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."
Executive chef at Slurping Turtle
Background: Cuschieri cooked as a hobby but pursued a professional music career out of high school. "I was like 24-years-old and decided that I wasn't going to be a rock star ... and decided to go to culinary school," he said. After studying at the Art Institute of Michigan and working at Assaggi Bistro in Ferndale, Mich., he worked a three-month stint at Alinea before taking a job as sous chef at chef Takashi Yagihashi's award-winning Bucktown restaurant, Takashi. Last year, he moved to Yagihashi's more casual River North restaurant, Slurping Turtle.
His cooking style: "I would say fresh, creative and dramatic. … I cook simple food, but there's depth to the dishes. … I would honestly consider my cuisine global cuisine because I take inspiration from everywhere. … I would [also] consider my food Midwest-inspired, because I say that because I like to use Midwest ingredients. … I was born in Detroit, raised in the suburbs of Detroit, I live in Chicago … for me, I totally [have a] Midwest mentality.
His alibi during taping: "It's funny, 'cause we were trying to decide what to tell people, so chef Takashi was joking with me that I should tell people that I'm going to jail. Which is hilarious. If you talked to some of the people that I used to work with, they wouldn't not believe it. We just joked about that, [but] my alibi was I was traveling."
Advice from Takashi Yagihashi, who competed on "Top Chef Masters": "He looked at me the last day before I went and he said, 'Don't forget to have fun. Don't forget to make friends.' I did have fun. I definitely forgot to sometimes. When you get in the moment and you're cooking, you're not exactly thinking about having fun."
Biggest strength: "My ability to work longer and push harder than most people I know. … I know how much I can do, and not all chefs have been pushed to their absolute limit. I knew how hard I could be pushed, how quickly I can move."
Biggest weakness: "My cuisine is like global cuisine, so I didn't always have somewhere to pull from. I would think Japanese one day and Italian the next. … While going in, I felt like that was a strength, I also felt like that could have been a big weakness for me."
Least favorite ingredient: Cilantro. "I appreciate it and I use it, so I really can't say I hate using it because I do use it. I just think cilantro tastes like soap. If someone asked me to eat a handful of cilantro, I'd be like, 'Uh, yeah, I don't think so, that's not going to happen.' "
Guilty pleasure: "Old-fashioned doughnuts, straight-up. I love 'em. I eat 'em for dessert, I eat 'em for breakfast. I know they're junk food and they're not healthy … but they're delicious."
Best food memory: "Growing up eating fresh raspberries with my dad and my mom. We had a raspberry tree in our backyard … [As a kid,] you don't really think about it … but as an adult, as you think about all those little tiny things that make you become a chef … that was definitely one of those things."
When he's not cooking you might find him … playing or listening to music. "Music has definitely been a hobby for me for a long time. … Music is definitely like an escape for me. Reading is [also] a huge hobby."
Off-duty snack: "Definitely the place to go for me is Au Cheval. … [They have] totally good burgers; their food is something you want to eat when you get out of work."
On his pride for Chicago's dining scene: "We're not the biggest food scene in the country, but we are definitely one of the most prominent. It's because we're young and we're progressive and our food scene is pushing the envelope more than any other city, I think. I think it's important that people know, not only are we already on the map, but we're actually trying to push harder."
"There's people who cook for a job and cook for a career … and there's people who cook to define who they are and it is who they are. I feel like I am the latter. Cooking defines me. It's not even just cooking, it's anything food-related."
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