He's learned that soggy corndogs won't get you too far, but chef Erik Hopfinger has no regrets. We chatted with Erik yesterday afternoon and asked him about his experience on Top Chef and what it was like to have his food torn apart by the judges. We also discovered what the self-proclaimed Pirate Chef has up his sleeve, as well as his thoughts on high-end Mexican cuisine. To find out what he had to say,
YumSugar: What drew you to Top Chef to begin with?
Erik Hopfinger: Basically my PR agent thought it would be a great idea. He thought I'd be perfect for the show and he kinda talked me into it. Once he did I went for it. I didn't really watch the show before, just a little bit here and there, but I thought why not?
YS: Was it what you expected?
EH: It was what I expected and more. Watching it, the challenges seem a lot easier than they are. There's nothing to really prepare you for it. Especially when you can't contact anyone and they've taken your freedom all away and you're in a house with 15 other people.
YS: Were you more uncomfortable in the house, or during the cooking?
EH: For me, cooking is something I'm comfortable doing. Being in the comfort zone helps you be creative, it helps you do what you do well. When you're taken out of your comfort zone, and you don't know what you're doing from one moment to the next well...
YS: Okay, so let's talk about last night's episode. How did you feel when your team got called in second? Were you surprised?
EH: It sucked. I tried the other team's food and it all sucked.
YS: All of it?
EH: Well I tried the mac and cheese and the paella and thought they were both terrible. I mean I guess soggy's not great either. Two of us got kicked out for soggy food.
YS: Do you regret doing the corn dog?
EH: Regret it? No. I was cooking for the kids, I wasn't cooking for the judges.
YS: So you wouldn't do anything different?
EH: No. Basically I came up with the idea. I came up with a lot of the ideas — aside from the pasta salad and chip bar. We all collaboratively came up with the menu. We had 12 bags of hot dogs. Really what are you gonna do with hot dogs? Boil them in beer and serve regular hot dogs? I wasn't going to do that. I did the best with what I had.
YS: How long were you at the judge's table?
EH: Seemed like forever, I don't even know.
YS: What was it like to hear people criticize your food so harshly?
EH: Kinda lame. Especially coming from super-hot Padma. It's a blow to your ego. I mean geeze, Chef Colicchio, he's sitting there saying mayo is okay to sit in the sun and I don't agree with that. I stand by what Ryan chose to do with that salad. To me it seems a bit disgusting to keep it out. And Rick Bayless, I pretty much already said what I have to say about him...
YS: Okay, so I have to ask, why did you say that you didn't get high-end Mexican food and yet in the first challenge you tried to do a Mexican-inspired soufflé?
EH: [Laughs] That wasn't a Mexican soufflé, that was a pepper jack cheese soufflé. I mean actually, I made nachos — whatever with the soufflé stuff. I mean I swear, that was the most heinous of all challenges. I knew it right away, I was number eight and I knew I'd get the soufflé. Honestly, I'd never made a soufflé before. That was my first time.
YS: So why do you think Mexican food can't be high-end?
EH: I don't think Mexican food can't be high-end, I just don't agree with it. Mexican isn't meant to be that fancy. Basically, I work hand to hand with my kitchen staff, and most of them are Mexican. I cook for them, they cook for me and it's not meant to be high-end. I go to Mexico two to three times a year, and I just like Mexican food as it is.
YS: Alright, I can see that. So, what was it like seeing yourself on TV?
EH: It's trippy, it's really weird. I don't know how to describe it. My head looks really big on TV, but there were a lot of tattoo shots, so that's cool.
YS: Were you worried about how you were going to be portrayed?
EH: I was at the beginning, but they can't really turn you into someone you're not. Well maybe they can, but they didn't do that to me. I was myself, this is what you get.
YS: Your restaurant Circa has been doing TC viewings. Have you been there watching them?
EH: No, during the viewings I would basically leave the restaurant for an hour.
YS: Are you going to watch the rest of the season?
EH: I work on Wednesdays, and they're still doing viewings, but I'm not going to go out of my way to watch.
YS: Who do you think could win the season? Are you rooting for anyone in particular?
EH: Definitely Spike. We just got along. I tried a lot of his food and he has a great palate and great ideas.
YS: Are you staying in touch with anyone from the show?
EH: Absolutely. I talk to Spike all the time, Andrew too, and Stephanie is coming to see me. And obviously all the SF people.
YS: Did you know that any of the SF people were going to be on the show?
EH: Prior to the show I hadn't actually met any of them. Although I knew who Ryan was because we both worked for Tom Duffy. We knew who each other were, but didn't actually know each other. It was cool to meet him.
YS: What are you going to take away from this experience?
EH: No more reality TV. I might do cooking on TV or something, but no more reality. If I do do something it'll be my style in flip-flops and shorts and maybe hot sunny places.
YS: Is this something you're looking into? Your own cooking show?
EH: My PR guy and I are definitely weighing a couple of different things, throwing some ideas around. Right now I'm still at Circa and am really happy there. I just put up my own website The Pirate Chef and I'm going to launch my own line of chef coats. Local Bay Area guys, tattoo artists are going to air brush all the sleeves, so they're going to be custom coats. Really cool stuff.
YS: Will you launch stuff for home cooks too? Aprons, etc.?
EH: Probably, there's going to be some cool stuff. Also I love the kitchen, but I want to start my own golf clothing line. There's a lot of younger people playing golf like myself. And they want you in collared shirts, but I think there's a way you can still look good. So keep an eye out for that too.