Say what you will about Nikki Cascone, the girl has got heart. She was the latest chef to leave the Top Chef kitchen, but you've not heard the last of her. With one successful restaurant under her belt, she's got another one in the works, as well as a line of service hospitality wear on the way.
If you're wondering what she thought of her time on Top Chef, and more importantly, what she thought about all the comments on the internet, then you're in luck. I got to chat with her yesterday morning, and while she was a bit defensive — did you know her cooking style isn't rustic Italian? — she was definitely lovely. To hear what she had to say,
YumSugar: How'd you end up on Top Chef?
Nikki Cascone: That's funny actually. I have a restaurant and one of my servers kept harassing me to try out. I watch the show, but never thought about it while watching. I'm not sure why, I just never did. But soon it caught on at the restaurant and everyone was telling me to audition. They my boyfriend, who's also my restaurant partner, got involved and they sent my resume in. I didn't even know until the producers called.
YS: Was the experience what you were expecting?
NC: Way more than I expected. I was blown away by the competition. I keep referring to it as culinary boot camp. It was really tougher than I thought it would be. I never thought it would be that hard.
YS: What was it like watching yourself on TV?
NC: Very hard. I watched the first airing, but when repeats are on, I have to change the channel. The editing, just everything. We're not actors, we're chefs. We come from a whole different mentality.
YS: Did you think you were edited poorly, or were you okay with how you were portrayed?
NC: I'm in the middle. I didn't really have that many high points, so I feel like the editing was all low points. There were a few moments that were good and it felt great. I guess I was on long enough to feel like I accomplished something.
YS: You ended up making a lot of pasta this season. If your style is rustic homemade Italian how . . .
NC: [interrupts] Actually, it's not though. I'm Italian, but my cooking style isn't necessarily Italian. Everyone thinks that it is.
YS: Oh sorry, I was under that impression as well.
NC: Yeah, it seemed that way on the show, but you know I have never cooked in an Italian restaurant in my entire life. It's strange, everyone thinks my restaurant is Italian, but it's not. It's an eclectic bistro-style menu, there's some Italian, some Thai. I mean pasta is definitely something I'm passionate about, it's an art.
YS: What was it like being criticized so much?
NC: It was tough on the chopping block, but not as hard as seeing everything on the blogs. To me, I don't like it when they get personal. As much as I don't want to read them and get caught up in them, it's difficult. The whole thing is such a big part of pop culture. I'm very concerned with the perception of my restaurant, so I do get caught up and take it personal a bit.
YS: Do you have anything you want to say to the blogs out there?
NC: [laughs] No, part of what makes blogging beautiful is that they get to say whatever they want and I have to respect that. I don't want to get in a war with all the bloggers, like me against them. While I do appreciate their honesty, it just would be refreshing to see fewer personal attacks.
YS: Do you regret not spearheading the wedding menu?
NC: I'm going to stand my ground on that one and say that I did a bit. I was assertive, you just don't have a lot of room when working with a personality like Dale. Lisa, Spike, and I did work well together and I felt they asked me for advice. I had the cake recipe, and I did a bunch of things that the team wouldn't have been able to do.
These guys are hardcore Asian food people, all three of them. I think another thing that should be pointed out was that although I was working with great quality chefs, they haven't cooked Italian food much. So it's hard to train people under these circumstances when you're tired and worn out.
YS: How long were you guys awake?
NC: I can't talk about behind the scenes things, but it was definitely over a day. 14 hours, no big deal, but 24 hours and up it wears on anybody. It's such a mental drain and then you had the physical aspect on top of that.
YS: A lot of our readers have pointed out that this season has been very catering heavy, would you agree?
NC: Oh big time! Definitely so. There's a lot of tricks of the trade that you learn by being a caterer. My restaurant gets asked often, but I turn them down. I feel if I can't do a great job, I'm not going to put it out there. It's challenging, and is a whole great ball of elements that have nothing to do with running a restaurant. People train to be caterers.
YS: So what was it like at judge's panel?
NC: There were a few moments where I really needed to sit down. I was out of my body. Between the lights, lack of sleep, judges, nerves, and yelling. That was one of the weakest physical moments I've had in my life. I'm scrappier than that, I would have liked to scrap, but I'm not that guy that sits there and fights on the chopping block. It's hard, I knew I was going to be the one going home.
YS: Why do you say that?
NC: First of all, I'm Italian. The majority of their backgrounds are Asian cooking and I'm the Italian one, and they had those expectations. I knew my team didn't mesh, there wasn't one of us that wanted to work with Dale, and he had an integral — not the bulk like it looked like — but integral part.
YS: If you thought you needed to be a team, why did you say that you only took responsibility for your dishes?
NC: That was a quote based on what Spike was saying. He asked why I wasn't getting involved in this argument, and I was saying I have no problem defending my dishes. It definitely wasn't an I'm not a team player thing. The only thing I can say is that throughout the competition I was never that person, so I hope I don't come off like that.
YS: What are you taking away from your experience on Top Chef?
NC: It's unbelievably humbling. You grow as a person without a doubt, leaps and bounds. I think there's very little that intimidates me now, and I think that if you asked me to do it again, I'd do it in a minute. You can't come out of challenging yourself like that without being a stronger person.
YS: So what's next for you?
NC: I have a line of service hospitality wear coming out soon. Front and back of the house uniforms. I have a hard time getting dressed, I'm small and have to order special coats. I'm just trying to make it more urban and fun. I had a hard time finding great uniforms for the front of my restaurant, so I decided to create my own. They'll be out in about six to eight months, the samples are arriving in a few weeks.
I'm also working on a new restaurant. This one will be closer to my heart, very light Mediterranean cuisine. Italy, Greece, Spain, a lot of seafood and lighter fare. More health conscious and organic, that's what I personally love doing.
Top photo courtesy of Jayne Wexler, Hair and Makeup by Don Rockicki
Additional photos courtesy of Bravo