Stacy Cogswell Breaks Down a Heartbreaking Top Chef ‘First Thanksgiving’
Easily the best episode of Top Chef Boston (at least until next week’s Restaurant Wars) also proved the most disappointing. Season one standout Tiffani Faison (Sweet Cheeks Q) surprised the remaining contestants at home and lured them into an Ocean Spray cranberry bog in the early hours of the morning. As part of the Elimination Challenge, the chefs were tasked with slogging through water and harvesting cranberries to score better ingredients for their eventual cranberry inspired dish. Despite all the hugs and the affectionate hometown shout-outs, Faison deemed Stacy Cogswell’s curried cauliflower soup one of the worst, continuing a demoralizing string of near-losses that sent The Regal Beagle chef into a melancholy tailspin for much of the episode.
If you’re a Top Chef fan, you learn to grow wary of contestants staring wistfully through a window, Skyping with loved ones, or getting a suspicious amount of airtime. Cogswell hit upon that maudlin trifecta as the chefs headed into the Elimination Challenge at Plimoth Plantation where the nine remaining contestants were saddled with creating a Thanksgiving feast using nothing but open fires, wooden utensils, and ingredients the pilgrims brought over on the Mayflower.
Joining the judges at the 17th century pilgrim village were Ken Oringer (Clio, Uni) and descendants of both Mayflower passengers (including Puritan & Co.’s Will Gilson) and Wampanoag tribe members. Despite the limitations on cutlery and ingredients, the chefs wowed with the judges giving resounding praise—the only exception being Gregory Gourdet’s rubbery goose. But you can’t send home the clear favorite, especially with eight episodes still to go, so Cogswell was sent packing due to an overabundance of smoke and thyme in her ramp-smoked clams that were roasted on hot rocks and plated in the dirt.
As always, The Regal Beagle chef joined us after the episode to lend us her insider perspective. Here, Cogswell recaps all the emotions and cut-throat action behind “The First Thanksgiving,” her final episode until Last Chance Kitchen.
Did you watch the episode last night, in spite of the disappointing ending?
Oh, absolutely! It wasn’t disappointing for me at all. It was bittersweet and I’m just proud of putting myself out there on the show. It wasn’t hard, I was actually excited to watch it. It was a fun episode regardless.
Was it almost therapeutic to watch it and get it out of your system?
Yes, the anxiety is finally gone now.
What had to be frustrating is that you made good dishes, the judges just had to find some faults in order to send someone home.
Yeah, everything was great, but the judges were at the point where they had to nitpick. I get it. I was actually fine with it.
Well, I’m going to say this now because I’ve been dying to get this off my chest. The one major thing that I learned about myself through doing this was: I really, really love what I do and if I’m not happy doing it, I’m doing myself a disservice. I’m that type of person that genuinely loves it and if I’m not cooking happy, my food doesn’t taste happy. If that makes sense. I know that sounds corny.
When I was watching the episode, I couldn’t help thinking that you looked tired. At that point, were you just ready to go home?
The thing that was tough was filming in Boston and being the only one from here. I’ve personally put a lot of pressure on myself to the point where I was losing sleeping. I wasn’t sleeping and I was super stressed out. When you’re dealing with those kinds of stresses, it’s really hard to be the best that you can be. I just couldn’t ignore that anymore. I grew up two towns from Plimoth Planation. I used to go there every year for school trips and shit. It was just hard. And yeah, I was really, really tired.
Were you happy with your clam dish?
Yeah, I actually was really happy with it, mostly because it tasted good, but also because of the way I got to cook it on hot rocks with ramp leaves. It was something I had never done before and I just thought it was really cool to be cooking that rustically, without all the bells and whistles that are in professional kitchens now.
With that dish, had you already decided to cook that before seeing the rustic setup at Plimoth Plantation?
No, absolutely not. We had to wait until we could see the pantry that they gave us. It’s funny, I don’t even eat clams. It’s a weird texture thing for me. I grew up right off the Cape, so I should eat clams, but I don’t. So, it was weird that I went for that, but when I saw them next to the ramps I immediately thought, “Yeah, this is going to happen and it’s going to be amazing.”
Were you leery of cooking and plating on the ground? Could you have prepared the dish any other way?
Of course, but there was no other option. When we first got there and saw the whole setup, we all looked at each other and said, “Shit!” We have pots of water, but no running water. We have clay pots to cook in and spoons. All we had basically was our knives, and what they gave us. I had to make some tough decisions. I could have steamed the clams, but it’s hard to control over an open fire. I thought cooking them on the rocks would be a brilliant idea.
Ken Oringer and Gail Simmons repeatedly said they were getting a trace “muskiness” from your dish. Was that from the thyme or potentially even dirt from the ground?
I don’t where the muskiness would have come from unless it was the smoke. Maybe it was from the slight hint of smoke in the butternut squash. I honestly don’t know where it came from. That surprised me.
Tom Colicchio said that he loved your dish because you were “dirtying up your food.” Throughout the season, he’s criticized this year’s crop of contestants for playing it too safe. Do you feel like going out on a limb is what ultimately ended your Top Chef run?
I don’t. It’s funny in a lot of past season you’d hear a chef said, “I took a risk.” And I’m actually kind of tired of that. I just cook. I wasn’t thinking, “This is risky.” I was thinking, “How am I going to make this work?”
Did they send the right person home?
Hmm, that’s a tough one. Greg are Melissa are so super talented and they really wanted it so bad. It wasn’t that I didn’t want it, but I went into it thinking, “It’s cool that Top Chef called me, but it might not be the thing for me.” I’m not super competitive, but I gave it a shot. Ultimately, I think they made the right decision, and I know that sounds bad to say that about myself. I had fun, it was a great experience, but when it comes to cooking I’m more of a “share the love” kind of chef. I know that sounds so hippie. But I like people too much.
Do you have to have a cutthroat mentality to win Top Chef?
You do. You can’t let your personal feelings get in the way. You have to block everything else out and just fight. I didn’t want to do that to do what I love. I could never be negative about another person who has a passion for this industry and is fighting to do the same thing that I love.
Will your experience on the show translate to what you do professionally?
100 percent yes! Sometimes you have to take a step back and remember why you’re doing what you are doing. As chefs, we work so many long, hard hours, that it’s hard to remember. Top Chef made me take a hard look at myself and my career. I realized that I love being around food. I love being chef.