Welcome to the second of hopefully 18 installments of a weekly series in which Eater catches up with Top Chef cheftestapant and No. 9 Park sous chef Stephanie Cmar. DVR users, major spoilers will be kept out of this paragraph, but anything after that point is free game. You've been warned. This week we talked about her frantic last minute preparations for New Orleans, the sage advice she received from Kristen Kish, and fellow cheftestapant Jason Cichonski's hair.
Online, you're gathering a reputation as a quipster. Twenty seconds into the episode, as another chef was crying after last week's election, you're shown saying "I'll only cry if I'm sent home. What am I, a pansy?" Do you remember saying these things before you see yourself saying them?
Oh goodness. I feel terrible for saying that because there actually is a little bit of crying as we go further on into the competition. "Quipster?" I haven't looked at anything anybody's said about last night's episode. But yeah, I've got a quick little mouth. I never realized!
Unsurprisingly, you were asked to make gumbo in the elimination challenge. Oddly, it seemed like most people had never done one before. Had you?
Right before I left, I became super nervous about New Orleans. I'd never been, so my boyfriend and I cooked what we thought was gumbo straight out of John Besh's cookbook literally two days before I left. I had never tasted an authentic gumbo, just my own.
They didn't show us yours, what did you make?
They asked us to show our personality through gumbo. So I basically made a clam chowder gumbo. I think I landed in the "that was very nice. Thank you, Stephanie," kind of land. But that was the first quickfire, and all I could remember was how shaky my hands were. You could hear my plates clanking as I went up to the judges. Eighteen kids trying to cook in this one house with crock pots! That was the first time I had ever used a crock pot. They're awesome though.
For the elimination challenge, you ran food trucks at Habitat For Humanity work sites. Fair or not, for some who live so far away, New Orleans has become nearly synonymous with Katrina. How affected did the city still seem to you?
The section of the city where the food trucks were — I would say seven out of ten houses were still boarded up — was just completely ruined from Katrina. When you think of how many years have passed from the storm, you wouldn't expect it to have been still so detrimental to their overall environment. It was incredibly eye opening to see, but it was incredible to see people are still so passionate about getting the city back on its feet.
Your team ended up cooking Mediterranean food. Padma said she loved your falafel.
The funny thing is I learned how to make falafel in family meal at one of the restaurants I worked at in the past. It's so simple to make, but it's delicious. It's exciting to hear people — especially Padma — say that she liked it.
Did Kristen give you any strategic pointers before you left?
Of course. She was actually the Devil's advocate. She asked me if it was something I really wanted to do or if I was doing it just because it was an option again. It was one of those vulnerable situations where I had to know why I was making my decision. Her best advice to me was "Steph, don't look past today. The second you start doing that — when you start imagining big grand pictures — you get distracted." So I always tried to stay very literally in the moment. Get past one challenge to the next. It worked, it was great advice.
This is the first season where chefs get to watch on a screen while judging occurs. What's that like?
Being able to prepare yourself for judge's table is actually a little comforting. It's weird to hear your name. Thank God they weren't like, "fucking falafels." It's real time; there's nothing fake. You're watching them sitting there talking about YOU. It's wild.
Jason — who you called cocky last week — was voted off. At this point, you were all still getting to know each other, but was that a surprise to you?
It's hard to watch somebody get kicked off, especially when his dish was delicious. But the environment and the heat — it was 2000 degrees that day — had such an effect on his food [he pre-wrapped the handrolls he served, a frequent fatal mistake on Top Chef] that it was his demise. You'd be surprised by Jason. He really is one of the sweetest people and an incredibly talented cook.
Well, we'll see him on Last Chance Kitchen soon enough.
And I'm sure his hair will look just as beautiful as always.
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