Top Chef Exit Interview: Penultimate Episode

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Top Chef shook things up for this week’s episode, traveling to Singapore for the season’s penultimate episode. The contestants managed to overcome food labels written in Cantonese, cans that don’t work with can-openers and a confused waitstaff. In the end, they cooked what Tom Colicchio called the best food the judges have had all season. All the chefs got good compliments, but, in the end, someone had to go home…

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…and that someone was Vail-based chef Kelly Liken. Here’s what she had to tell us:

ES: There’s only been one female winner on Top Chef. Why do you think that the final episode seems to come down to all male chefs recently?
Kelly Liken: Tiffany and I shared your hopes for us. We were rooting for each other, so that was tough when she was eliminated. Top Chef doesn’t have a great track record with female chefs making it to the end. I think it’s probably just a coincidence. You’re judged each day as an individual. They judge each plate individually, and on any given day it’s anybody’s game.

What was the highlight of the Singapore trip for you?

The highlight hands-down was the afternoon we spent with Seetoh [K.F. Seetoh is an expert on Singaporean street food] at the hawker stands. We got to taste so many different things and taste so many authentic Singaporean dishes with an absolute first-hand authority.

Were you upset that there was a team competition for the elimination challenge so late in the competition?

I was okay with it because we weren’t dependent on each other for the food. We just depended on each other to be a team, just as a restaurant would have to come together to put out food, working with the service staff and the workers. It was just the way we would do it at our restaurants at home. But we weren’t dependent on anyone else’s food in the judging process.

Ed seemed to be the only one who prepared to have a second dish. Was there animosity towards him? What was your reaction?
We were all pretty surprised when Ed blurted out that he planned all along to do a second dish. We were only allotted one hour – that’s like the time you get for a Quickfire but it was for the elimination challenge. It was a little frustrating but we all rolled with it and we all ended up making great dishes.

Did you feel uncomfortable doing Asian dishes in Singapore?

You have to do your research and be prepared – I really familiarized myself with Singaporean flavors. It really obviously isn’t my comfort zone, but I learned a lot and definitely have a new found love for those Asian flavors.

What was the best advice you got from the judges, and did you have any favorite judges?
All the feedback I got from the judges was really good. I don’t disagree with anything they said – the good side or the bad. All the feedback I got was really good for growing as a chef and to reevaluate myself and my dishes. But my favorite judge hands-down was Eric Ripert solely because he likes my food (laughing). He says lovely, lovely things about my food. And in his video blog he says lovely things too.

There have been some themes in the press about this season’s chefs not having as strong personalities as some of the previous seasons. What’s your reaction to that view?
I’ve seen that and I don’t agree with it. I think we all had great personalities. I have two ways of answering: as this competition gets stiff, and producers and Bravo up ante on the talent on the show each season, you get less clowns, and less people just interested in having their face on TV. Plus you only see what happens in the 45 minutes of the show. Bravo is responsible for telling a story – each season is different and they do a great job of telling that story.

When you cut your finger did you feel like it was a contributing factor in not moving forward?
I cut it pretty bad, and it was definitely a bleeder. They had the medic in the kitchen, but I was basically one-handed in the kitchen. It could have been a factor; it made me nervous and threw me off my game. We only started with an hour, and maybe I didn’t think everything through as much as I should have.

When you were talking at the beginning of the show, you mentioned plans to be true to yourself and to trust your instincts. Do you think you were able to maintain that throughout the competition?

Generally I think I did stay true, but there were times when I slipped up for sure. There were times when I didn’t trust my instinct, and I let some of the comments from the judges get in my head, and I would try to be a little more aggressive and bold in my cooking than I am. When I did trust my gut and cook food I’m passionate about, I think I was very successful and the judges loved it. That’s 100 percent the advice I would give to future contestants: don’t reinvent your wheel. Do what you do on the show; you were chosen because of what you do.

(Photos: Bravo)

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2 comments

  • rose saunders September 10, 2010  

    Interesting interview, although it seems that Kelly is trying hard to be always magnamimous and generous — avoiding all negativity. It’d be even more interesting if she were more honest, but I do admire her self control.

  • Jenny September 11, 2010  

    It was upsetting to see Kelly go….I think it’s easy to say that judging is based solely on the food, but how do we really know? I still believe that chefs dishes should be judged blind. Otherwise, judges pre-existing biases and impressions of chefs influence their decisions.

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