What could be more intimidating than standing in front of Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons about to be told if your fate is sealed as a chef or you’re still in the mix to become America’s next Top Chef? Chef Jamie Lynch of the 5ChurchGroup, Now Joins an Elite List of Chefs Who Knows Just How it Feels.
“Immediately after the experience, I thought, what the hell was I thinking, but now with some time and reflection, I would do it all again in a heartbeat. Nothing prepares you for something like this.” – Chef Jamie Lynch
Hello my name is Michelle and I’m a Top Chef addict… I admit it, I watch every season, glued to the screen awaiting the next crazy challenge the chefs have to go through, from cooking on a ski lift to taking ingredients like those from a day old concession stand and turning them into something delicious and edible. You name it, Bravo’s Top Chef puts its contestants through the reality TV ringer.
Truly one of the last shows that can claim true reality TV status… meaning, no reshoots, no ‘suggested scripts’ and straight up heart-pounding competition, the show pits aspiring and established chefs against each other in weekly competitions to test their creative culinary skills. Hosted by Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi, two culinary powerhouses and often a celebrity guest chef judge, the competition is exciting and invigorating.
For me, I think some of the appeal comes from the fact that I’m not the best cook. I was raised in an era of casseroles and fast food, so my ovens in both LA and NYC were basically used for storage—truth.
I think I gravitate towards the show, and even the culinary world as a whole, because I see those in the industry as somewhat my heroes or spirit animals. I wish I could whip up something delicious out of the odd mix of items I currently have in my fridge—snow peas, onions, garlic, shrimp, salsa and fish sauce—but sadly, I see those items as individual items, not a tasty palette pleasing snack.
The stunning stained glass windows of Charleston's 5Church on Market Street
I find there’s a beauty and art in cooking and delivering something that elicits a sense of community, is at the heart of social adventures and helps create a shared passion where there otherwise might be strife or discord. So, being the fangirl that I am, I of course jumped at the chance to get to interview the truly exceptional and enigmatic Chef Jamie Lynch.
Jamie has built an impressive career spanning more than 20 years in major cities like San Francisco and New York, in kitchens like Le Cirque and Café Boulud, before moving to Charlotte and pursuing his dream to open 5Church and drive what’s become the 5Church Group with his partners. He’s gained many accolades throughout his career, including Best Chef for 2013, 2014 and 2015 in Charlotte Magazine’s Best of the Best Awards.
On Thursday, Dec. 1, at 10 p.m., the newest season of Top Chef premieres pitting eight newbie "chef-testants" against eight Top Chef veterans, a twist the new Top Chef contestants, including Jamie, were not aware of prior to the first shoot. Da, Da, Da…plot twist! Are you guys, excited yet? I know I am, and was even more so after speaking to the super cool, interesting, and grounded chef.
Below are some outtakes from our recent conversation. If this doesn’t make you want to tune in, I’m not sure what will.
How did you become a chef?
We moved around a lot when I was young and my first job was at a local dive bar near the North Shore of Boston. I got a job as a dishwasher and fell in love with the insanity of the kitchen.
Where do you find inspiration?
It’s a great question and a constantly evolving thing for chefs. For me I find it inspiring to take something that’s traditional and elevate it or find a new way to introduce it to a loyal fan base. A perfect example is our 60-second steak…no one else does it this way and it’s difficult for steak lovers to wrap their brains around it, but once they have it, they never go back.
The bar at 5Church
Do you feel like it’s important today for chefs to have studied under master chefs and have places like Le Cirque or Aqua on their resume to succeed?
No, you don’t become a chef because you graduated from school or you have a restaurant. You become a chef when your peers look to you and find inspiration or see you as ready. Someone put their restaurant in my hands and that was the moment for me. I earned that from hard work and developing my skills. There’s no replacement for hard work. Pedigree teaches you humbleness, but it’s not the definitive path.
How do you define success?
I feel like I’m fairly successful when it comes to what I’ve achieved, but success isn’t really about money and fame, it’s about balancing your life and finding the joy and inspiration in all things. Being a chef isn’t for the faint of heart…I’m always working even when I’m not working. Success for me will be that balance of life and when I can develop the legacy and help build my team up.
There is so much competition in the culinary world, especially in a smaller market like Charleston. How do you stand out in the markets you’re in?
For us we’re different, our approach is different, our design is different and our food is different. We didn’t want to come to Charleston and make more Southern fare there just isn’t a restaurant like 5Church, we never intended to do shrimp and grits, Charleston doesn’t need more of that. For us we wanted to bring a funky style, urban feel and food focused on classic technique with a little playful twist. We don’t used techniques or products that people don’t know. Taking familiar products and finding new fresh ways to present them to people. A carrot should be a carrot…people sometimes try too hard to turn food into something it’s not. Making an egg that the yolk tastes like carrot isn’t food…it’s an experience, but not food. What we do here is about hospitality. It’s about bringing people together over good food and good community. Comfort food to give people an amazing culinary experience.
What was the scariest part for you with Top Chef?
Making a total fool of myself was the scariest part. Because you have no idea what you’re getting into, there’s not communication with the outside world, so there’s a whole new level of anxiety. Fear of failure and letting down my team weighed heavily on me.
You are successful, why now? Why take the risk of doing Top Chef?
I didn’t apply I got approached. I’m a restaurant chef and never intended to do TV, but you don’t get to the next level by playing it safe.
What are some of the moments you wish you could redo?
You’ll have to tune it, but I’m sure the viewers will know immediately what those moments are for me.
The Coolest part about this season?
No one on this season is a complete newbie. Everyone competing was a seasoned professional with restaurants, so I think that changed the experience. There was definitely egos, mind-F$%king and button-pushing, but it’s a competition so that’s part of it.
What was your favorite part of the experience?
It was inspiring to meet all these other cats and peers, I like to think I made some friends out of it and got inspired and refreshed. Although, we all have to see how things get edited.
Did you watch past seasons? Did that hurt of help?
I binged on past seasons. I think it helped because you get a sense of what you’re going to be working with, but it does kind of hurt because you’re just never going to know what’s in the pantry or fridge. The surprises are real, just as the audience is surprised we are. The challenges are real, we’d go in one day and there’d be no butter or something significant. Adapting like that on the fly is so tough and nothing I’ve been through as a chef had prepared me for this.
Do you think the show did a good job of highlighting Charleston’s culinary prowess?
I think it did. I think it’s going to help people really unfold and understand the history of food in Charleston, but I also think it’s really going to broaden people’s perspectives on Southern food and the history.
After speaking with Jamie, I’m even more of a fangirl—both of chefs and the process that goes into creating our favorite dishes. Jamie’s friendly demeanor, easy charm and fun sense of humor make it easy to see how he’s going to be a quick TV favorite. I for one am ready for the next season of Top Chef and excited to hear Padma once again ask contestants to pack their knives and go home. It will be even more fun to have a local chef competing and seeing my adopted city, Charleston, highlighted!