Nice Guys Can Finish FirstDecember 15, 2010
When competition cooking TV shows first came out I wasn’t a fan. The focus seemed mostly about the contestant’s personalities rather than their cooking. Everyone was focused on a chef’s failings- whether they burned something or got into a cat fight with another contestant. It was all about the drama.
I did respect the chefs that participated and recognized that they were working under very difficult conditions. Being told what they are going to prepare just before they started with an extremely short period of time to create their dishes is not a small challenge. I probably wouldn’t make it past the first round of judging.
My issue was I thought the shows were going to overshadow the seriousness of the restaurant community and how difficult it is to produce good food and to run a restaurant on a daily basis. I didn’t want people to get the idea that professional kitchens, as crazy as they can be, are like competition food shows.
But over the last year there have been several reasons to adjust my attitude.
First was Top Chef Masters. The “well established chefs” in Top Chef Masters were less ego driven and more mature than regular Top Chef Shows which featured chefs who did not have as much experience. They were humble and readily admitted how tough it was to compete. They laughed at themselves when they made mistakes. They each wanted to win but they didn’t bring down their fellow contestants in the process.
Second, in talking to people who are not in the food business and watch the shows regularly, the majority understand reality cooking shows are TV entertainment. They are able to keep it in perspective. They know that escaping elimination does not equate to a Michelin recommendation or how many stars they may be awarded by their local newspaper.
I also found a better appreciation once Yigit Pura won Top Chef Desserts. He made it to the finish line because he was talented. But just as importantly he kept his cool and his professionalism throughout the entire series. Yigit lives in San Francisco and is the Executive Pastry Chef for Taste Catering. The other day I had coffee with him and we chatted.
1. What sparked your interest to participate on the show?
I actually didn’t apply. I first heard about the show from some friends in LA. I thought it sounded like fun but then I forgot all about it. The show contacted me to see if I would be interested in trying out. I didn’t know I was selected until a week before it started. I had to train my staff in just a few days to be able to work without me for 6 weeks.
2. What were your initial thoughts once it started?
When you work in your own kitchen you have a team, you know where everything is, how the ovens work. On the show not only were you out of your element in a strange kitchen you had television cameras in front of you. We only found out a day and a half before the show started that we couldn’t bring any recipes with us. By the end of the show we were all so tired it was hard to remember the proportions for something as simple as a pastry cream. Heather, one of the other contestants on the show, and I helped each other quite a bit.
3. Was it hard to keep the fact you won a secret? Were you relieved when the word was finally out?
I had to keep it a secret for 7 months. I signed a contract that said if I told I would be out about $1 million so that was incentive to keep quiet. The night of the final episode we had a party at Macy’s. Throughout the party I kept a very long sad face because I didn’t want to give it away. Afterwards people told me they thought I lost since I looked so dejected.
4. What’s your favorite fruit to bake with?
Passion fruit or any citrus. I like the acidity and how it plays with the sweetness of desserts.
5. Who/what influences your baking?
In the past it was the Chefs I worked for- Luis Robledo-Richards , Daniel Boulud, and Eric Bertoia. They trained me in European baking techniques. Now I am inspired by produce. I go to the farmer’s market, taste something amazing like a Meyer Lemon and I have to make a dessert with it.
6. Did you grow up in Turkey or in The United States?
When I was 12 my parents immigrated to the Bay Area. I’ve been here ever since except for a few years cooking in New York City.
7. What’s your favorite Turkish dessert?
It’s called Kazan Dibi. It’s an eggless custard that you make in a large shallow pan. The top is burnt with sugar. It’s served cold with cinnamon.
8. What are the spices traditionally used in Turkish desserts?
Cinnamon like here in The United States but Turkish cinnamon is sweeter- more like the Ceylon variety. Also allspice and green cardamom.
9. If you weren’t a pastry chef what would you like to do?
I’d be a beekeeper. I love honey.
10. What would you like people to know about you that you don’t think came out on the show?
They pretty accurately portrayed me. I worked very hard at trying not to do anything that they could take out of context. On a couple of the challenges I ran out of time. At work I push myself to get a lot accomplished but I am focused and organized. I do finish on time.
11. Now that you are the grand winner what are your plans?
I plan to open a high end pastry shop with the owners of Taste Catering. We’re very excited.