Bravo's Top Chef Tour stopped in Raleigh today to cook up some local goodness at the North Carolina Farmer's Market.
Former Top Chef contestants Carla Hall (finalist from season 5) and CJ Jacobson (season 3) performed in three live shows today, using food purchased from Farmer's Market vendors. They cooked in front of an audience, taking questions about cooking and about being on Bravo's hit show.
In the morning show, CJ prepared a watermelon salad with a vinaigrette dressing made with raspberries, king crab, radish, mint, shallots, chilies, and arugula.
When CJ was showing the audience how to press the raspberries through a chinois, Carla reminded him, "We're in Raleigh. It's a strainer."
Carla is a native southerner, raised in Nashville, Tennessee, and said she loves returning to the South. She recently judged a cooking competition in Blowing Rock -- Fire on the Rock.
"Coming back home to the south feels like a warm housecoat to me," she said. "It's really nice to be in North Carolina. It's a warm, cozy, comfortable thing."
CJ is from Los Angeles, and was a professional volleyball player before he became a chef. Carla teased him that his watermelon salad dish looked "very California."
Both Carla and CJ said the constructive -- and sometimes harsh -- criticism they received on the show was invaluable. "I loved getting feedback because you don't get feedback from actual chefs too much," CJ said.
Carla looked at the Top Chef experience like a boot camp. She wanted as much feedback as possible, but liked to point out what she knew she had done wrong before the judges chimed in. "That's a pet peeve - being told something I already know," she said. "That's why I had too much chatter with the judges -- I wanted to tell them I already knew what went wrong."
CJ admitted that when you got "chopped" from the show, the experience was "harsh."
"You just want a hug but no one talks to you, they just want the interview." He said when chefs are placed in the holding room before confronting the judges, it's a minimum five hour wait. But there's plenty of booze. "That's why people cry on the show," he explained. Carla said she never drank, and that's how she managed to stay sane during all the judging drama. "I was the designated driver of the show."
Both chefs said they still keep in touch with their fellow contestants. "Stefan calls me at least every other day," Carla said.
Another thing the chefs have in common is that neither grew up in homes with a lot of particularly sophisticated cooking going on. Carla says her mother didn't cook, but her father cooked and both of her grandmothers cooked and were "okay" cooks. CJ said his mother's masterpiece was a taco salad made with iceberg lettuce, thousand island dressing, Fritos, and a taco seasoning pack. "It was frickin' delicious," he said.
Carla's favorite southern dish is a dessert -- lemon chess pie. After explaining to CJ what a "chess pie" is, Carla said her favorite comfort food is meatloaf with peas and rice (she puts sugar and butter in her rice). Cornbread? "Yes, but not the sweet kind. Hot water cornbread." She explains to CJ about frying cornbread on top of the stove (this recipe is close).
While CJ doesn't have a go-to comfort dish, he raved about the ribs he ate the night before at The Pit in downtown Raleigh. "That place is so good," he told Carla. "They were probably the best ribs I have ever had."
And while on the subject of the pig -- Carla came through with the correct answer for her favorite barbecue style: Eastern North Carolina vinegar sauce. When told her answer would make her popular with N&O readers, CJ said, "Me too!"