Top Chef Recap: Yan Can Cook, and So Can Carl

The Table chef Carl Dooley has landed near the top of the judges' lists several times this season, but he had yet to win a challenge—until now.

Carl Dooley talks to judges (L to R) Richard Blais, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, and Umami Burger founder Adam Fleischman. / Photo by Kim White / Bravo

Carl Dooley talks to judges (clockwise from left) Richard Blais, Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, and Umami Burger founder Adam Fleischman. / Photo by Kim White / Bravo

If Carl Dooley ever tires of classic technique at the 20-seat Table, we know what his Plan B could be: The Boston chef finally got a win on last night’s episode of Top Chef for devising an “investor-worthy” fast casual Mediterranean restaurant.

The elimination challenge was almost like “Restaurant Wars: the Sequel,” with the six remaining contestants required to conceive of a quick-service concept and execute it for a room of hungry venture capitalists in 24 hours. To help pull it off, the Bravo producers brought back six of this season’s eliminated contenders, including Karen Akunowicz, who was sent packing last week.

Dooley was paired with Chad White, and together, they served a lamb and piquillo pepper stew with couscous, yogurt, feta cheese, and herb salad, that would be in Tom Colicchio’s lunch rotation, the head judge said.

I loved his concept and that lamb was fantastic,” says Akunowicz. “I think [the] win was a long time coming. Carl was making consistently amazing food all season, and the judges were constantly impressed by him.”

Last night’s episode, “Wok This Way,” ironically featured a Chinese-American cuisine QuickFire challenge, with Martin Yan of Yan Can Cook, that Myers + Chang’s Akunowicz would have “killed at,” Dooley says.


Finally! Congratulations on getting an impressive win.

Thanks! I was really excited. It was a difficult challenge, but was ultimately really fun. It was something I was really proud of. We put out a dish that was really flavorful and represented what we were going for.

It was awesome working with Chad; we had great energy the whole time. I wish we got a little more airtime. He really pulled a lot of weight. I think Chad and I have a really similar personality: We kind of keep our heads down, and make really tasty food. The first thing he said was, ‘This is your concept. I’m going to work my ass off and try to get the win for us as a team.’ We bounced a lot of ideas off each other. He was really helpful. Not only did he do a lot of the work, but cooking is such a collaboration. Having someone there that I trusted to taste stuff, make changes as we went on [was great].

Your concept was well thought-out. Have you seriously considered opening a fast-casual spot before?

I’ve never really thought about it. It’s something that I wish existed; that type of food, I love, and there isn’t really an eastern Mediterranean fast-casual concept out there. When they told us about the challenge, it was something my head immediately went to. It’s something that plays well with food culture now. There’s so much exposure toward the food of the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. It’s food people crave, and is really approachable, and is perfect for a quick lunch.

So, are you filing it away in case?

Maybe. Right now, I have the dream job. The Table is doing great; we’re making awesome food, and having an awesome time. But it’s something down the road, maybe, when I’m 50 and I don’t want to be in the kitchen 70 hours a week, that might be pretty lucrative.

Totally. So, pretty ironic the Chinese-American QuickFire came the week after Karen’s departure.

Yeah, that was too bad! I know. When she heard about the challenge, she was like, ‘Damn!’ That’s one she would have killed at.

I don’t think any of us had really ever cooked on a real wok before. It was definitely an eye-opening experience. But really fun: They did a good job showing there was fire all over the kitchen, everyone was burning stuff [laughter]. It was my first time cooking on a real wok. It was a really cool setup.

And anytime you get to plunge your hand into the lobster tank to start your dish, it’s going to turn out pretty good. I loved that dish. I don’t think I really nailed the chop suey aspect. It was tasty, but not what they were looking for. I roasted the lobster in the shell, and finished it in this super spicy, garlicky, ginger Szechuan sauce. I think Marjorie nailed it when she took the lobster out of the shell and chopped it up with vegetables and everything. But my dish was awesome.

Would eat again.


So, you seem like the celebrity chef expert. Every time they bring on a guest, they pan to you to give everybody background. Tell me a little bit about Martin Yan.

The biggest thing I took away from [long-running PBS show Yan Can Cook] was his energy, just how passionate he is. Everything is so flavorful; he’s so excited to cook everything. It’s a little guy up there, going so fast, talking so fast. It was really captivating. To be able to cook for him in his kitchen is an honor.

To this day, every time I’m in the restaurant breaking down a chicken, I’m like, ‘Man, Martin Yan can break down a chicken in 13 seconds. Why is it taking me three minutes?’ [laughter] Every time I see a clove, I think of 4-foot-6 Martin Yan with his giant cleaver, cutting a clove of garlic into 40 slices. His personality was so important of bringing not just Chinese American to the masses, but also real passion for home cooking.

He was so fired up. He was just shouting at us the entire time. ‘Cook with instinct!’ It was a riot. That QuickFire was a perfect, perfect example of why I want to be on Top Chef. Cooking for someone I grew up idolizing, and being in a moment I would never have an opportunity to do outside this competition.