“Being on Top Chef Masters felt really great. I honestly enjoyed competing and hanging out with people who are passionate about cooking. It was refreshing and brought back memories of why we are all here. I’m glad I got to throw around some laughs and knowledge and exchange stories. You are never too old to compete or jump out of a plane! I know I took some chances, but I would rather show what I can really do than skate by with an average dish. My cooking is driven by passion—and in this case, pure charitable love. I really felt like I was working for happiness on the show, which is what we do for a living anyway!” —Chef David Burke
OUT OF THE FRYING PAN AND INTO THE FIRE WITH DAVID BURKE KITCHEN EXECUTIVE CHEF CHRIS SHEA
Top Chef Masters was Executive Chef Chris Shea’s first time working on television, and an experience he will not soon forget!
Can you describe the overall experience of the show? It was crazy! We had a great group of people that really defined the experience for me and made it a lot of fun to be a part of.
How do you think you did? At first, I second-guessed myself too much. Then I gained more confidence and realized that I wasn’t alone in this: I was there for David! That made it a lot easier.
Did you know ahead of time that the chefs and sous-chefs would be split up? No idea at all! We had no idea what we were walking into. We certainly didn’t think Top Chef Masters would be easy, but it would have been better, for me at least, if we were working as a team.
Was it stressful to think that your work affected chef Burke’s challenges? Totally. I’ve worked for Chef Burke for more than 10 years. I was never worried that he’d personally be upset at me, but that I would screw it up for him in the kitchen. If I had done better, he wouldn’t have had to jump out of a plane. Luckily for me, it turns out he really enjoyed that experience!
You face daily stress during service at a restaurant—why was this different? In a competition setting, they are constantly highlighting the most stressful aspects of working in a kitchen, which makes it even more stressful! If a batch of fresh vegetables arrives in my kitchen, I can sit down with my staff and discuss what we are going to do with it. We have hours to plan. If an hors d’oeuvres party is announced, we have weeks to discuss the menu. And even if a pop-up party happens with an hour’s notice, I have resources to pull from. I have the entire Lower Manhattan area to scour for ingredients, or I can call another one of David’s restaurants. I have options. In a competition, you are in an enclosed area at the mercy of what you are given. So whatever you think you are going to do for that challenge usually goes out the window the moment the timer starts!
But you had a great kitchen to work in? Absolutely, but it wasn’t my kitchen. Every kitchen is set up differently. You could walk me in blindfolded into my kitchen on a Tuesday afternoon and I would be able to tell you where everything is—where the ricer is, that this mandolin is sharper than that one, that the slicing machine needs to be moved this way to work properly because it got dinged two weeks ago. I know where every bottle of olive oil and every box of salt is. Here you have to learn, and learn quickly, because you can waste a lot of time you can’t afford by looking for a mixing bowl or a piping bag. There’s the fridge, there’s dry storage, there’s your equipment, and this is what you have to do—now do it right now!
What else was challenging? Not all cooking processes can be done in 30 minutes, so I often found myself doing the best I could given the circumstances, which meant doing things you wouldn’t normally do. I also had to learn the mechanics of a different cooking system. Here, we prepped in one area and cooked in another. If I had to make something very quickly at work, I would take over a station and stand over the stove, so that way I could chop and cook and watch the pot all at the same time. It’s just different.
What did you take away from this experience? That I am probably not destined to be a TV star, but I had a great time. And if I had to jump out of a plane to win, I would have too!