Stacy Cogswell on Top Chef Episode 4, ‘Chefs Walk Into a Bar…’

The Regal Beagle chef talks Cheers, her favorite local bars, and life on the chopping block.

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Photo by David Moir/Bravo.

Sad Keanu Reeves has officially been topped, thanks to George Wendt. Padma and the 12 remaining contestants on Top Chef dropped by 84 Beacon Street, and Norm was waiting there, apparently depressed to be revisiting his old Cheers persona. Seriously, how busy could John Ratzenberger be? He couldn’t drop by to cheer up his old drinking buddy?

For the Elimination Challenge, the contestants were tasked with creating tasty bar food from Cheers’ well-stocked pantry. As Wendt nursed his mug of ale, the chefs attempted to wow him with burgers, sliders, and various fried snacks. Loquacious Katsuji was, almost begrudgingly, given the victory (and immunity) for his mahi mahi and tuna ceviche. Wendt looked solaced as he was given his leave, and the chefs joined restaurateur Michael Schlow, owner of Via Matta, the site of this week’s Elimination Challenge.

The contestants broke into teams of three and prepared a three-course Italian menu. Stacy Cogswell joined up with Rebecca LaMalfa and Katie Weinner and made a grilled ribeye dish that sent her into the bottom three for the first time this season. Eventually, James Rigato (the guy with the kickass Patrick Swayze tattoo) and Rebecca were sent packing, there dated interpretations of Italian classics deemed far more egregious than Cogswell’s cold vegetable garnish.

To help us break down this season, we’ve asked Cogswell to give us her insider perspective on each episode. Here, Cogswell recaps all the action from this week’s episode, including her thoughts on accommodating gluten-free diners and the strategy (and perils) behind playing it safe. She also clears up that little anecdote about getting drunkenly booted out of Cheers.

Stacy, aren’t you a local girl? I thought only tourists frequented Cheers.

No, I don’t go there. I only go there when I have people in from out of town. There’s nothing wrong with Cheers, but that’s the only time that locals go there.

You said you’ve have gotten into some trouble there? How is that even possible?

I had friends in from out of town who were way too psyched about being there and they didn’t want to pay for a Cheers mug. After a couple of drinks they were like, “I think I’m going to take this.” And the bartenders said, “No you actually have to pay for those.” And my friends were very adamant about it and said, “No, we’ve bought many drinks, we’re just going to take them.” So, they just asked us to leave. They were actually really nice about it.

Why didn’t they just try to sneak out the mug in a purse or a jacket, you know, like everyone else does?

Well, after that many drinks, there’s no being sneaky. You think you’re sneaky, but you’re really not. You’re just sloppy.

The episode really focused on Boston’s storied bar culture. What are some of your favorite haunts?

I do love Eastern Standard. It’s such a fantastic place to go, especially after a long day at work. I used to haunt Daisy Buchanan’s a lot when I worked in the Back Bay, but they are now sadly closed. There’s nothing better than a good dive bar. When you get out of work and you smell like a kitchen, you want to go to a bar that smells as bad as you.

Why did you decide to make an upscale BLT?

Because it’s the perfect bar food. It’s salty, it’s rich. You have mayo and the crunch from the lettuce, and it’s easy. Everyone can identify with it. And I absolutely did not want to make a burger.

How did you make yours?

Mine was a piece of brioche, which I toasted in olive oil. I then took the middle of my burrata, the creamy inside, and used that as the mayo component. I fried the prosciutto so it made this nice little crispy chip and topped it all with a tomato jam and an arugula pesto.

When it came to the Elimination Challenge, how did you end up choosing your team?

Katie and I were roommates, so we just had that bond and we said, “Yeah, we’re cooking together.” Then I looked up, and Rebecca looked at me, and that was just kind of how it went. I think everyone already had an idea of who they could work well with. I was really excited because I’m good friends with both of them.

And everyone was also avoiding certain people?

Ha! Yep. I think so.

Most of you come from being in a position where you’re expediting in your own kitchens. Is it strange for you to go back to being a line cook?

It’s always fun to go back and be a line cook. It’s like riding a bike. It all comes back so fast. And it was just awesome to have Michael Schlow expediting service. I’ve never worked for him, so it was a cool experience.

The main twist in the episode came when guest judge Emmy Rossum admitted to a gluten allergy. Going gluten-free seemed to trip up a number of chefs on the second course. Should that have been a big deal?

No, not at all. It’s something we all deal with on a daily basis. You’re in the middle of service in your own restaurant and a server will come in telling you someone has a gluten allergy and another diner has a dairy allergy and someone doesn’t eat onions. So, you’re used to dealing with immediate changes like that.

Regarding your preparation, there were a couple of decisions that the judges really questioned. Can you describe your thinking behind pre-slicing the ribeye as opposed to leaving it whole?

I personally love ribeye and all those big pockets of fat. It’s my favorite steak. But I decided to slice it because I knew that I gave them all whole steaks, someone was bound to get one with a lot of fat, which they may not like. I just felt like I was digging my own grave if I left them whole. I felt I could control it better by slicing it. It was a gamble either way. I think picking ribeye in the first place was a gamble.

So in hindsight, do you think you should have chosen a different cut?

Looking back, yeah. I should have chosen a strip loin where you can serve it in nice whole pieces.

Finally, those pre-sauteed veggies, which Tom Colicchio said had been cooked to “within an inch of their life.” You adamantly defended that decision at Judge’s Table. Do you still stick by your choice?

That was a really big fuck-up on my part. It was really hard to watch last night. Our menus were last, and it was toward the end of service. We got slammed at the beginning and everyone was ordering our menu and I was just rolling through so much prep that by the time the last one came I was like, “Shit, I’m out.” It wasn’t a decision that was made ahead of time. Sometimes in service you just happen to really underestimate what you’re going to sell and you’re left with something that sucks, but you have to serve it. It never happens in my restaurant, but it did happen in Top Chef. And I knew it. I knew it immediately. I can admit that now. It was a terrible cooking day.

Can you describe how it feels to be on the chopping block for the first time?

It’s scary as hell! You stand up there and you think you’re going home. And you’re embarrassed. It’s very embarrassing. It’s a lot of emotions and even watching it now, it brings that all back. I’m not cocky at all, but I knew I was better than that.

One of the reasons James and Rebecca were sent home was a lack of creativity. Colicchio said that he felt he’d seen Rebecca’s scallop presentation far too many times before. Does that sort of criticism inspire you to take more risks in the competition?

It definitely does, but it’s still scary. You don’t want to try to pull something off that you’ve never done before. It motivates you to want to be better because it’s such a humbling experience.

Is there a certain strategy as far as playing it safe?

Ugh, yeah. There is. Even the dish I served last night wasn’t too risky and when you’re in that type of situation where you’re trying to appease the general public and sell the most menus, you don’t want to get too crazy. You don’t want to get people who are unfamiliar with things and say, “No I don’t want that.” The biggest mistake I know I made last night—besides the stupid vegetables—was that I was trying to appease the customers rather than the judges.