Almost overnight, Doug “Douggie” Adams, the executive chef at Imperial and Portland Penny Diner, went from total obscurity to national television star. He battled his way through 10 nail-biting episodes of Top Chef, pulling himself back from the edge of defeat to compete in the finale, alongside currrent front-runners Gregory Gourdet and Mei Lin (formerly of Ink Restaurant in LA). We sat down with the diminutive Texas-born finalist to get the inside scoop on the harrowing season of Top Chef.
EB: I know Vitaly Paley (owner of Paley’s Place, Imperial, and Iron Chef champ) and Ben Bettinger (Laurelhurst Market) helped coach you before the show started. Tell us about your training regimen.
DA: As soon as I got the call, almost a year ago, Vito (Vitaly) and Benny just started putting me through the ringer every day. They timed me doing everything: ordering produce at the end of the night, butchering meat—everything.
Eventually, Vitaly took me to Whole Foods and gave me $100 and 30 minutes to shop for our staff meal. I bought this whole salmon… it wasn’t the best quality, and I was being timed, so it was undercooked, and Kimberly Paley (Co-owner of Paley’s Place) was like: “I can’t eat this. Douggie…you can’t go on Top Chef and do this…you know that right?” We had like 10 days left before the competition at that point.
Early on in the show, my plan was just “season well, don’t go big, don’t take a lot of risks—let the wheat separate from the chaff.” I was never on the bottom, and I was never on the top, intentionally. Greg was the complete opposite. His plan was to go out swinging. It paid off for him until the Thanksgiving episode where I shifted gears, and where he started faltering a little bit.
EB: Of all the contestants, the stress of competition seemed to affect you the most. Tell us about the pressure of the show.
DA: Nothing can prepare you for that kind of pressure. I was really just scared shitless… like…terrified. I couldn’t even speak early on. It’s like in the movies: they fly you to Boston, you’re put into a van, they tell you “no talking, no talking.” You get to this warehouse, go through this dark tunnel, and then all the sudden you’re in the Top Chef kitchen, and Padma Lakshmi is standing in front of you. I was fucking terrified. My mantra was basically “don’t cut yourself on national television.”
Me and Gregory were roommates. We are both very anxious, weird guys. We would wake up in the middle of the night, look at each other, break into hysterical laughter, and then cry a little. In the morning, I’d say…“I don’t know how much more I can do.” You look at a girl like Mei Lin. She can do it; Gregory, he can do it. Given the chance, I don’t know if I would do the show again.
EB: Tell me about your relationship with Katsuji Tanabe (LA’s Mexikosher) and some of the more abrasive cast members.
DA: I tried to ignore what everyone else was doing during the competition. Thank god I never had to work with Aaron [Grisom]. I love Katsuji, but I wanted to kill him every single day. He loves to poke you in the worst spots, like an evil genius. He would get James [Rigato] and Aaron to the point where they were ready to get physical. That’s just how he is. I think a lot of it was strategy. He’s a social media genius. He was just trying to get his name out there. And he did. For some reason I brought him back, twice. When I chose him, Padma was like…“Why?” He actually just asked me to be his daughter’s godfather.
EB: Who was the most intimidating judge, and did you have an off-screen romance with Food and Wine Magazine’s Gail Simmons?
DA: I’m not gonna lie: I always felt a lot better when I saw Gail. I think my type of cooking translates well to the home cook, because it’s comfort food. And that’s the kind of stuff she focuses on. I wouldn’t say it’s a crush…maybe it is…I don’t know.
I really started to dread Richard Blais. The question I got from him at the Judges’ Table over and over again was: “do you think this is fine dining enough for Top Chef?” Right after Mexico, Pok Pok NY got its Michelin star, and I tweeted to Richard: “Michelin star to Pok Pok, is that fine dining enough?”
But Colicchio is the most terrifying. There were times when I thought, “I think he likes me”… until I served that foie gras to the table. He took his glasses off, kinda leaned back in his chair, and looked at me, as if to say: “why would you serve this to me?” Barbara Lynch told me she was sad that the foie had been wasted. When that episode aired, it was when the foie gras ban was being lifted in California. The whole time, I’m getting hate tweets from PETA.”
EB: Serving undercooked foie gras to the legendary Jacque Pepin has got to be the most nerve-racking moment in your career. What happened with that challenge?
DA: The best laid plans of mice and men, right? We needed to do a Julia Child dish, and I wanted something whole—something very Portland. It was just a dumb choice. I had seen people do it before, like Gabriel Rucker, the chef I revere most—a fucking rock star. I got back to the elimination house, and Katsuji was standing on the street corner waiting for me with a bottle of Fernet, bawling: “it was supposed to be you man—you were the dark horse!”
But I totally shit the bed. And I never really dealt with that day, emotionally. When I watched it again, I fell apart. It was so traumatic, having the show just…stop.
EB: Your big comeback was Episode 13, when you all paired up with local Mexican artists to create a dish. There was some speculation on social media that the competition had been rigged. Were the artists really randomly selected?
DA: Yep, we actually drew names. When I saw the artist Melissa had, I knew how lucky I was. My food is not squiggles. Poor Melissa, she was like “okay…pinks, baby blues…graffiti…what am I supposed to do?” Mei was totally deadpan; you could tell she wanted to strangle her artist. But Top Chef is funny; they only judge you on the challenge so much…and the rest is about the food.
EB: At the end of Episode 14, you mentioned wanting to move to Montana to start your own place. Are you jumping ship?
DA: No, that’s like my retirement dream. I think some people in my shoes would just rush as fast as possible…like “get Kurt Huffman (the restaurateur behind ChefsTable) on the phone!” Everything moves so fast in this world; I just try to take it in stride. I love this town—I’m going to be here for a while.