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Q & A with Sam Talbot

samtalbot.jpgMost people hate losing.  Not Sam Talbot.  He was eliminated in the finals of Top Chef in season two.  “It was a blessing in disguise,”  Talbot says.  Instead, he seized the opportunity to head up the kitchen at The Surf Lodge in Montauk, New York where he takes full advantage of the local waters. 

Talbot grew up in the south and trained with chef James Burns at J Bistro in Charleston, North Carolina.  By age 23, he moved to New York to become the executive chef at The Black Duck alongside a 42 year old sous chef.   “We lasted about two weeks together,” he says.  Two years later, he opened his first restaurant, Williamsburgh Cafe, to rave reviews.  Chef Talbot, who is diabetic himself, volunteers with The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

This winter, he’ll return to the city to helm the kitchen at the new Mondrian Hotel located in Soho where guests can expect a menu mostly inspired by his love of the ocean.

We hear you recently tied the knot.  How’s that going?  Does your wife cook?
I do the cooking for the most part – what’s the point of being married to a chef if they don’t cook at home?

What did you want to be when you grew up?
A basketball player, a marine biologist, a pro snowboarder, a pro skater, a designer, and a chef.

What was your first job in food?  What did you learn?
My first job was making pizzas at Louisa’s Pizza.  I learned very quickly on exactly what not to do while working for Louisa! My second job was prepping at Dean & Deluca when I was 16.

You were raised in a Sicilian-American family in North Carolina.  Who did the cooking, and was it a mixture of Southern and Italian cooking?  Can we find any of the dishes on your menus now?
To be honest, my cooking comes from everyday inspirations for the most part. Things that I love to eat and cook come from the ocean, The latter part of my childhood and early adult years were spent by the ocean. Would I say my cooking revolves around my childhood and the way we used to eat? No, not at all. It’s living by the ocean, being in it and the salty smells that are so familiar to me – that’s what inspires me to cook the way I do.

At 23 you became the executive chef at The Black Duck – an impressive move by anyone’s standard.  No doubt some of your cooks were older than you.  How did you feel running the kitchen at such a relatively young age?
My sous was 42 and I was 23 – we lasted about two weeks together.  Was I in way over my head? You bet, but it was an experience to say the least.  I submerged myself in cookbooks, websites, the NY times, etc. I had to get up to par and I only had myself. That was my plan, and I stuck to it. It was a rewarding and wild ride and I loved every minute of it. When you’re 23 you can work 6 days week, 16 hours a day and still manage to have a girlfriend, a social life and remember to call mom. Ah yes, the good ole days! HA!!

In Season 2 of Top Chef, you emerged a finalist.  What outlook did you have when returning as a guest judge?  Did you have a greater sense of empathy for your fellow chefs?
It was a trip being on the other side of the table, aka “the dark side”.  It
was all in good fun. I tried to be nice but at some point you have to
be like, what am I eating and why does it taste like this?

were a fan favorite on Season 2, but I remember Tom Colicchio saying
that you “didn’t cook anything,” ending your chances for winning the
competition.  What was your reaction, and would you have done anything differently?  Are you and Tom on friendly terms?
meant that I did a ceviche and didn’t apply heat to it. In actuality I
did two dishes – the other was a dessert that Heather taught me which
had two forms of heat applied. At the time I was upset but it was a
blessing in disguise not to win and I wouldn’t change a thing.

We hear the Mondrian Hotel will be opening up a restaurant with you at the helm in 2010.  Can you give us any further developments, previews?
Lots of Seafood, some fun funky twists and some updated classics, and lots of sharing going on.

You’ve developed a reputation as a drifter, moving from restaurant to restaurant very quickly.  You seem like a budding entrepreneur always coming up with new ideas.  But how would you explain your restaurant choices?
drifter, I like that – it has a good ring to it, right? I’ve only
worked in tiny independent restaurants so teaming up with MHG is a
giant step in the exact direction where I want to end up.

You consider James Burns of J. Bistro in Charleston your mentor.  What are some of the most important lessons he’s left you with, and how do you incorporate them into your own career?
taught me to not to talk so much, listen in the kitchen and always
write everything down. It keeps you on your toes. Its great to be able
to go back and look in an old scratch pad or notebook and fire up some
old thoughts. He taught me that at the end of the day no matter how
slammed or weeded you are or were or will be- we’re just cooking, not
saving lives or curing a horrible disease – just cooking. I tell my
guys and gals the same thing: when it’s a Friday night, sweat is
pouring, there’s high stress and high tension, etc. But in the end,
it’s just food, ladies and gentlemen, just food. I’ll never forget
that, and it’s my mantra in many ways

At only 26 you opened the Williamsburgh Café to great praise.  What was the hardest thing about opening the restaurant?  If you could do it again, what would the concept and food be like?

The hardest part was living above the restaurant. It’s nice to be close but there is such a thing as too close.

As a diabetic, what precautions do you take while in the kitchen?  How has your cooking reflected it?
hide it?  It’s a part of me so I do what I can to embrace it. I eat
everything for the most part – I just do it in moderation, which is
key. Diabetes is all about moderation. As for the way I cook, I try to
cook what I like to eat and what I think my customers want as well.

You worked with Heather Carlucci-Rodriguez to learn pastry.  Had you ever baked before and did you taste your creations while in her kitchen?
studied with Heather because she’s one of the best in the industry and
I was honored to work under her. That was to learn a few tricks for the
finale in Top Chef – unfortunately I don’t bake much.

Which food trends do you embrace?
I really love the increase in urban gardening and CSA’s in different neighborhoods.

What is your favorite dish at The Surf Lodge?
The Surf Lodge would be the scallops for me. As far as the Mondrian goes, there are a few that I love.

What is your least favorite (and yes, you must pick one)?
My least favorite is the mixed greens.

Where do you like to go for a great meal in New York City?
I go to La Nacional.

Is there a kitchen tool you absolutely can’t live without?
Mixing bowls.

Any new projects on the horizon?  Do tell…
I have a several things brewing, however my energy is going into The Mondrian and its success.

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