Stacy Cogswell Breaks Down Top Chef: ‘This Is War’
War was the dominant theme on Top Chef Episode Five, as the remaining 10 contestants were pitted against each other in head-to-head battles in both the Quickfire and Elimination Challenges. It made for good viewing despite the stodgy, contrived Revolutionary War element. Winning chefs were reduced to yawping and waving tattered battle flags, while one sad reenactor meandered about, occasionally popping off his musket.
The other main, overly earnest theme was the idea of scarcity and war rationing. Guest judge Jamie Bissonnette (Toro, Coppa) explained that each team of five was only going to receive a $1,000 budget to feed 100 people. Reynolds Wrap clearly sponsored the entire episode, but it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see Tom Colicchio, his head wrapped in gauze, hawking war bonds.
For the second week in a row, local contestant Stacy Cogswell ended up in the bottom three for her marinated beets with pecan-sage yogurt and horseradish brittle. But with human buffer Aaron Grissom around, there’s always a chance of escape. Inexplicably, Grissom insisted on making more seafood and xanthan gum noodles and was finally sent packing—presumably to an apartment decorated wall-to-wall with Blink-182 and Sublime posters.
Once again, Cogswell joined us to lend her insider perspective. Here she recaps all the action from last night’s episode, including her reaction to seeing her own tired visage on television, her decision to cook vegetarian, and the surprise contestant she sees as a “force to be reckoned with.”
How does it feel to have made it into the final 10?
When I first was approached about being on Top Chef, I made a small goal. I just wanted to make it through three episodes. So, after I made it through three, I bumped it up to six. I didn’t even realize it was down to 10 at the time. But watching it last night, it felt like an accomplishment.
It seems like this is the part of the competition where fatigue starts to set in. Was the anxiety and the grind of the show starting to wear on you a little?
Oh yeah! As I was going through it, I thought, “Man, am I getting tired.” But watching it last night, I said, “Whoa, look at my face!” I definitely needed sleep. It’s a grueling competition that takes a lot out of you. At that point, when you’re down to that few people, you start losing sleep and you’re stressed out.
Instead of settling in, did it actually become more stressful for you as it dragged on?
Absolutely. Every time someone goes home, it gets more real. As I was going through the Quickfire and Elimination Challenges up until then, it didn’t seem real. I was just thinking about cooking. But after watching people drop like flies, the only thing going through my head was, “Shit!” and “I need a nap.”
When I interviewed Tom Colicchio before the season, he was saying that the fatigue factor was the main reason the show no longer invites on amateur cooks or caterers. As someone who is conditioned to the grind of a professional kitchen, how did it compare to your experience on Top Chef?
It’s still the same amount of hours, but when you’re in your restaurant, you’re dealing with a lot of everyday stresses: Oh my god, we got killed last night and we have a huge prep list and lunch service and my dishwasher called out sick, whatever. But the competition is a very different kind of stress. The whole nation is watching you, you’re on a stage, and you’re trying to perform the best you can. Being the only one from Boston, I put a lot of pressure on myself.
You felt a need to represent the entire city?
Watching it on television like the rest of us, you get to see some stuff you didn’t when you were actually there cooking. Case in point: Keriann saying she chose you to compete against in the Quickfire because she considered you the weakest chef left in the competition. Were you surprised by that?
I definitely was surprised, but everyone has an opinion. If that’s what she thinks, I can’t fault her for that. What you have to remember is that it is a competition and your brain is forced into do-or-die mode where everyone is an enemy. But yeah, I was surprised [by Keriann].
When it came to choosing who you’d go against in the Elimination Challenge, you turned around and chose her. Was that because she had called you out earlier in the show or was there some residual ill feelings from your time on her team in Episode Two?
No, it was just because she had chosen me in the Quickfire and it had been such a close decision. I was right there, so I wanted a redo. I wanted my chance to beat her.
In the Elimination Challenge each team had only a $1,000 budget to feed 100 people. You became a focus as you talked about your childhood experiences, and starting to work by the time you were 14 just to afford school clothes. How do think that prepared you for the constraints of last night’s challenge?
I came from very basic means and had to make my own way. I basically had to everything for myself. It made me a smarter chef in the kitchen, having to ration and save money. The budget wasn’t a difficult thing for me. I’ve done it a million times. I can feed myself on $5 if I really have to. Hell, I can do it for $1 and not have to resort to McDonald’s. I’ll never eat that.
Did that influence your decision to go vegetarian for last night’s dish?
No, we were outside and it was a nice day, so I thought people would want something fresh and refreshing rather than something that sticks to your gut. There’s already been so much focus on protein in the competition thus far. I wanted to focus on something different.
It seemed like everyone on your team got to choose who they wanted to go up against. Yet when Aaron said he wanted revenge on Katsuji, everyone shot him down and kind of shunned him to the back.
The team wasn’t comfortable with that. Katsuji is really a force to be reckoned with. I know about the taco debacle in the Episode One, but he’s super talented. At this point in the competition, he’s learned to scale back on the number of ingredients he’s using and simplify things. It’s making his food stellar! So, we weren’t comfortable with scallop noodles and meatballs going up against Katsuji.
Well, that brings up my next point. The judges criticized your team for not intervening in regards to Aaron’s dish. It didn’t seem like any of you were comfortable with what he was making, so why didn’t anybody say anything?
Yeah, there was a big controversy regarding that. My feeling on it is this, he’s an executive chef and he was adamant about what he wanted to make. I didn’t want to tell him no. If you say you got it, you got it. I’m going to trust you since you’ve come this far in your career. I can’t speak for the rest of my teammates, but I think we were all in the same boat.
Were you actually confident your team could win?
I really thought we were going to take it. I tasted Mei’s, Adam’s, and Melissa’s dish before the battle and I thought they were all winners.
Guest judge Jamie Bissonnette said he wouldn’t put your beet dish on his menu. Did you like it enough to put it on your menu at Regal Beagle?
Absolutely, I thought it was delicious. Everyone has different palates. If Jamie Bissonnette wouldn’t put it on his menu, okay, maybe it’s not his style. Sorry.