Tiffani Faison Has Nothing to Apologize For

By ·

Portrait by Ken Richardson

The first time I met Tiffani Faison, I found her totally intimidating. Granted, I was a green, twentysomething editor and she was a TV celebrity. But still. I had organized a cover shoot of Boston notables dressed up as the fantasy personas they wanted to embody for a day. Faison, by this point known nationally as a fierce firebrand of a chef and most often found sporting a grease-stained cook’s coat, decided to pose, tongue firmly in cheek, in the garb of a genteel lady of leisure at high teatime. It was going to be fun! It was sure to be a hoot! Until, utterly unimpressed by the wardrobe a stylist had pulled for her shoot, she marched me around Saks to find spiffier threads. I put them on my credit card and prayed the price tags stayed on.

To be fair, the clothes really did suck. But more important, the first thing I learned about Faison that day was that she is very careful about the way she lets others present her to the world, even when she’s only playing pretend. So as I wait for the former Top Chef contestant to join me at Hei La Moon, her favorite lunch spot in Chinatown, I wonder how the mercurial food-world personality would want me to see her. The real her. Somewhere around the third or fourth visit from the dim sum cart, she tells me—sort of. She recently took a wildly accurate personality test, she says, one of those predictive-behavior indexes that corporations use to evaluate management style and assign an easy label. Faison’s classification: “Maverick.”

“It was scary good,” she says.

I might have gone with “Fighter.” Because the undisputed queen of the Fenway restaurant scene has had to go to bat for herself a lot in life, both personally and professionally. Faison introduced herself to the world during the opening credits of Top Chef season one in 2006. Some contestants smiled, one flipped her long hair over her shoulders, and another gracefully laid her white kitchen coat over her forearm with the solicitousness of a server. Faison stiffened her collar and cocked her shoulders back in a stance that clearly said, “Don’t mess with me.” In the first moments of the show, as contestants checked out the new digs they would share in San Francisco throughout the season, there was some cheerful small talk. When Faison appeared, she solemnly declared, “I’m not here to make friends.… I’m here to win.”

After 12 grueling episodes, she didn’t win, finishing second among a dozen competitors. She did, however, gain a kind of infamy—cast as the villain by the show’s producers, labeled a “bitch” by a fellow cast member, and reviled by viewers who tuned in each week. The Washington Post even listed “massive hatred toward season one runner-up Tiffani Faison” as a standout example of the drama that made Top Chef irresistible to audiences. At the start, it seemed clear that Faison would be remembered, more than anything, as a nasty woman.

Fast-forward more than a decade, and Faison is back in Boston, where she lived before the show. She is arguably the city’s most famous culinary face right now thanks to her three acclaimed restaurants, which are also a driving force in the transformation under way in the Fenway. She’s about to open a fourth restaurant in the city, but her influence is hardly limited to Boston: She’s a fixture on the national food scene—a recent James Beard award nominee who appears regularly at major festivals such as Charleston Wine + Food, and on popular TV shows like Food Network’s Chopped, where she shows off her sunnier side as a judge.

Since she left Top Chef there’s been a lot written about Faison the real-world chef—from how she cooks her brisket to her meteoric professional rise. Yet when it comes to who she is, as a person rather than a cook, there are still a lot of unanswered questions, and one burning one in particular: Is she still the knife-wielding villain people once loved to hate?

Ask around town, and folks in the food industry will tell you Faison has a reputation as a competitive and demanding person, with high standards, strong opinions, and a quick tongue. That sure sounds a lot like what we saw on TV 13 years ago. And it’s also pretty much what anyone will tell you it takes to be a successful restaurateur. So perhaps the question isn’t whether Tiffani Faison has changed since she made a name for herself on Top Chef, but whether it is finally time for the rest of us to stop demanding that she does.

