Monday, September 27, 2010

Blogging Top Chef's Rough After Taste (Full Post)

My LV Weekly column on Vegas' beleaguered Top Chef cheftestant Stephen Hopcraft was all too short for the many fans of the show and those curious about the Emmy-winning Bravo reality TV show. So I've decided to supplement that with a podcast that goes into greater depth about how Hopcraft felt and what he experienced. It's in The Strip feed, so subscribe via iTunes or Zune or download it by right-clicking here.

But, of course, many of you won't have time or patience to listen to the whole podcast. So I'm also blogging some of the choice, juiciest bits. For background, of course, Hopcraft was eliminated in the eighth episode on an ill-advised flank steak. He's the executive chef at Seablue, a Michael Mina restaurant within spitting distance at MGM Grand of what earlier this year was renamed Tom Colicchio's Craftsteak. It was just Craftsteak, but Top Chef's top judge Colicchio is now such a celeb he's in a Diet Coke ad.

That's the background. Here's the good stuff about Colicchio, being robbed, the pea puree mystery, Eric Ripert, cooking in a manure pasture, that Emmy and much more.

Friess: Has Tom Colicchio ever been in here?

Hopcraft: As long as I’ve been the chef, he’s never come and dined here.

Friess: Oh really.

Hopcraft: Yeah, yeah. And I will say I’m thinking really hard, I’ve never seen Tom Colicchio in this hotel. And you can put that.

* * *

Friess: You’re away for how long?

Hopcraft: Five weeks.

Friess: Five weeks. It’s always so funny when you’re watching these reality shows and the second person gets kicked off and everybody starts crying and you’ve known them for like…

Hopcraft: ...Two days.

Friess: …two days, and you’re saying, "Oh, I’ll miss you, I’m never going to forget you."

Hopcraft: That’s a good point, and I get how ridiculous that does look, but when you’re forced into that situation, you start to build a very quick bond with these people because you’re basically being carried around in a shoebox and then the shoebox is opened up and there are people in your shoebox all of a sudden and you become friends with them really quickly because it’s like, "Oh, OK, these are the people I get to talk to, great." You do make quick bonds and quick likes and dislikes. It’s not like a normal situation where it's like, "OK, I’ve just met this guy, I’ve known them for two days but in between I’ve gone home, I’ve talked to my wife and my kids. I’ve had my life away from it." There’s no life away from it. It’s so magnified that there is that kind of comraderie where it’s like, "Oh no, the guy that I got along with best is now leaving." That would bring you to tears because then you realize it’s five weeks of you dealing with the rest of the assholes who are left, maybe.

Friess: Did that happen?

Hopcraft: For me, no. I honestly got along well with pretty much everybody. There were some people I liked more than others. The people I roomed with were the people I got along best with, which was Angelo, Timothy and Alex.

Friess: The pea puree guy!

Hopcraft: Yeah, the pea puree thief.

Friess: So what happened?

Hopcraft: The pea puree mystery! Well, he didn’t steal it. He made his own pea puree and Ed lost his pea puree.

Friess: How do you lose pea puree?

Hopcraft: You know, there’s a lot of travel that goes on. Like we cook at the Marriott kitchen and then we travel to wherever, that was the Palm Restaurant. In between, there’s a lot of other people who handle your stuff. As you see that clock ticking down, you’re packing up your stuff and it’s kinda like, "Did I get everything in there? Once that clock goes to zero, it’s not like you can go back to the refrigerator and say, "Oh, I forgot to pack my pea puree" or even check the refrigerator to see what you forgot to pack. I think it’s pretty obvious Ed forgot to pack it, thought that he had it in there and by the time he got there it was gone and Alex, coincidentally, had pea puree and that was probably the greatest twist of the season because that is the No. 1 question, did Alex steal the pea puree.

Friess: Couldn’t the cameraman tell someone if something was left behind?

Hopcraft: Their job was to pick up the story and they do that very well. These guys are pros at just fly on the wall. And a fly on the wall is never going to tell you you forgot your pea puree, Ed. [Imitates Tiffany] Eddie! Eddie, baby. You forgot your pea puree, Eddie. [Cackles]

* * *

Friess: It dawned on my while I was watching you on the show that maybe not all publicity is good publicity. You’re up there, and you’re being criticized by the judges, do you worry about what people think about your restaurant?

