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'Top Chef': Kenny Gilbert talks about how he lost — and what he gained

August 12, 2010 |  4:23 pm
He was the biggest personality and arguably the most likable cook on “Top Chef.” But after Kenny Gilbert plated two dreadful dishes — an overly complicated beet salad and a fist-sized hunk of fried goat cheese — Kenny was sent home Wednesday night.

Countless followers of the show believe Kenny was undone not so much by his cooking but by a technicality. Alex Reznik, who was on the winning team in the episode’s so-called Restaurant Wars, didn’t cook anything (and bungled the lesser tasks given him). But because Alex’s squad was victorious, he was spared from possible elimination. Kenny’s team was on the bottom and, of its four members, his contributions were deemed by the judges to be the worst.

Many had predicted that Kenny would be around in the show’s finale alongside Angelo Sosa, but instead Kenny now will be focusing his attentions on his new job in Palm Beach, Fla., where he is the executive chef at the PGA National Resort & Spa  He's overseeing a high-end club, a steak house, a pub and a pool bar and restaurant.

A few hours after Kenny was eliminated from contention, he talked about his “Top Chef” experiences, his thoughts about the judging and his surprise over how many contestants claimed they had never cooked some of the most basic dishes. He says he wished he had sprinkled some gorgonzola over his beet salad or maybe baked a pie instead, but he says he left “Top Chef” with few regrets.

Do you think the judging that led to your ouster was fair?

I do not. I take full accountability and responsibility for my dishes. If they didn’t like it, they didn’t like it. But there are rules to the competition, and the rules stated that each competitor was required to compose and prepare a dish, which Alex did not. It was very clear throughout the segment--when we were going in the van to do the shopping. He didn’t even know what he was going to do when he walked into Restaurant Depot…. I mean, bring your best. If Alex cooked and prepared his dish 100%, and I am not taking anything away from that team, I would have had nothing to say…. I thought we did a great job. It just didn’t go my way.

We’ve seen people like Alex tell Amanda Baumgarten that her food is great when we know he doesn’t really believe that.

I always give an honest answer. It’s funny how Angelo and I are pegged as being against each other. We were tasting each other’s food all the time and giving each other feedback and compliments. That wasn’t really shown. Last week, when Kevin [Sbarga] was on the top for his braised chicken curry, Angelo gave him the fenugreek for that, and I actually tasted the curry right at the end of it. And Kevin thanked us for helping him out. I could have said, “All of this is great,” when it really wasn’t — kind of like what Alex did with Amanda. I would never do that. I would never sabotage somebody. My integrity and my character as a human being is more important than trying to win a competition.

When you watched the episodes, did it feel like the rivalries were played up more than they were in actuality?

[Officious public relations person interrupts: Kenny, I just want to remind you that we’re not allowed to talk about anything that wasn’t shown on the show. You can talk about things in general.]

I mean, we’re all rivals. There was a rivalry among all 17 chefs in the house. To restrict it to just one person — you want to chop everyone off every week. But you want to do it in a way like, Hey, this is my food. If you like my food and I win, great. If I go home, that’s fine too. We are competing against each other. That’s a fact. But the reality is we are competing against ourselves and competing against the judges. What can we put in front of the judges [that will make them say], “You know what? I can’t stop thinking about this food.”

If there was a dish you wish you could bring back and do over, what would it be?

I was always really happy with all of the food I put out. But I would probably have to say the Cold War challenge [in Episode 6], where my peers voted me for having the worst dish. The dish I wanted to do was a miso-honey glazed salmon with soba noodles and a passion fruit ponzu. But I changed and did this cold lamb dish — a deconstructed barbecued lamb. I was fine with the flavor profile of the dish, but in hindsight I would have gone with my first instinct. You have to realize that when the judges are eating, they are eating a lot of different foods. So they are looking to get that perfect bite. Whereas my cooking is more balanced — you enjoy the whole dish.

What you are describing is someone who is supposed to look at a painting and can only see and judge the individual brush strokes.

Absolutely. Angelo won some challenges because of that one bite of food — that explosion of flavors. Would you want that explosion for 10 or 12 bites? But we were judged on that one brush stroke, as opposed to the whole evolution of the painting.

Did you feel prepared to compete?

I’ve always been really good at taking ingredients and putting them together based on the history of the food and different cultures. So I guess I have been in training for years. There was never a challenge that I thought was difficult. Not one. Not one intimidated me. The crazy meat challenge? I’ve cooked pounds of rattlesnake in the course of my career.

Were you surprised that so many of the contestants claimed they had never done basic tasks like make a pie or grill a porterhouse steak?

I was totally shocked by that. And they’ve gone to culinary school. Angelo made a comment, “I’ve never made a pie before.” But you graduated the top of your class at the Culinary Institute of America. Are you telling me you didn’t go through pastry and baking? Yeah, you did. Maybe you didn’t make them all the time, but you have made a pie. It does shock me that there are so many contestants who are not expanding their careers beyond just savory.

What are some of the best things you’ll leave the show with?

I look at everyone as brothers and sisters that I am going to have a relationship with for the rest of my life. We’re part of a special fraternity now. Only so many people can actually understand what we went through.

— John Horn

Photo: Kenny Gilbert. Credit: Bravo.