Sue Zemanick talks about her Top Chef experience



Top Chef: Masters airs Wednesday, April 6 on Bravo.
  • Photo courtesy of Bravo
  • "Top Chef: Masters" airs Wednesday, April 6 on Bravo.

Even after three James Beard Award nominations, distinction as one of Food & Wine Magazine’s Top Ten Best New Chefs in America and other accolades, Sue Zemanick prefers to stay out of the spotlight.

“Normally, I like to be in the kitchen hiding from everyone out there,” she says.

But that will be difficult starting Wednesday when the third season of Top Chef Masters, on which Zemanick was a competitor, airs on the Bravo network. The Gautreau’s executive chef, along with a slate of 11 other established chefs from around the country (including New Orleans native John Currence), compete in timed challenges for the charities of their choice on the Top Chef spin-off, all while trying to avoid “getting thrown under the bus” or being asked to “pack their knives and go.” Zemanick, who recently received her third nomination for the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Chef of the Year Award, talked to Gambit about her foray into reality TV.

What did you learn from the whole experience?
It was nice to work with other chefs and see what they were coming up with. We worked with some of the same ingredients, and it was nice to see what they would do with it, how they approached the same challenge. It was good learning experience in that I got to see what some of the best in the U.S. are doing.

Was it difficult competing and having to adhere to time frames with challenges?
It’s definitely strange. The set up is a lot different than a restaurant kitchen, and having time constraints are really challenging and hard.

How involved with Gautreau’s were you able to be when you were filming the show?
I called to check in a couple of times, but the schedule was exhausting. So they just let me go and do my own thing. I have a good staff, I felt like they were doing great without me.

Did you watch Top Chef before?
Yes, of course, I think everyone watches it. I was a little nervous at first. I almost didn’t want to do it …

How was it competing while also having to have a television presence? Were you aware of the cameras?
After the first day, it became a lot easier. You kinda forgot that (the camera crews) were even there, because you’re so focused on trying to get your food done. You’re just running around them, and you just pretend like they’re not there. The interviews, I think, are harder, because you’re sitting there with a bright light on you and the chairs are not comfortable.

As a fan of the show, was it strange to actually be on the set?
It looked a lot different than I thought it would. It was kind of neat to see it from the other side, and I can’t wait to see what it’s going to look like on TV.

Did you find yourself saying any reality show cliches like “I’m not here to make friends” or that someone “threw you under the bus”?
(laughs) Probably! Just because in these reality shows … I think those were terms that were maybe around before reality shows, but now we’re hearing them more often because we’re all watching so much of it. There are definitely kitchen terms, too, like “throwing under the bus.” I’ll have to watch the season to see if I said any of those things.

On the show, were you able to keep your own cooking style, or did you find yourself assimilating to something else?
I think that was the one thing I wanted to focus on the most, was not changing who I was as a chef and do the food that I know, as opposed to trying to do things someone next to me is doing. I wanted to be true to myself, and I think I did that.

In all the seasons of Top Chef there has only been one female winner. Do you think that’s coincidence, or is the culinary scene a boys’ club?
I think that the culinary scene is not so much a boys’ club as it used to be, but I’m sure it’s dominated by men. I think there are equally amazing women and men chefs out there, but this is a competition. It’s all about competing under weird time constraints and with strange ingredients and challenges. So I don’t think it has anything to do with male or female, I think it has to do with being able to — basically, it’s trying to do something you wouldn’t normally do in the kitchen.

How do you feel about the show potentially propelling you to a more national role as a chef?
I’ve never really wanted to be that television personality or that chef who was on television — I just wanted to cook and make people happy. But this was a great opportunity, not just for the restaurant, but to raise money. I’m a little nervous about everyone seeing me on television — I don’t even like the sound of my own voice on my voicemail. To have all these people watch you on TV do what you do professionally … I think it’s going to be hard. But I’m prepared for it.

Since you said you don’t like hearing your own voice, are you nervous about seeing yourself on the show?
Of course. No one wants to really see themselves on television. I guess certain people are more comfortable with it, but … I much prefer still photos.

Why did you choose the LA/SPCA as your charity?
I’m a big animal lover and after Katrina, I did their Howling Success (fundraising event) and just fell in love with the new facility, the people that are there. They did such a good job of taking care of all the animals in such a horrible time. I just wanted to give them some money back.

There are so many competition-based cooking shows on TV — not just on Bravo, but on other networks. It’s how a lot of chefs are coming to prominence these days. Do you think that’s a good thing?
I think that’s great that people really enjoy (the cooking shows). And people on them win money, and they can start their own restaurant, jump-start their career, raise money for charity, things like that. I think that there’s no better time than now to be a chef — it’s almost like a new rock star kind of thing. I think that’s kind of cool that they’re putting us out there, showing people what we do and how hard it really is.

How was it going back to work after finishing Top Chef?
It felt like I was on vacation going back to work. It was really a lot easier and all the stress had been lifted off my shoulders. It was good. It’s hard because I can’t really tell people what happened — we didn’t really have to talk about it, so I went back into my normal life.

Top Chef seems to like New Orleans. They did the finale here one season, and John Besh has appeared on it before. Do you think they’ll ever have a season here?

I think it would be great if they had a season here. I don’t know if they ever would, but I think it would be a great town to do it in. There would be some cool challenges down here, with all the great seafood, fishing and things like that. I think it would be great place for Top Chef.

What else is coming up for you? Do you have any other projects in the works?
Not right now. I’m just trying to get through all of this. We’ve been really busy and of course, Jazz Fest is coming. Just trying to take it one day at a time and focus on Geautreau’s.

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