Faison was pegged as pugnacious during her Top Chef debut, but many say sexism played a role in that perception. / Photo via Getty Images

Faison knows a little something about fighting. She arrived to the world in West Germany at the height of the German Autumn, a period of intense Cold War terrorism. Her father, a hardened Vietnam vet, was stationed there in a personnel position. The family lived in a small farm town, and Faison rode the bus to a school on-base. She lived her early years as a military brat, bouncing everywhere from Greece to Oklahoma to, eventually, Santa Rosa, California. It was hard to always be the new kid. Faison, a competitive cheerleader, remembers being bullied for wearing a team jacket from an old school. It was the only one she owned.

New schools weren’t her only battleground growing up. Her parents, who met as teenagers, divorced when she was in high school. Faison says her father was a heavy drinker, an absent father, and an angry man. He also fathered a half-brother Faison doesn’t know, she says, a bomb he dropped on her when she was in junior high. “The fun part is, he told me that he’d already told me this, and that I knew, and I was crazy,” says Faison, who has since cut her dad out of her life. He tracked her down after Top Chef aired, mailing her a photo album of press clippings from her time in the spotlight. “It felt like a love letter from a serial killer,” she says. “It felt like poison.”

Faison had her own internal conflicts growing up, too. The now-out queer chef was only just coming to terms with her sexuality in high school. She started volunteering with an HIV/AIDS organization in Sonoma County and driving to San Francisco to snag gay newspapers from the Castro. Her mom struggled to accept it, at least at first. “I just remember feeling so ashamed,” Faison says, “in a way that I hadn’t ever felt.”

She barely graduated high school (“I have very little patience for things that don’t interest me,” she explains) and dropped out of college after neglecting to attend most of her classes. It wasn’t that she was lazy—far from it. It was that she trained her laserlike focus on only one thing, honing her arguments as a member of the competitive debate team. If she’d had another career, she says, she would have been a lawyer.

Faison says she never planned to be a chef—she just grew where she was planted. She started working in restaurants as a teenager, making milkshakes at a 1950s-style diner. “I made 30 bucks a day and thought I was rich,” she says with a laugh. “I smelled like sour milk all the time.” By the time she was in her early twenties, living with her first serious girlfriend in Berkeley, she was working her way through various serving and bartending gigs. She took a job at a resort in Colorado, hated it, and got herself fired so the company would buy her a plane ticket home. Then her best friend, who was studying at Emerson College, lured her to Boston.

Here in the Hub, she tossed on her “tightest leather jeans” to find work as a bartender. Eventually, she opted for busing tables at Todd English’s then-new Bonfire steakhouse in Park Square. But she wanted more. Soon after starting a food-expediter role, Faison began lobbying for a spot on the kitchen line at Bonfire. Her request was met with surprise and scorn by the almost entirely male crew. They made her promise she’d return to the expo role when—not if—she gave up trying to be a cook.

Faison accepted the challenge and scored a station prepping hot appetizers. She was clueless. She was untrained. She couldn’t even cut an onion right. “I kept going down in flames,” she says. She knew all the guys expected her to quit, but that only strengthened her resolve to survive. “I remember getting to work one Saturday night and being like, ‘I’m not going down tonight. I’m just not.’” She rearranged her station and used a table to literally box herself in, so she couldn’t quit even if she wanted to. “Once I was in it, I couldn’t get out,” she says. “It was the first time I didn’t go down.”

Instead, she moved up, continuing to learn her trade in the trenches of the English empire. After landing a job as a sous chef at his iconic Olives, she started traveling the country with the celebrity chef to help him at culinary events and restaurant openings. “I think she’s fearless. That’s what I like about her,” English says.

In recent years, English’s reputation has revolved less around food and more around tabloid fodder, such as lawsuits over unpaid bills and sexual-harassment allegations, but Faison’s time with him was like a master’s education, she says. It also expanded her network and brought her the opportunity to open international star chef Daniel Boulud’s restaurant at the Wynn resort and casino in Las Vegas. Leaving Boston was a gamble, but Sin City changed her life. After all, that’s where Top Chef producers came calling.

