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Q&A: 'Top Chef' Stephanie Cmar talks donuts, guilty pleasures, and second chances

Posted by Christopher Hughes  October 18, 2013 11:05 AM

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Like former contestants C.J. Jacobsen and Stefan Richter before her, Stephanie Cmar has gotten a chance at redemption. Eliminated in the qualifying round of "Top Chef: Seattle," the No. 9 Park sous chef was invited back this year to right her early exit. For Season 11, Tom Colicchio and Padma Laksmhi have headed to the swamp where "Top Chef" hopefuls have already experimented with Louisiana delicacies like frog, alligator, and turtle meat; prepared heritage gumbo; and recreated iconic dishes at New Orleans' most famous restaurant, Commander's Palace. We caught up with Cmar to find out her favorite foodie spots in Boston and to ask how she prepared for her second go-round on Bravo's hit show.

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Photo courtesy of Top Chef/David Moir for Bravo

It's still early in the "Top Chef" season, but so far, how are you enjoying your experience in New Orleans
It's so fun to see such a cool part of my life recorded and on TV every week. I'm loving it! I had to work last Wednesday, but my dad was texting me a play-by-play every five seconds.

How familiar are you with Cajun and Southern cooking?
Well, I read most of John Besh's "My New Olreans" and I Googled some stuff before I arrived.

Is that how you prepared for the season?
That's how I prepare for everything. I was just Googling where Dana Carvey is in life, right before our call.

There's a couple of chefs for New Orleans, Michael Sichel and Justin Devillier, do you feel that they have an advantage over you and some of the other chefs who aren't as familiar with Cajun cuisine?
Definitely in New Orleans-related challenges, just because it's what they cook everyday in their restaurants. And they both work in insane restaurants. Galatoire's has been around for a zillion years and Justin's restaurant (La Petit Grocery) has been nominated so many times for the James Beard award. So, in that regard, yeah, but it doesn't matter too much to me.

One of the most memorable moments from any "Top Chef" season was when guest judge, Roy Choi, in season 10 described how important Emeril Lagasse had been in his career. What chefs have inspired you?
If you look at my resume I've worked with Barbara Lynch for four years, at three of her restaurants. I'm going on my fifth year in April. She's definitely been the biggest inspiration for me. You just watch the way she thinks and works and it inspires me to think more about my food.

Did your first experience on "Top Chef: Seattle" leave a bad taste in your mouth? What made you decide to come back?
It left me wanting to be better. It definitely was one of those moments where I had to take a step back and figure out where I was going. It sucked! It wasn't a good experience. It definitely took me months and months to recover. That being said, Kristen (Kish) was going through it and I just wanted to be excited for her. That was more important than being self-loathing.

It must have been exciting to see your good friend winning it all though, particularly in the fashion that she did it, coming up through Last Chance Kitchen.
Oh my goodness, she's such a superstar. The thing is, when you know Kristen, you know everything she touches is going to be great. I was so proud of her.

Has she had some good advice for you regarding "Top Chef: New Orleans"?

Oh, she's had the best advice. She actually played devil's advocate a lot. She asked me all the relevant questions like, "Do you really want to do this again? Or are you just doing it because you think you have to?" But she was also just really adamant on not thinking too far ahead. She told me to just focus on doing my best and not worry about winning the challenges. After the judges come around, that's when you can start thinking about winning.

How did your experience working for the Barbara Lynch Gruppo prepare you for what you're facing on the show?
I worked at B&G Oysters for a year and a half, then I worked at Stir for a year and a half, and I've been at No. 9 (Park) for a little over a year now, so I've gotten a chance to work for, not only chef Barbara, but all the incredible chef de cuisines that she has. And I have to say that No. 9 was the most incredible training experience for me. Chef Patrick Campbell, whose now at Eastern Standard, and specifically, chef Scott Jones just were so willing to teach me everything I didn't know. Working there has completely changed the way that I cook.

You made a killer cocktail on the show, emulating Tory McPhail's strawberry "blood and sand." Besides the biscuit, that put you in the top three in the challenge. Do you have any experience as a mixologist?
That was the first cocktail that had more than two ingredients that I've ever made. I'm a pretty big wine drinker. I'm not a heavy cocktail drinker except for the fruity ones. Gin and tonic, vodka and soda, or whiskey and ginger ale; those are the things that I know how to make.

The Quickfire challenge this week featured played out food trends as chosen by Food & Wine magazine's Dana Cowin. She chose items like kale salad, smoked dishes, and bacon. What are some food trends that you think have gotten out of hand?
I like everything, but I guess the cheeseburgers that have 4,000 things on them, like a fried egg, etc. I'm never going to order that because it just sounds like a complete mess. But if it tastes good, whether it's trendy or not, I'm going to love it.

Speaking of burgers, what are your foodie guilty pleasures?
Grilled cheese is my favorite food. My mom growing up, that was her specialty, so I have a really spot in my heart for that. I love any bowl of noodles: pho, ramen, you name it. I also love any ice cream or donut.

You must have a real affinity for donuts because you're talking about opening your own shop in Boston called Stacked. What are some of good donut spots that have influenced you to go in that direction?
Flour Bakery makes an awesome donut on Sundays. Union Square Donuts is awesome! Then outside of Boston, Donut Vault in Chicago is bomb and Donut Plant in New York really has the best donuts.

Outside of Barbara's restaurants, what are some of your favorite restaurants around Boston?
When I go out with all my friends and whatnot we go The Salty Pig. I had one of the best meals I've ever had at O Ya. It's so beautiful there! I love jm Curley for drinks and a really great burger. Oleana, Metropolis, West Bridge, and The Blue Room are also amazing.

Finally, what are your favorite things that you like to cook?
Fresh pasta. I have a real affinity for cooking fish. And I'm starting to really enjoy making pastry.

You can watch Stephanie Cmar continue her campaign to be the eleventh winner of "Top Chef" every Wednesday on Bravo at 10pm EST. And stay tuned because we'll be catching up with Cmar later on in the season!

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