How did your grandmother’s cooking inspire your own cooking style? How would you describe your approach to cooking?
My grandmother was my first introduction to formal cuisine. She had coursed out meals and fingerbowls, all in Victorian elegance. She let me know that there was much more to food than just nutritional value and eating to fill your stomach. That there was a whole social aspect to dining and that it was very proper to sit around the table, eat, talk and enjoy your company. It was the first time I saw a formality to food. White tablecloth dining is not necessarily something I like to do, but it at least broadened my horizons. I do believe I snuck my first glass of wine and beer at grandma’s Thanksgiving table.
What was the most important thing you learned competing on the 3rd season of Top Chef? How did it prepare you for this experience?
Humility. It taught me humility and the ability to laugh at myself – to not take myself too seriously. It gave me a lot of confidence to perform and take risks. Once you fail in front of millions of people, you are less afraid of failing again. You don’t want to fail again, but your fear factor is lessened.
What inspired you to join The Taste?
The challenge of it, the unique concept for the show, and the chance to rub shoulders with culinary greats like Bourdain, Nigella and Ludo. Plus, I couldn’t wait to see the look on Bourdain’s face when I arrived on set after he tried to kick me off Top Chef three times!
Of all the judges on The Taste, you have the most experience with cooking competitions. What unique point of view did you bring to the table?
I could see the competition from both points of view – from that of the judges and that of the contestants. I know what it’s like to put your food out there for a critique on national TV, and I think that helped me when I mentored my team because I was able to give them some extra insight.
What was different about this show than others you’ve participated in?
That’s easy…I got to be a judge instead of a contestant! Though, the competition between the judges’ teams got fierce, too.
Is there anyone who gave you a chance in your career, whom you’ve considered a mentor?
One of the first jobs I had out of culinary school was at Chef Michel Richard’s Citrus in Los Angeles, working under Patric Kuh and Alain Giraud. Being at Citrus, watching these two chefs work and put out delicious food night after night, made me realize that this is what I wanted to do. It didn’t feel like work to me because I loved it. I always knew I had a passion for cooking and entertaining, but I found my passion for being a chef while working for Patric and Alain.
What’s the best cooking advice you’ve ever received? The best you’ve ever given?
My advice is about fundamentals…Season properly, cook at – and to – the right temperature, and always use the best product possible. The best advice I ever received relates to that: “Don’t count the pennies you are saving, count the dollars you are making.” Skimping on quality ingredients, a quality service team, and great cooks is not the way to build a successful restaurant.
What was the most valuable advice you gave while working on the show, and to whom?
I’d say the best advice I gave was, “Have fun, don’t be afraid, and stay out of your head.”
You’re a partner in 5 successful restaurants. What would you tell someone who wants to start his/her own restaurant?
Make sure you can run a successful restaurant for someone else before diving into ownership. Once you are ready to own, find investors that really believe in your vision and the product you are trying to put out there. That’s what worked for me. Oh, and be prepared for some LONG hours. Rewarding, but long.
Were there any hilarious or outrageous moments on the set of The Taste?
Battling it out with Ludo, day after day.
Any specific challenges or frustrations?
The blind tasting! The chance that you might, at any moment, vote off your own team member was brutal. Those were high-anxiety filled times.
What’s next for you after The Taste?
I am looking forward to spending some quality time with my beautiful wife, Chantelle, and our kids. We have a 4-year old boy and a 2-year old pair of twins. Also, we’ll be taking an overdue family vacation. I’ll be spending time at my restaurants in San Diego and at Searsucker Scottsdale, which we just opened. I’ll be in Austin a lot too as we are getting ready to open a Searsucker in March.