Part III of the Chef John series, from an exclusive interview.
Chef John wants to see me fight. To be more exact, he wants to see me pummel annoying fans during Lions home games. We are now football chums at Ford Field. He cheers for the Lions. I jeer at the Lions. I find overzealous fans annoying, particularly drunk Detroit fans who act astounded after every play, as if the Lions never make stupid mistakes, turn the ball over incessantly, rack up ridiculous personal penalties, and fall apart during clinch moments. Chef John delights in my annoyance, urging me to tackle a loud, obnoxious young woman double fisting beers a few rows behind us. He throws trash in my lap when I’m not looking and insists it came from the rowdy bunch with whom she is associated. Despite my desire not to engage the drunken woman in fisticuffs, Chef John continues his operation, feeding me little obvious lies about the group’s antics, trying to fire me up. Clearly, he wants a fight of some kind.
This is the Chef John that was not featured on Bravo’s Top Chef. They booted him off before the cameras could really catch him in action. Perhaps his unreasonably early departure had more to do with his organic philosophizing or his journal writing, or perhaps, most superficial, his dreadlocked hair, rather than the dessert he concocted for the season opener (side note: I recently ate the very same dessert at The Lark and it was beyond fabulous). Maybe it was the combination of all three: despite John’s obvious talent, a literate, friendly, deep thinking chef isn’t quite as much fun as a fat loudmouth or an obsessive compulsive chef with no capacity for humor. But Bravo clearly guessed wrong on this point. Even with the outrageously contrived pea puree incident, Top Chef’s seventh season was insufferably boring. It wasn’t necessarily the locale, although Washington D.C. is a rather lackluster setting for a program built upon creativity and innovation, it was the lifeless cheftestants themselves, who likewise offered barely any entertainment value. While there isn’t any room on Top Chef for the kind of immature dramatics that defined season two, there is space for showcasing the unique, interesting, and rather curious aspects which define creative personalities. It seems as though the show’s judges only remember to discuss a dish’s soul during the finale, or at least in the few episodes leading up to it, but soul is what should be driving the series, and soul is precisely what has been lacking. Instead, we are given a rather unsavory substitution: a giant helping of acrid ego paired with sharp character. Not a good recipe for a great series.
While Bravo continues to serve up a buffet of pomposity, they are losing out on those with more substantial flavor, like Chef John. His charisma is undeniable. People approach him on the street, in restaurants, at Ford Field, just to say hello and tell him how much they enjoyed his all-to-brief appearance on Top Chef. He is recognized, partially due to his height (well over six feet tall) and his hair (about six feet in length), but also because he has a star personality. I have seen him greet perfect strangers, Facebook fans, and his colleagues, other Chefs, with the same kind of delight and interest he affords his personal friends and his family. I have also seen him steal the show from other personalities in his very low key, humorous, and energetic manner, a forceful combination that automatically propels him into the limelight, even when others are working very hard to do the same. Chef John is effortless and natural, which, of course, is also mirrored in his dishes. He also possesses that uncanny ability to create chemistry with whomever he keeps company, whether it’s the host of a television segment or just the giant Brett Favre fan with whom he attends Lions games. It’s this ability, one that cannot be learned or created, that truly sets Chef John apart from any competition and one that may have earned him a quick exit from the show. He is flirtatious without flirting, awkwardly suave, and nerdishly cool.
Above all though, he is gracious, a key element most of the cheftestants are missing on camera. A few months ago, The Lark offered a special multi-course theme dinner based upon winning selections from Chef John’s season on Top Chef, a tribute to his Bravo mates. If you visit his Facebook page, you will find that he routinely congratulates and extols the cheftestants. In fact, after his first “Quickfire” challenge on Top Chef, the camera captures Chef John offering his congratulations along with a handshake to the winning chef. The menu from The Lark’s theme dinner paid esteemed homage to the creator of each dish and during the course of the meal, Chef John addressed the diners from the middle of the room, remarking that although the night belonged to other cheftestants, the talent of his peers had indeed inspired his own recent creations.
Although Chef John’s generally respectful demeanor is belied by his bloodlust for violent fan antics in the Ford Field stands, I think he might appreciate that I would obviously rather take on the producers of Top Chefthan football fans gone wild. If Bravo executive Andy Cohen were standing before me right now I would slap him across the chest twice with a small leather glove, throw the gauntlet down in front of him and issue this challenge: bring on palatable chefs with verve, no matter how unorthodox, and leave the distasteful dullards to their own kitchens or face the continued blogging of one very fervent Chef John fan.
Chef John Somerville is Chef de Cuisine at the Lark in West Bloomfield, Michigan. He appeared on Bravo’s Top Chef.