Today, Faison remains a familiar face on food TV shows like Chopped. / Photo via Jason DeGrow/Courtesy of Food Network

If you need a primer on how Faison was presented on the first season of Top Chef, skip right to the reunion episode. It’s the culmination of nine episodes of combative moments and plays like a greatest-hits compilation of the most cutting criticisms hurled her way, splicing together clips of fellow contestants calling the unabashedly competitive chef “a snake” and “a dragon.” “She does whatever it takes. She has no respect,” complains one competitor. “Don’t talk to me like I’m a five-year-old!” laments another, irked by Faison’s attitude. Then-judge Katie Lee calls her the “most controversial character” in the group.

The on-air dynamic is crystallized by a single moment in one of the season’s most infamous episodes. During one of those post-contest debriefings typical of reality shows, Faison’s fellow contestant Dave Martin attacks her for her style in the kitchen before telling her, “I’m not your bitch, bitch.” The smackdown went viral when sites like YouTube were still in their infancy, and for years, perfect strangers stopped Faison on the street and repeated those words to her. Bravo even made a T-shirt with the catch phrase (as did Martin, who has an online store where he hawks the shirts alongside his barbecue sauce).

Faison is seen telling cameras during the reunion episode, “Does calling me a bitch hurt my feelings? No.” But when the judges float an online conspiracy theory that Faison fiddled with her competitor’s kitchen equipment, she finally breaks and walks off the set. “I don’t want to do this,” she tells a crewman backstage, taking issue with the setup. “I don’t want to be someone’s monkey.”

It’s worth noting that even the contestants who criticized Faison as bossy couldn’t help but praise her talent. And post–Top Chef, when Faison moved to Nantucket to take a job at Straight Wharf Restaurant, her straight talking in the kitchen didn’t prove to be a problem. “She’s going to say what needs to be said, and people respect her for it,” explains Gabriel Frasca, the restaurant’s chef-owner. He says Faison is one of the best cooks he’s ever worked with, and maybe the most determined.

After Straight Wharf, Faison went on to work at hot spots such as English’s Riche, in New Orleans, and O Ya, in Boston. For a while, she was even the personal chef to the actor Will Smith, using that unique opportunity to squirrel away savings so she could leave behind a relationship that had turned emotionally abusive. Eventually she was offered the helm at Rocca in the South End, the first time she was listed in the top slot at a Boston restaurant. Michela Larson, Rocca’s co-owner, was especially impressed by Faison’s ability to assert herself: to “clean house,” reimagine the menu, build a new kitchen staff, and make it clear, very quickly, who was in charge.

Faison revitalized Rocca, earning a three-star review in the Globe and upping sales. So when the restaurant abruptly shuttered less than a year later, she was shocked and devastated. Like a good general, though, her first order of business was helping her staff find new work.

When it came to her own next move, Faison aimed even higher. In 2011 she opened the Fenway neighborhood restaurant Sweet Cheeks Q, a foray into both restaurant ownership and the male-dominated barbecue sphere. She followed it with Tiger Mama, a Southeast Asian–inspired restaurant, in 2015. These were exciting times, but stressful, too. It was a crash course in the “abject sexism” that is amplified when women are learning the ropes of launching their own business, Faison says. Though she signed a nondisclosure agreement that prevents her from going into detail, Faison says she felt disrespected by some male operators in ways that would not have happened to a man in her position.

Today, Faison is running three Fenway restaurants, having added Fool’s Errand, a standing-room-only adult snack bar, to her portfolio last year. She plans to open another restaurant in the neighborhood this summer, the Italian-inspired Orfano, inside Pierce Boston, a new 30-story glass tower that dominates the skyline. Launching and running eateries is not for the faint of heart, not even for a well-known star chef. It’s risky business. But while she may have famously taken second place to Harold Dieterle on Top Chef, she’s hitting home runs and winning the long game.

Dieterle, on the other hand, went on to open three restaurants after the show, and by 2015 he had closed them all. Last year, he was the consulting chef of a gluten-free Italian restaurant that was billed by some observers as his big comeback. It shuttered after nine months.

