The Top Chef Exit Interview: Gregory Gourdet
Gregory Gourdet burst out of the gates of Top Chef Season 12 like Seabiscuit, huffing, puffing, and blowing the judges away. The Departure chef and ultra marathoner aced the first five challenges straight, in one of the longest winning streaks in Top Chef history. He sprinted, full-speed, into a mid-season slump that looked like it might spell the end for our hometown hero. But Gourdet persevered, landing himself in the season finale in Mexico, up against the Michael Voltaggio-trained savant, Mei Lin. After a four course battle, neck and neck arguments from an all-star panel of judges (Sean Brock to Hugh Acheson), and Gourdet's impressive mole, Lin took the title of Top Chef. But Gourdet—one of only two Portlanders to compete on Top Chef, ever—proved himself a tenacious competitor on many levels, as an Asian-focused chef with nuanced, sophisticated flavors who dug, surprisingly, into the Mexican playbook, vaulting to a new level of cooking. We sat down with the silver medalist to talk training, adreneline, and his next steps.
You had one of the longest winning streaks in Top Chef history early on. How many of those winning recipes did you come up with on the fly?
I wrote down every single one of my best dishes before the show started. I studied all the Boston chefs, restaurants and cuisines. I already had a chowder (Episode 8), a bean dish (Episode 12), and a lobster recipe. Still, the clock was a bitch. I cut myself every episode during the first four challenges.
The first and second halves of this season were night and day. You dominated the first half, were on the bottom in the second. What do you think happened?
I was physically drained. I’m pretty old to be on Top Chef. I’m 39, and everyone else is in their 20’s. I’ve set up a system for my life in the last few years, and Top Chef took that away from me, made me stumble a bit. I felt I was running out of ideas, like nothing was good enough anymore. I do admit to relying on the same flavors and techniques by the end of the show, but those were the recipes that made me such a success in the first half.
It seemed like your roomate Doug Adams (fellow Top Chef competitor and Portland Penny Diner/Imperial executive chef) had Food and Wine’s Gail Simmons in his corner. Who was pulling for you, and who was the most intimidating judge?
I felt like Richard Blais was on our side: as a former Top Chef competitor, he knew what we were going through. But as the season progressed, his criticisms went from really kind and appreciative to being very harsh. Richard always wanted Doug and myself to elevate the plating and technique. Barbara Lynch was the most intimidating. Generally, she’s a very tough critic…she doesn’t show a lot of reaction in her face.
Between Boston and Mexico, it seemed like you really boned up on your Mexican cooking technique. What did you do to prepare?
We had six weeks between Boston and Mexico. I travelled to New York and California, ate mole, ate ants, ate cactus. I went to every Mexican market in Portland. I learned how to make mole with Kusuma Rao, who does the pop-up, Ruchikala, in Portland. She’s this amazing Indian chef with a complete grasp of Mexican cuisine; full control of all spices and flavors. She taught me how to make moles, like the ancho-tamarind sauce from the first challenge in Mexico and the red mole I used with short ribs for the finale.
You are a known adrenaline junkie: you love ultra-marathons and being under pressure. How did Top Chef feed your addiction?
It’s horrible, the worst addiction. You get used to competing all the time—winning all the time. The feeling is way too much. At the end of every competition, we were all freaking out, shaking as we walked to the Judges’ Table. Everyone loved the weird, crazy rush—even Doug and Mei. When you win, there’s only a few seconds of relief because the next one is already starting. I think we were all happy for it to be done. I didn’t experience a lot of physical emotion until we landed back in LA after the finale in Mexico. I just started crying. I was like, “what the fuck did we just do?”
What’s next? Your own television show? A new restaurant?
I think the one thing I learned on Top Chef was that there is so much I don’t know about food. I’m not going to run out of ideas in the walls of my restaurant, but when you are in the kitchen by yourself with nothing else, you realize how little you know. I’ve made a commitment to travel to Asia at least once a year. It started with learning about Mexican food. I just finished staging at Nahm, in Thailand. In a few weeks, I’m headed to Japan. Next year, I’m going to get myself to China.