Carl Dooley Approaches Top Chef with Flavor and Fervor
Cambridge native Carl Dooley simply loves cooking. His unbridled enthusiasm has helped him climb into leadership roles alongside some of the East Coast’s foremost chefs, including Frank Ruta, Eric Ripert, and Tony Maws. In January, his passion will anchor the kitchen at the Table, a full-service restaurant from Season to Taste chef/owner Robert Harris. In the meantime, Dooley hopes his unabashed joy in the kitchen comes across on television screens as he competes on Top Chef season 13—though he’s still a little afraid of looking foolish on the national stage.
Dooley vies for the ultimate title alongside Myers + Chang executive chef Karen Akunowicz, whom we also spoke to in advance of this week’s premiere.
Did you leave Craigie on Main to do the show?
I was actually already leaving Craigie. [Chef/owner] Tony [Maws] had known for a long time I was going to leave, and we were both in a good place with that. Right as I was finishing up with Craigie, the Top Chef opportunity came up. Things really couldn’t have worked out better. I didn’t have a job. I didn’t even really have a plan. The show just seemed like a really good opportunity. I really had no excuses not to. I was on the fence about it, but my wife [Angela Dooley] was the one who said, ‘Dude, you have to man up and just do it. There’s never going to be a better time.’ She definitely pushed me to do it. She’s awesome.
Top Chef has been a launchpad for a lot of talented chefs, but what made you personally want to give it a shot?
I’ve been a fan of the show for a long time, and it just seemed really fun. You get to travel to crazy places, compete in crazy challenges, work with a bunch of other talented chefs, meet a bunch of cool judges. The whole thing, it’s like, why not? It was really about the experience. I’ve always pushed myself to do fun things. The more I thought about it, I was definitely nervous: You’re on national television, you’re opening up to a lot of criticism. What if you make mistakes? But at the end of the day, I really wanted to do it, and my wife gave me the courage, to say, fuck it. Go, cook your heart out, have fun, smile: What’s the worst that could happen? [Laughs]
The other thing that was cool about this experience: How f—king awesome Karen [Akunowicz] is. We’ve both been in the city, but I had never met her before. Part of what was so cool for me was to be able to go on the show with a total badass chef and share that experience and represent our city. That was a huge highlight for me, getting to know her and getting to cook with her.
What about your resume, personality, and your background? How did you get on Top Chef‘s purview?
It’s something I always thought would be cool. I went through the interview process and I was lucky to get on. Once I got on the show and saw everyone’s accolades and hang out seeing what a talented group it was, I felt really lucky to be on the show.
I’ve been cooking for 10 years; I’ve had the privilege to work with a bunch of really talented chefs. Looking at my resume [which includes stints at the Michelin-starred Fat Duck in Bray, England; Craigie Street Bistrot under Tony Maws; Washington, D.C.’s Palena as chef Frank Ruta’s sous chef; and Eric Ripert’s executive sous chef at Westend Bistro at the Ritz Carlton in D.C.], I’ve worked in a bunch of different kitchens with talented people. Once I was able to talk to people on the show, I think it was my excitement about food—the way I approach life, my positive attitude. Hopefully, that positive outlook comes off on the show. I think that’s what got me on the show—really, I just love to cook! It’s my favorite thing to do, and I think they picked up on that and hopefully it comes across on national television.
I was definitely really nervous. Before a challenge, I felt like I was going to throw up. Everyone was giving me a hard time. I was breathing heavy, trying to calm down and really focus. So, either watching the show is going to be fun, or it’ll be like PTSD and I’ll have these flashbacks [laughs]. I think my friends and family will have fun with it. I just hope I don’t look like an idiot.
Let’s talk about that sense of adventure. I read that you got into the industry for the opportunity to travel, and you’ve landed in Vermont, D.C., New York, and Cambridge already. So, was the show’s format of the season something you enjoyed? Was it challenging at all?
We had no idea before we got there what we were going to do, or that we were even going to be in California. But traveling around California was awesome. There is a lot to do. I’ve been in California a bunch, so I felt lucky I was on a season that was in California versus other seasons that were more cuisine-specific in other locations. There’s a really level playing field—you can cook anything you want there, because everything’s in California, whether it’s produce, or cuisines.
Would you have felt more limited if it was a season set in a cuisine-specific region?
I’m not sure I would feel limited. For me, I have a really strong background in classical cooking, but my favorite thing to do is cook and eat. I’ll go to an awesome Thai restaurant, read a Thai cookbook, go to the Thai market, and look around and figure it out. The more and more I’ve cooked, I’ve realized it’s all about flavor. The story behind it, the exact technique, the tiny little rules and all this stuff, to me, has become less and less important and it’s about making something that’s totally awesome. To be honest, I think that’s one of the things I took away from the years I’ve spent with Tony Maws. Technique and the product is incredibly important, but our goal as chefs is to make something that’s craveable that you want to eat and enjoy. That’s more important than what you can dissect and analyze. The older I’ve gotten, the more food I cooked, I realize I know less and less than I thought I did, but it’s really important to make food that’s tasty. And there’s so many different ways to do that: Whether it’s a cup of soup, or a perfect foie gras terrine, or a salad, good food is good food, and that’s our job as chefs to make sure it’s awesome.
Where are you planning to watch Top Chef this season?
I’m definitely going to have friends and family over to the house, so everyone can watch me on the big screen, hopefully not look like an idiot.
Top Chef season 13 premieres Wednesday, December 2, and Thursday, December 3, at 10 p.m. on Bravo.
Note: This interview has been condensed and edited.