If you’re a Top Chef obsessive, it’s hard to chat with finalist Ed Cotton without eventually working the conversation around to his Season 7 flirtation with fellow cheftestant Tiffany, or if he still thinks that Alex stole his pea puree. But if you’ve been following his career since the show, it also seems a bit silly to dwell on his TV stint for too long, because the unassuming, nose-to-the-grindstone chef is anything but a wannabe celebrity.
“First and foremost I’m a restaurant chef, and I’ll always be a restaurant chef,” insists Cotton, who recently took the top toque position at Sotto 13 in the West Village, and whose resume includes stints for Laurent Tourondel at BLT Market, and Daniel Boulud at db Bistro Moderne and Daniel. “I didn’t go on the show to become a reality star. I wanted people to take me seriously as far as cooking goes, because I’m a serious chef. Always have been and always will be,” he continues. “I just never wanted anyone to think I went on the show to rise to some imagined celebrity status and forget about running a kitchen.”
And at the understated but elegant Sotto 13, a wood-fired pizzeria and small plates spot nestled on a leafy, residential street in the West Village, Cotton is excited to showcase what he’s really about — French technique applied to approachable Italian. There’s Prawns ‘Saltimbocca,’ cloaked in Prosciutto di Parma, Lemon Aioli and Fried Sage, Meatballs bound with Ricotta Cheese and strewn with Pine Nuts and Pomodoro, fresh cut Rigatoni with Spicy Lamb Sausage, Grilled Octopus and Toasted Breadcrumbs, and even a surprising Baked Pigs Feet Parmesan, blanketed in Mozzarella Cheese, Slow Roasted Tomato Sauce and Basil.
“I just couldn’t bring myself to do a chicken or eggplant parmagiana, so I thought out of the box and incorporated pigs feet instead,” Cotton smiles. We also spoke with the chef about the current restaurant trend that really drives him crazy, the one thing he’s proudest of in his career, and why (if not for the attention) he decided to compete on Top Chef in the first place.
Did you always want to be a chef, growing up?
Yes, ever since I was a little kid. My family owned a restaurant in Massachusetts, and my dad graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, so I grew up in the business. Cooking is the only thing I’ve ever done.
You’ve worked with some big names in the industry. What’s the most formative, career-related lesson that you’ve taken away from each?
When I worked with Lauren Tourondel I learned about the importance of creating recipes that actually consistently work. The BLT restaurant group is massive, and the dishes need to be identical in each and every location. Working for Daniel Boulud, I learned about different French techniques, which I still use in this kitchen, even though it’s Italian. For example, I have a pig’s foot dish that is actually quite French in execution, even though the flavors are Italian.
How would you describe your personal style or point of view as a chef?
I worked for a lot of French people, so French inspired and Italian influenced is definitely my thing.
What made you decide to compete on Top Chef?
Honestly, it was all about the money. To be selected to compete on a show where the reward is $125,000, obviously I’m going to go for it. I was hoping to get a check in my hand. And I wanted to cook how I cook… I didn’t go on to brand myself or become a celebrity or reality star; I don’t care about any of that stuff. I wanted to go on the show, get some money or get real close to getting some money, meet some people, and show America what my style of cooking is.
You did very well on the show, making it all the way to the finale. What do you think it takes, besides sheer talent, to be successful on a show like that?
Don’t overanalyze too much. Cooking should come naturally. You shouldn’t overthink or overwork anything. All you need to do is make sure you put salt and pepper in everything, and don’t over or undercook anything. Just cook great food every day, and you will advance.
Have you lived down the pea puree episode, or do people still bring it up?
Not so much anymore, but for a long time it was a hot topic.
How did you end up becoming sous chef for Cat Cora on Iron Chef America?
I was working at Daniel at the time, and a coworker there was helping Cat on the show. He told me they were looking for someone else because he couldn’t do the next season, so he gave me her assistant’s email and they got back to me in half an hour to set up a meeting. I was supposed to do two shows, but it lasted a bunch of seasons.
So what brought you to Sotto 13? You haven’t exactly had an Italian throughline during the course of your career.
The ability to create fresh pasta. I’ve always loved making pasta; it’s very therapeutic. Another big draw was being able to work with the big, wood-fired oven. It’s a fun element to the restaurant and I can put whatever I want in there. I do Roasted Snails in there, and our little Lasagnas. Whatever I can possibly throw in there, I do. I’m currently doing an Octopus Pizza with Octopus Salami that’s thinly sliced and draped on the pie when it comes out of the oven.
If you were to eat as a guest at your restaurant, what would you order and why?
The Duck Carbonara. I love that. The Meatballs. The Wild Mushroom Ragu is great. And my favorite pizza on the menu right now is the Capicola, with Red Onion Marmalade, Ricotta and Mozzarella Cheeses, and thinly sliced Red Onions. The Pig’s Feet Parmesan is great, too.
Are there any ways in which competing on Top Chef improved your performance in an actual kitchen?
It’s all about time management, either on the show or in the kitchen. It shows you how much you can do in a small amount of time if you have everything mapped out and ready to go and you’re mentally and physically prepared.
What current trends in the restaurant industry do you really embrace, and which do you wish would just die already?
One thing I wish would go away are restaurants where servers look like they just rolled out of bed and have winter hats and flannels on. And on top of that, they’re still expensive. If I’m going to spend money, I want to get waited on by someone who actually looks groomed. I like more of a professional, polished atmosphere. A thing that I embrace right now is the awareness of all natural, heritage, farm grown products. I’d rather buy from farms that treat their animals as if they were their own. It costs a bit more money, so I’d like for people to understand that when they come to a restaurant and the pork costs a little more money than at the place down the street, it’s because the pork at the place down the street is coming from a pig that was not happy. I love that chefs are really on board with sourcing the best possible products for their customers.
What are some of your greatest guilty pleasure foods?
I like gummy bears. I don’t snack too much, but I have a love affair with hummus and pita.
Do you cook at home often, and if so, what are some of your go-to dishes?
I cook mainly breakfast. Eggs and refried beans or something like that.
What are some of your favorite places to eat in the city, besides your own, of course!
I used to go to Great NY Noodletown after work… you can order everything off the menu and your bill is only, like, thirty dollars.
What would you say is the single greatest achievement in your career thus far?
Still being here in New York. Sometimes, this city can chew you up and spit you out and send you back to wherever you came from. So I feel lucky that I’m still here, and that I’ve kind of made a name for myself in the city; not a big name, mind you. Working for Daniel Boulud has also been the highlight of my cooking career, creating recipes and training young chefs.
I would imagine your goal, as it is for most chefs, is to eventually open your own restaurant. Have you thought about where it would be, or what it would be?
Eventually yeah, I’d love to have my own restaurant. Where would it be? I’ve bounced back and forth. I’ve lived in Long Island City, Queens for four years now, and have seen that neighborhood just completely blow up. So a part of me would love to open something over there. What would it be? I’d love to have something along the same lines as this, with a wood-fired grill and maybe a rotisserie with a lot of fresh, homemade pasta. I mean, the menu here is entirely my creation, so it really represents what I would do at a restaurant I owned myself.