Hopcraft: Um, it’s a good point. And I see that. But first of all, I’m very very confident of my ability to cook and produce really good food in a restaurant. There are a number of misconceptions about the show. First of all, the name, "Top Chef," I wonder about that. I think "Top Cook" should be a better name for it because when you look at what a chef does, there’s so much more to it than cooking. Cooking is where you start and you have to be a great cook in order to become a chef, but there are so many more angles to it, like organizing a team, inspiring a team every day, dealing with the front of the house, dealing with numbers, making a restaurant profitable, filling a restaurant with people. These are all things a chef does and that I’m very good at, so I feel confident in my ability and my rstaurant’s reputation. Yeah, it definitely hurts your ego a little bit to be a chef and then you have Tom Colicchio or Padma or one of those guys say my rice sucked or this is inedible, who would eat this? But in all reality, I would challenge Tom in a heartbeat to any Top Chef challenge that he’d want to do and I know he’d say no.

Friess: Wow.

Hopcraft: He would not do that. It’s taking a great risk to get up there and put your food. Not to say anything bad about Tom or Padma or any of them. But when you do that, you’re putting your heart out on your sleeve and I know that there are a lot of chefs in this country who wouldn’t do that. All that being said, now that I have done it, I realize that it’s probably not my bag as far as going on and being able to make up a dish and be able to produce it in two hours time for 150 people in a chafing dish. It’s probably not where I’m at my best. … Once I create a dish, it takes a lot of trial and error to get a dish that I’m happy with and that I would put on my menu. … I coneive it, draw it out, make the dish five different ways, that’s the kind of thing you don’t really have time to do on "Top Chef." Not every great chef is the fastest guy who can whip something up right in front of you and you’re blown away and this is great.

Friess: One of the high points of your time on the show was the pie challenge. What kind of pie was it?

Hopcraft: It was a curry apple whiskey date pie.

Friess: I was infuriated by that part of the episode because making a pie is like that thing that normal people know how to do. And the other chefs on the show were almost angry by the notion that they had to do this. Are the high-end chefs so removed from the way that normal people cook that they don’t know how to make a pie?

Hopcraft: There’s a lot of chefs that really don’t cook a lot at home. Even though I guess that pie is something that you should ordinarily be able to whip up, I mean, a lot of people buy the crust when they make pie. Do you make your own pie crust?

Friess: Yes. I do.

Hopcraft: Well, that’s impressive. I think that making those types of things at home and compared to making it at that level is a different. I’ve never made a pie from scratch before. I know what goes into it, so obviously I was able to turn something out that was really really good and Gail really really loved it, so it was awesome.

* * *

Hopcraft: I think the highlight in my mind of all the shows for me was a quickfire challenge to shrink an entrée down to a toothpick. I wound up in the Top 3 and honestly I do believe I won that challenge. I don’t know why they gave it to Angelo. The reason why I think I won it was that I actually did the challenge. … There were three people that were on the top. One was Kevin, who ended up winning Top Chef, and there was Angelo, who came in second. And basically Angelo did a cucumber cup hollowed out with fried rice in it. Kevin did, basically, he did a soup cup and he dropped a toothpick in it. There was nothing really on the toothpick. It was a cup of soup. I actually did something where I made a potato cake, a grilled piece of filet mignon, there was a grilled vegetable in between there, so it had its starch and vegetable, and then I made it surf-and-turf with a baked scallop on top opf the filet and did a Bearnaise sauce on top of that. So that’s actually a dish you could go to Craftsteak and get today. I don’t know that you would ever find cucumber and fried rice as the main course on anyone’s menu in the country and I would challenge anyone out there to find that and, if they do, I’d be very happy to find that restaurant and enjoy such an awesome entry that I’m sure is ordered all the time, cucumbers and fried rice. If I sound a little bitter about it, I am.

Friess: Did you complain to anyone about it?

Hopcraft: Oh, yes I did. That’s not on TV, so I can’t really talk about off-camera stuff.

Friess: Why is that?

Hopcraft: Why is that? I don’t know, because I’d love to sit here and spill a bunch of stuff about off-camera stuff. Don’t pretend like I’m not mad about it, either. A lot of things happen that you don’t see. But basically it’s Bravo’s show, you know, and what they chose to look at through their looking glass, they get their Emmy for editing, correct? I was on an Emmy-award-winning show. Hah. That’s funny. … There are a lot of things I’d like to say about that particular challenge and other challenges where maybe I didn’t do so well, but maybe something happened. It is what it is. If Ed had just muttered under his breath, ‘Fricking Alex stole my pea puree’ and it didn’t get on camera but later on he chose to come out with it after the show, they would be very angry. He would be in breach of his contract.

