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What made you want to write a children’s book?
One of the best things about doing Top Chef has been meeting hundreds of kids who have watched the show and have become interested in food because of it. [The new book] is a story I told my daughter when she was little. I wrote it down and it got embellished over the years. So when I was asked if I had ever thought about writing one, I was like, “Oh, yes, I have thought very deeply about it.” I think one of the best things you can do for a child is to get them interested in the food they’re eating and encouraging them to have a hand in making that food. Giving them the gift of an appreciation of food is actually giving that child a lifetime of good eating. The book was a great way to carry forward all of this interest in food that young people have had over these years with Top Chef.
You’re gearing up for the second season of Taste the Nation, which tells the origin stories of different types of cuisines in America. Do you believe food has the power to unite us?
I don’t think it’s a cure-all—I’m not so idealistic or simplistic. But it’s a good start. Often, people don’t want to talk to you about religion or politics—they’ve been raised not to, or they know that their views are different—but they’ll discuss food. They’ll talk about their grandmother’s best cookie recipe or their uncle’s meatloaf. Food is a bonding experience between people. There are emotional and physical/biological reasons for that.
How is food a powerful, emotional tool?
Tasting or smelling something can often unlock a flood of nostalgia and endorphins because it hearkens back to a gentler time when that child or person experienced those flavors and smells. So food is something that is much more powerful than just sustenance. Think of everything we do with it in our culture. We do business lunches. We take people out on a dinner date when we’re trying to court them. When we get married, we celebrate by having a wedding feast. When someone dies, we take casseroles to their bereaved loved ones to give them comfort. Food touches all aspects of our society’s existence.
You’ve been a part of Top Chef for many years now. What continues to excite you about the show?
Seeing the transformation that takes place in each individual chef and the group of contestants from day one to the finale is exciting. You see these people solely focused on being the best chef they can in a very high-pressure environment. For me, every season is fresh because I get to go on this life-transforming journey with our contestants.
Interview by Bethany Heitman; Photography by Christian Witkin/Trunk Archive