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'Top Chef': Cheftestant Amanda Baumgarten shares her kitchen wisdom

July 13, 2010 |  3:25 pm

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The first four weeks of "Top Chef" have separated the contenders from the pretenders, and pretty soon we'll know which cooks could be joining front-running Angelo Sosa in Season 7's finals.

One emerging favorite is Amanda Baumgarten. After a shaky start -- she nearly was sent home early for a school lunch featuring chicken with a sherry sauce -- Baumgarten has settled down and looks increasingly confident.

The sous chef at downtown's Water Grill for the last month, the 27-year-old Baumgarten previously cooked at Ford's Filling Station in Culver City. She likes New Yorker fiction, listening to Wilco and (inexplicably) "St. Elmo's Fire."

Here's what she had to say before she started lunch service -- sweet corn and Manila clam orecchiette was on the Water Grill menu recently -- about her "Top Chef" experience:

Q: Did the show change you as a chef?

A: Definitely. I learned to really examine my food from a diner’s perspective. Which is something as a chef you always think about, but when you are being critiqued at that level every day what it really comes down to is: How is it going to be received? How is it going to eat? Am I plating this intuitively? Am I going to get all of the flavors in my dish into that first bite?

Q: How would your approach have been different before?

A: When I create a dish, I almost immediately go to — what do I think would taste well together? What’s a logical flavor combination? I think before the show, it wasn’t as glaringly apparent that I need that dish to eat well. Every element needs to be independently seasoned appropriately. And I need to have crunchy, soft, sweet, salt, bitter and acid all in that dish. Perhaps, before, I would have all those components on a dish but say, “How do I want to make it look good?” And after being on the show, it’s really about — how is that first bite going to taste? It was an amazing opportunity to just cook for people who have such high standards and are so knowledgeable in their field and actually get feedback from them.

2 Q: Were there chefs you learned from on the show?

A: I would say that Kenny is perhaps the most knowledgeable chef I’ve come across in my career. That guy is so well versed in so many different techniques and an inspiring person to work alongside. I made sure I prepped next to him because his taste and his focus were really motivating. He’s got Asian, he’s got French, he’s got pastry. He’s also an amazing, amazing human being. And he loves what he does for a living. That kind of passion is kind of intoxicating — it’s really wonderful.

Q: Does the show put too much of a premium on speed? If I’m going in for an appendix operation, I don’t want the fastest doctor but the best. 

A: Being a chef and working in a kitchen is working with a loaded gun to your head, a race against the clock every day. That’s what we do; either you’re on it, or you’re not. The time constraints on the show are some of the most intense, intense restrictions I’ve ever worked under. It is frustrating as a chef. You’ll want to do a braise that takes four hours, or you’re going to want to brine something overnight and cook it sous vide and have it be just right. But when you look at the caliber of the chefs on the show, if we all got a lot of time, then we would all be perfect.

Q: Meaning the time limits accelerate the meritocracy?

A: In order to have it be a competition, the time constraints have to be extreme, because all of the chefs are incredibly talented. Angelo has a Michelin star. And in order to level the playing field, you have to take away the creature comforts and push people to work in a surreal time frame. It’s a game, and those are the rules. I would love to braise my short ribs for 3½ hours, but I guess I’m going to have to learn how to use a pressure cooker.

Q: Are you able to cook enough dishes you are familiar with? Or are you constantly being pushed out of your repertory?

A: It wouldn’t be hard for me to do California-French rustic market-driven food all the time. But what is hard for me and what is going to test me is, can you make breakfast in 30 minutes? Can you cook for a bunch of screaming 12-year-olds? And do it with this amount of money and this amount of time? These are the challenges where you think, "I have no idea if I can do that. But I’ll give it a shot."

Q: What kind of advice would you give future contestants?

A: Work the line. Give yourself mystery baskets. Have your line cooks come up with bizarre things for you to do in an hour, and practice them as much as possible. But on top of that prepare for the fact that this game is 75% mental and 25% cooking. So practice remaining calm in a difficult situation.

Q: How much of a factor is exhaustion, as you shoot most of the show in about a month?

A:  It’s a huge factor. You have to put yourself in a position where you don’t over think things, and don’t become your own worst enemy. And you stay strong of mind and positive and stay true to yourself. Cook what you know. Don’t try to do a new technique you’ve never done before.

Q: Like Carla trying to cook sous vide for the first time in the finals two years ago?

A: Yes. You want to remember what got you there, why you got chosen, and why your food is good. Take the criticism and apply it by doing better in the next challenge, but don’t try to completely depart from who you are as a chef.

— John Horn

Photos: Amanda Baumgarten in "Top Chef." Credit: David Giesbrecht / Bravo

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