Friess: You didn’t win, so what can they do to you?

Hopcraft: Right! They could come after me and take my upside-down house or something. You can have it, bitches. It ain’t worth nothing anymore! But you know, yeah I didn’t win, but I feel like I was portrayed pretty well on the show in some lights, I think in some lights not. But maybe there’s stuff I can do with Bravo or "Top Chef" in the future.

* * *

Friess: Your personality came across well.

Hopcraft: Good. As far as me as a cook, I didn’t come across very well. [laughs]

Friess: Did you feel like you carried the reputation of this restaurant on your shoulders when you were on that show?

Hopcraft: God, yes, I did. I felt like I carried the reputation of not only this restaurant but of Mina group and the hotel. And that was the part that was really crushing. I could tell as the season got going that I wasn’t going to be hugely successful. Although I wasn’t giving up by any means, but it was going to be really hard for me to be successful and to win the judges over. And the most crushing blow was the toothpick challenge when I put that dish up. … After I did that toothpick challenge, I felt like I was now back up to speed, I put everything on that dish that I wanted. I made that dish, I conceived that dish in a half an hour and I thought it was priceless. It came out exactly as I wanted. And when I turned and saw that Angelo beat me with a cucumber cup and some fried rice, I was like FUCK This. Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, I’m going home.

Friess: Did you get the sense that there were certain chefs that from the beginning they expected to make it to the end and…

Hopcraft: And they gave them money? Because that was the other thing, they gave them $20,000 for that. That’s a very important point.

Friess: Why do you think you didn’t win?

Hopcraft: I honestly don’t know. I’ve been over it a hundred times. I’ve even lost sleep over it.

Friess: Really?

Hopcraft: Yeah. I mean, $20,000, I think you lose a little sleep over that. When your wife says, "Didn’t you win any money, honey?"

* * *
Hopcraft: It’s very tough to keep your food pristine as they go around the room. There are 12 people there. They start off right next to you and they go around that way and you’re like, "Aww." Then they say, "It’s kinda dry." Yeah, no shit it’s kind of dry. Shoulda ate it an hour ago, idiot. But the thing is, that crushed me, you know? Then the next day I chose ninth and I got Brazil. It really gets into your psyche. And that really stumbled me up. I felt like if I could have kept my demeanor and attitude, I would have definitely made it through a little bit longer. Even though a lot of times I was on the bottom, I didn’t have the worst dish and a lot of times they were nitpicking my stuff.

Friess: Kevin was in the bottom five times in the last eight episodes or something.

Hopcraft: He sure was. Yeah.

Friess: We were surprised at home when he won.

Hopcraft: Oh, I’m sure. When I found out Kevin won, I was like, "Hold on, who won? What’s wrong with my reception? What are you talking about?"

Friess: Who do you think was the best chef there?

Hopcraft: It’s hard ot count myself out of the best chef, but I would have to say, besides myself? Of the food that I tried, Kelly’s food was really good. I think that Angelo’s food was really good. There was so stuff about Angelo’s food I didn’t like. A lot of sugar, a lot of sweet in his savory cooking, which some people like but I don’t like it all the time. Each person has their strong point.

Friess: I guess the question should have been, which of those chefs should have won the show?

Hopcraft: I think Angelo should have won the show. When first broke out, he was like, "I’m going to crush it," he was so full with his confidence. And then second show he was on the bottom, and once he got a taste of what it’s like to get your food criticized and to be in that light, it strips your confidence to a level that started to go against him.

Friess: Did it shake your confidence when you had that?

Hopcraft: Not at first. It did toward the end of the show. I was on the bottom a lot. Actually what shook my confidence more was, like, the pie challenge. The food that I put up where I was like, this rocks, this is gonna win. I looked around and saw the other dishes and I thought, "I got this one, I’m gonna win this one" and then they they call someone else’s name. That shook me more because most of the time when I put up a bad dish, I knew it sucked and I knew why. It was a time thing, it was an ingredients thing. But when I put up those dishes like the couple that were on the top, i was like, I’m going to win, I feel totally confident I’m going to win it. And to not win it, that stripped my confidence more than anything. You know, you just swung as hard as you could at the ball, you hit the ball square and you nailed it and it’s streaming toward the fence, and it just doesn’t go far enough. And you’re like, "Can I hit the ball harder than that? No, I just hit the ball as hard as I could. What the f-bomb, man!"

