Bravo TV’s newest Top Chef Joe Flamm brought home a win for himself and many others last week including the people of Southside Chicago, Spiaggia (where he is executive chef), his wife, and of course his big Italian tribe—an extended family that includes 21 first cousins. The Top Chef Finale between Flamm and the incredible Adrienne Cheatham was one of the most collegial, supportive competitions in the show’s long history. It was that kind of Top Chef this season—brimming with cheffy camaraderie and good will. Flamm admits he even wondered if viewers were going to hate how nice they were to each other. “There was a so much talent and such a tremendous respect level between the chefs this season. In the finale we didn’t feel like we were going against each other; it wasn’t about me versus her, it was really us against ourselves.”
That doesn’t mean the road to Top Chef was easy–two months in virtual isolation with no cell phone or internet under hugely competitive conditions is a notch shy of incarceration, but as Flamm notes, “you learn so much every single day.” Below Flamm shares his thoughts on food, family, life on the show and his road to Top Chef.
I am one of four kids but my mom is one of nine so I have 21 first cousins—most of us, save for a few, grew up within 15 minutes of each other. They were my best friend growing up, and food was so important in everything we did. Took all of us to do it, it was always like “grab and oar” when we made raviolis for thanksgiving everyone had to help, if you make 500-600 raviolis for a thanksgiving meal you are not doing that alone.
Last Thanksgiving we made 500 to 600 raviolis. There were around 60 people at my grandma’s house. We have so many that we have seating assignments. She has the worst kitchen you’ve ever seen in your whole life. I keep telling her to do something about it but she says ‘nah, its fine.’
One of my most transformative meals was at Babbo in NYC. After I graduated culinary school my girlfriend (now wife) flew me to NYC to see my best friend. On our last night there we pooled our money and went and ate at Babbo. It was one of those meals I will never forget—the level of service, the cheese he paired with pastas; they treated us like everyone else. It made me want to create experiences like that for other people.
When I was in college I took a job working at Foodlife in Chicago. It was a very hip place and they gave me a job as cook. I started making pizzas and bumped up to sandwiches and wraps, and then I talked myself into a wok station that I had no business on! I did that for a while but I hated going to school—instead, I loved going to that job every day. It made sense in my head and my brain. I dropped out of college and headed into Cordon Blue.
The hardest part about being on Top Chef is being away from your life and family for two months. It was hard for me; my wife and I had only been married a year and a half and two months felt like a really long time.
You get to make a phone call when they say you get to make a call. And it’s not on your phone, and you get ten minutes, and you are on speaker phone, under those conditions you can’t say anything. That was really hard. You are managed at all times, Top Chef is a huge production, and you are going nonstop. There is no internet (you don’t even get to pick the movies that you are allowed to watch) so during our down time we just cook for each other. It’s like camp, but with 14 other bad ass chefs.
My favorite Top Chef dish was the finale’s “tortellini en brodo,” that dish was my story, and a nod to my mentors. It was so quintessential and composed of everything I am— a simple, elegant dish that was a powerhouse of flavor. That was the one and only time I have ever made it. When I worked for Steph [Izard] at The Girl and The Goat we used to butcher pig heads for a dish she served. It was a rite of passage of being able to butcher a pig head well–and fast. I loved that it was such a low-brow ingredient too.
Getting kicked off Top Chef was hard. You never want to go out on a bad dish and that risotto, well, I just didn’t execute it very well. At least in finale, win or lose, I could stand behind the food.
Last Chance Kitchen is more stressful but it’s a different kind of stress. Last Chance is very reactionary; you walk in and go for it and hope muscle memory takes over. On Top Chef you have more time to think it through and prepare. Brother was hard to beat; he had a hell of a run in there.
Even on my day off I love to be in the kitchen. My wife and I work weird schedules and I don’t get to the grocery store a lot but I love going. I hit the wine shop and fish purveyor; I love the process of it. We have a lot of impromptu dinner parties because I buy too much food and the next you know we are all in backyard drinking wine.
On my days off it’s wine, after work it’s a nice cold beer– there is nothing better. I love going to cool small wine shops in Chicago—I’m into natural and funky wines from France and Italy. Wines with natural fermentation like orange wines, and reds that you drink cold.
I want to open my own place in Chicago, but right now I am on this incredible ride and I kind of see what doors open for me.