free anyways, because when you’re doing heavy pasta courses you gotta go a little bit lighter on each end.
So you’re not trying to turn a pasta dish into a gluten free dish?
I mean risotto’s gluten free, so we do that. We make some gluten free pasta in the house. We just do like one kind. But that’s really the most we do with it. You want to be able to accommodate.
Do you have a favorite food movie?
Favorite food movie? Oh, man. I don’t know, man. There’s so many good ones. I mean, Big Night, with Stanley Tucci, and oh God, what’s the guy’s name from Monk? [Tony Shalhoub] That’s like, that one’s so good.
That’s a good one. Yeah, with the timpani or timpano or whatever.
Yeah, they’re making the timpano. Just like everything about it. Like the arguments, yelling at each other. It’s just like it’s such a beautiful thing. That and probably Goodfellas.
Have you ever attempted to make a timpano?
No, I’ve never done it. We’ve talked about it a bunch of times, but it’s like one of those things. It’s kind of hard to serve.
I mean, have you seen that anywhere outside of that movie?
I’ve seen it like once. It is a real thing, but it’s like a weird, from my understanding, like a weird … You bake one for a party. But it’s a harder dish to execute on a restaurant level.
Yeah. What about a cookbook? Do you have a favorite cookbook or anything that influenced you?
Yeah, I think maybe my favorite book about chefs is Devil in the Kitchen, Marco Pierre White’s book. I think my favorite cookbook is probably Cooking by Hand, Paul Bertolli’s book.
Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.