We caught up with the “Top Chef” judge and “Top Chef: Just Desserts” host while she was promoting her memoir, “Talking With My Mouth Full,” to ask her about her favorite eats, “Top Chef” tidbits and more.
What’s your favorite guilty pleasure food?
I hate the term “guilty pleasures” – I don’t want to feel guilty. Let’s call them “decadent pleasures.” Of course I love dessert, and I’ll get to that, but when I’m craving something salty, I go for spicy chicken wings – there’s nothing better than going to a divey sports bar for spicy wings. I also love a simple pasta – spaghetti cacio e pepe with salt and parmesan. And who doesn’t love salt and vinegar chips?
Well, they do wreak havoc on one’s breath.
I’m not so worried about my breath. I guess that’s the guilty part – this is the fantasy part and that’s the clean-up. We’ll deal with that later.
As for dessert, I love gooey, warm chocolate chip cookies, and salted caramel or mint chocolate chip ice cream right out of the carton – it’s so satisfying that way. And if I had to choose my last dessert on earth, it would be butterscotch pudding with something crunchy on top for added texture, like a cookie or gingersnap.
Who is your kitchen crush?
My all-time crush is cozy, adorable Jacques Pepin. He’s like the elder statesman of the kitchen. He’s amazing, charming and the man can cook – he’s got the creds!
Season 9 of “Top Chef” is airing. After all this time, how do you keep from getting bored?
I’m sincere about my love of food and my comments on the show. We’re lucky that the chefs that come on every season each have different styles, are from all parts of the country and have backgrounds from all over the world. There’s really never a dull moment. And we have these producers who come up with unbelievable challenges. Because we film every season in a new city, the city becomes a character too, and lends its own flavor to the competition.
There’s currently a Twitter campaign to get Boston as the next “Top Chef” location, and Mayor Thomas Menino has even jumped into the mix. What do you think: Could it happen?
I’d love to be in Boston – Mayor Menino, count me in! I’ve spent summers in Boston and I love it there. Although, I have no say in that decision. It’s no secret that, like with Texas, we work with the tourism boards to experience the city through food, and as we experience it, we expose travelers to what these cities have to offer, so I think it’s great that they’re trying to bring the show there.
What are your favorite restaurants right now?
Barley Swine in Austin, Hawksworth in Vancouver and Parm in New York City – it’s an Italian-American diner that’s fun and creative.
What’s the most overrated food trend?
Cupcakes – I don’t need another one for a long time. I want a slice of good old-fashioned cake. Another trend I’m over is excess without a point, like some restaurants that pile on bacon with foie gras, et cetera. I love those ingredients on their own, one at a time, but all together it can be overload without adding anything to the dish.
How was the experience of writing your memoir, looking back at where you started and now having this dream job?
It was very therapeutic, actually. Day to day, you don’t think about how each and every small event impacted you. I got a chance to reflect on how many events and people and all the food that has been a big part of it. So many of our memories are about associating flavors and smells with events. I thought it was going to be hard to remember those moments, but reliving it through all the great dishes brought it back with amazing detail, like thinking about the smells of the kitchen brought back scenes from my childhood. We celebrate every milestone with food – weddings, birthdays – and we comfort ourselves with food during sad occasions too. Thinking about it in those terms was a great way to experience my story.
Vidya Rao is a food editor at TODAY.com. She feels no guilt after pleasure, as evidenced by the empty box of chocolates in her kitchen.