There's more to come from the New Orleans-based 11th season of "Top Chef" than host Padma Lakshmi tossing the cheftestants Mardi Gras beads instead of making them draw knives. This year's cast features a rockabilly chick, a proud recipient of the title of Philly's Hottest Chef and Stephanie Cmar, whom fans will recognize as the roommate of Season 10 winner Kristen Kish. It also features two Chicago chefs who met for the first time on the show: Carlos Gaytan of Mexique in West Town and Aaron Cuschieri of Slurping Turtle in River North. We chatted with each of them by phone in advance of Wednesday's premiere to hear about their fondest food memories, reality show alibis and where they love to chow down when they close their kitchens for the night.
Executive chef/owner at Mexique
Background: Gaytan grew up in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, and learned to cook as a teen from his mother, who ran a small restaurant. In 1991, he immigrated to the U.S. and worked as a dishwasher at the Sheraton North Shore Hotel and worked his way up to line cook. He then spent eight years at the Union League Club of Chicago. "It was my school," he said. "I got all the knowledge I needed to be a chef." After three years as chef de cuisine at Bistrot Margot, he combined his love for French technique with his Mexican background and opened Mexique in West Town in 2008.
Cooking style: "Modern Mexican with French influence."
On how life has changed since Mexique earned a Michelin star: "I became a big figure in Mexico, being the first Mexican chef getting a Michelin star. So I've been traveling a lot in Mexico, doing a lot of speeches to young kids. … I want to let them know that [being a chef] is not an easy career, but it's possible to be successful. … A lot of the immigrants … they come to [the] United States and they find a job just washing dishes and they stay there for 20 years. And that's not a dream, you know. Sometimes, we're really shy because we don't speak the language, we didn't have money to go to school, and it happened to me … but I didn't give up. … I wanted to take it as an opportunity to live the American dream, and right now, I am living my American dream with my restaurant."
Alibi during taping: "I was in Mexico trying to get new ideas to bring to Mexique."
Least favorite ingredient: "Rice. Because I'm not really good at cooking rice. … I can cook rice, but it never comes [out] the same. I can utilize the same technique … and it's just different every time. It's so simple, but it's true. You're never going to see rice on my menu."
Biggest strength: "You know, I think I feel very comfortable … [creating] based on ingredients, because I don't believe in recipes, I believe in ingredients. So when you give me an ingredient, I can create whatever dish that I want to create. I never do any classic recipes."
Biggest weakness: "I don't like to cook anybody else's style … If I had to create someone else's cuisine, that's something that I'm not too good [at]."
Favorite food memories: "I have so many. Enchiladas verdes from my mother, I believe [are] one the best enchiladas I ever had in my whole entire life. Even when I was a kid, my mom used to make me hamburgers. Ground chicken and ground pork and ground beef, she used to mix it all together; sometimes she had rabbit, or whatever wild game she had in the freezer, because my father and I we used to go hunting a lot."
Guilty pleasure: Packaged chocolate cakes. "I have a dollar store next to me and I buy a couple packages. I'm supposed to hide them [from my kids] but they find them."
Off-duty snack: "At the end of the night, if I don't to eat my food, I go buy just tacos." His favorite taqueria near Mexique is La Traspasada, where he likes to order the tacos de cabesa and tacos de barbacoa.
When he's not cooking, you might find him … scuba diving. "You know, I love the ocean. Every time we are on vacation, I try to go to places that I can be near the ocean and just snorkel or scuba diving with my kids. I just love being in the water all the time."
"In my case, I really enjoy serving people and making my customers happy in here. Everything else it comes behind, like [a] Michelin star … I'm not looking for those things, but it comes when you really do everything from your heart."