The Top Chef Tour rolled into town this week with contestants Kevin Gillespie and Mike Isabella on hand to perform cooking demos and dish about the show. The Top Chef gossip was mildly interesting as was their demo schtick, but what the pair had to say about the Chicago food scene and the importance of organic food made the event worthwhile. Here are some of the more interesting items from the Q&A:
Q: Where did you guys eat last night?
Gillespie: We ate at the Publican and then we went to Big Star after that.
Isabella: Yeah, we did a lot of eating. We hung out in the corral and they closed the barn doors on us and threw everything in there.
Gillespie: We’re still under the stress of dinner last night.
Q: What did you guys eat at Publican?
Gillespie: We ate almost the entire menu.
Isabella: I think my favorite last night was the ham chop.
Gillespie: Yeah, and we had the suckling pig, too. They just told me to order and I started rattling off pretty much every thing. We probably had six too many dishes. And then we went and ate all the tacos at Big Star, too.
Isabella: We had our first round of entrees and then another round of entrees.
Gillespie: Good times.
Q: You speak of the importance of grass-fed beef and buying organic and stuff like that, but where do you guys really think it matters to spend the money?
Gillespie: I think you should splurge on the meat that you buy. It is costly to buy better quality, but it means a lot. Aside from the flavor difference, the quality of life of the animals between the animals from birth to processing is a great deal different when you buy a high-quality animal that’s been raised naturally. Olive oil is another one when you’re talking about something that’s going to be used for garnishing and for salads, buy a good quality olive oil. It’s amazing the difference that you’re going to see versus one that’s cheap and crappy. The final thing that you should spend your money on is butter. It’s a million times better than cheap butter. Land O’Lakes butter is probably what we all grew up on and ate most of our lives and it’s fine, but the first time you eat a real Normandy butter the flavor difference is so strikingly noticeable.
Isabella: 5% of Americans use organic or farm-raised pigs. We eat 95% factory pigs that live in pens, not feeding them right, not letting them walk around and move free range. Whenever I shop it’s organic chicken, it’s organic pig and I stay away from a lot of the big brands because a lot of them are like…[shudders]
Gillespie: Beyond the morality of what it means to the animal’s life itself, we have to think about what it means for our life. Factory farming is a very detrimental practice for our environment and our quality of life. The run-off from these factories leaks into our water supply so we end up suffering regardless of whether or not we’re eating organic stuff anyhow. It has to be a marked trend for us to choose to make this difference. The only way it will go away is if as a group we decide to make these changes.
Q: How did cooking in different places change you?
Gillespie: I moved to Oregon for a few years to work out there because I was intrigued by their commitment to sustainability and local food in every genre of food that they serve out there. And I mean from fast food up. You can go to a fast food restaurant out there that’s using freshly ground Oregon beef and fresh strawberries for their milk shakes, and sort of that understanding that you could commit to that at every level of cuisine from the highest to the lowest really changed my perspective on it. It made me really take this commitment seriously and realize there are no excuses. Understanding the simplicity and focusing your flavors to hit people over the head – that experience changed the way I cook dramatically.
Isabella: When I went to California actually, and seeing the product and the produce that people always talked about and the farmer’s markets. And that’s when a couple of years ago I went wow, I do really need to focus on creating all local and sustainable and organic. The product is so much better, and it’s product that’s so hard to get on the East coast compared to the West coast.
Q: What do you think is the future of cooking?
Gillespie: I hope it brings more chefs committing to the quality of product that they use. But not eating to stroke their egos about it. I prefer when people just do it and don’t gloat about it and stand on a high horse and tell everybody. I think they other thing that I hope to see is a modification or reintroduction of fine dining back into the country. Not the way it used to be — not the old fashioned stuffy, really brutally long service kind of thing — but chefs that want to commit to every dish being perfect but able to do it in an atmosphere that’s a little more relaxed that we all feel comfortable in. I don’t like wearing a suit when I go out to eat. I prefer to wear jeans and a t-shirt, and I don’t think that should prevent you from eating the finest, most perfectly prepared food around.
Isabella: For me it’s working more with the local farmers, organic, really good food and hopefully having some of the channels that offer cooking shows not just working with sponsors serving cheddar-cheese stuffed bacon hot dogs, but something healthy there. Showing better food, working with the markets more, where TV shows have better product. The kids that are growing up, going to school, seeing these shows that are just like three item meals or $10 meals — which doesn’t always give you the right stuff to do.
Gillespie: The perspective shouldn’t be so much on how to do it cheaper or how to do it faster, but how to do it right.