Friess: Do people come in here wanting the food you made on the show?

Hopcraft: I do have a "Top Chef" menu. I sell the bacon-wrapped bass that I did on the show and I sell it quite a bit. Probably 20 a night.

Friess: Is that a dish you invented for the show?

Hopcraft: No, I sold it before that.

Friess: But you did make it on the show?

Hopcraft: I made it on the show and they hated it. And people come in here all the time and love it. And again, there were some problems with the product that I got that didn’t go the way that I wanted to go. That’s why the dish wasn’t representative as it should’ve been. But I still think it was a good dish.

Friess: Did you worry while you were being criticized that people would not come to this restaurant? People in Vegas see there are so many restaurants around here. Oh, that’s the one with that guy from "Top Chef" who got criticized all the time?

Hopcraft: Well, I’m a confident person. I think people are smarter than that. The people who have come in and had my food, they realize what level this food is at and they realize what food was being put out on that show. We’re talking amazing stuff here. When people come here and they eat the food I do and they realize I’ve been on the bottom five times, they’re like, ‘If this is food that was on the bottom five times, then I can’t imagine what the food is.’

Friess: The MGM Grand publicist gave you the Top Chef DVDs, but you didn’t watch them before?

Hopcraft: I was like, "I don’t need to watch it." Kind of an overconfidence thing, maybe. Two days before, it really dawned on me that I was going away for six weeks for a cooking competition. It takes a while to sink in, like, ‘I’m going to go on Bravo’s Top Chef right now.’ You talk about it, you forget about it for a little while. You can’t tell anybody so you try not to think about it because if you do you want to go up to someone and say, hey, guess what? I’m on Bravo’s Top Chef. No, the next one that’s coming up, I’m going to be on it. You put it out of your head. But two days before, I bought the New York one because I knew Fabio and I wanted to see how Fabio did, I sat there and I watched as much as I could in two days before I was going to leave and I was like, "OK, I’m not prepared." I’ve got to start studying recipes. I was able memorize two or three recipes before I left.

Friess: Has your restaurant seen a bump at all since the show aired?

Hopcraft: Oh yeah, definitely. There’s a lot of people who come in and who really liked me. I even had one lady come in and tell me I was an icon. HAHAHA. I was like, I don’t think so. It’s funny I’ve told everybody that.

Friess: What happens after you’re knocked out?

Hopcraft: You go and stay at a knockout hotel, the loser house.

Friess: Do the same personality conflicts that we see on TV come out there, too?

Hopcraft: Oh my God, times 10, bro! That is the most entertaining part. I had it worked out where I’d wake up around 1 o’clock and happy hour down the street started at 2 o’clock. I could wake up, take a shower, watch a little TV, stroll down there and stay there until 11 and do it again. I had just about a week of being in the loser house.

Friess: So whose personality, as it was shown on TV, surprised you?

Hopcraft: I think the way they showed Alex as such a mischevious hurtful bastard. He really came off horrible, as a horrible person. But he’s not a horrible person and I think that surprised me.

Friess: Are you a fan of the show?

Hopcraft: Will I watch it? Yeah, I think I will. I’m not sure if I’m going to get into the "Just Desserts" show they’re doing, but I am a fan of "Top Chef" and all of its spinoffs. I’ll say that. I am a fan of "Top Chef All Stars."

Friess: Tom Colicchio can be really harsh.

Hopcraft: Yeah, he can. But it’s in every chef’s nature to be like that, though. … Eric Ripert was scary to cook for, umm…

Friess: Well, he had trouble with...

Hopcraft: …saying words in English?

Friess: ...with the skewer. That was just so weird. He’s at a ballpark and he’s annoyed. Whoever put it on the skewer, he’s like, "Well, if I do this, I’m going to cut the back of my throat."

Hopcraft: How does one eat of a stick? Uh, you don’t have to shove it all the way down your mouth there, Eric. He wasn’t my favorite judge. Great chef, of course. The guy from Little Washington, I think he was my least favorite judge. I called him Thurston Howell III. He was out on the farm. It was freezing there. Not only was the food cold, but your hands were cold. And the fact that you’re cooking in a cow patty pasture and I’m serving raw salad. I’m going to give everybody here e. coli. It’s a cow pasture. Could there be a worse place to plate up and eat food? And then turn around and say you suck.


Thomas said...

Great interview, Steve.

JeffW said...

Thanks, Steve. I don't know why, but I am mesmerized by any 'behind the scenes' stuff with respect to Top Chef.