In addition to building her restaurant empire, Faison is one of the most engaged chefs in town, lending her star power and food to nonprofit fundraisers, packing her schedule with public appearances for charities, and speaking out on social media about her progressive politics, especially when it comes to issues related to women and the LGBTQ community. “I’ve gotten to know Tiffani not through her restaurants and her food, but through her advocacy, determination, and grit to change the world,” says chef and Travel Channel star Andrew Zimmern, who has worked with Faison on food-rescue and female-entrepreneurship initiatives. In an effort to figure out how she does it all, I spent an exhausting day with Faison to get a sense of what her time is like. Spoiler alert: It’s a lot more work than a cooking show.

We begin at a tiny space inside Tiger Mama that is the nimble nerve center of Big Heart Hospitality, the company Faison owns with her wife and business partner, Kelly Walsh. On this day, Faison is wearing crocodile-print shoes and socks that read, “Busy Making a Fucking Difference.” A sheet of paper tacked above her laptop, below a Ruth Bader Ginsburg action figure, lists public appearances for the next two months—about 20 so far, many of them charity events.

Today—like nearly every day—the first order of business is to review the emailed breakdowns of the previous night’s business that her managers are required to send after service at each restaurant. The reports are incredibly detailed, noting everything from the weather to the radio station that played to the number of signature Sweet Cheeks biscuits sold. (It was 279, if you’re curious.) Faison uses these numbers to track what works and what doesn’t, make decisions, and fine-tune her systems.

Next, she jots down notes for a phone interview with USA Today about must-visit restaurants in Boston. “Who’s young and needs a shout-out?” she asks aloud, then adds Rebel Rebel, a new woman-owned wine bar in Somerville, to her list. After the call, it’s back to emails about mundane daily business to-dos, everything from fixing a broken door handle to reviewing résumés from cooks.

After lunch at Pho Viet’s, a food-nerd favorite inside an Asian-supermarket cafeteria in Allston, we race back to Sweet Cheeks for a meeting about Orfano. Faison pores over blueprints like a general plotting war strikes, except instead of soldiers, she’s positioning oven burners and walk-in freezers. Then she slips into her battle uniform—a black jumpsuit—scrubs her hands, and reports for her final pre-dinner-service duties: a staff tasting of the latest tiki cocktails at Tiger Mama, a review of her pastry chef’s sweet new experiments, and a swing by Fool’s Errand to make sure that damn door handle got fixed.

Every minute of the day is accounted for; every move is a brisk one. The staff is a well-oiled machine, very friendly with the boss but still reflexively deferential. By the time we’ve reached our 12th hour together, my tired feet are screaming. Faison, meanwhile, is still constantly flitting between her three packed, boisterous restaurants, all connected on a single Boylston Street block by a little labyrinth of back hallways. They let her pass unseen between properties, tending, troubleshooting, and taking control of her team.

So far, it’s working. Sweet Cheeks and Tiger Mama have notched nearly $10 million in sales, and their respective investor groups were paid back within three years. That’s a whole lot of success (and a whole lot of biscuits), but it doesn’t happen without hard work. Faison typically ends her day by taking her dog outside and catching up on the latest news, then it’s straight to sleep so she can rise early to meditate (when she’s on her game), eat breakfast with Walsh, and start the drill all over again. Reality is way more mundane than reality TV—but the rewards sure are greater. “As much as anyone I know—holy crap, does she deserve her success,” says Frasca, of Straight Wharf. “Nothing has been given to her. She has earned it and taken it.”

“She takes such good care of me,” says Faison of her wife and business partner, Kelly Walsh, director of operations for their growing restaurant group. / Portrait by Ken Richardson

At the same time that her season of Top Chef was appearing on TV sets from coast to coast, Faison wasn’t exactly living the glamorous life of a newfound TV star. She was cash-strapped, burnt out, and waiting tables in Vegas. “I needed a break from kitchens for a second,” she says. Laying low wasn’t a bad idea. After all, seeing the series and standing in the crosshairs of critics was “really hard,” Faison says. “I didn’t know how to square this person that I knew I was, or thought I was, with this person that was on TV. And, sure, editing’s one thing, but that thing just came out of my mouth. I said that thing. I’m responsible for that.”

It was a sobering experience, one that helped her look inward, think about her temperament and sharp tongue, and generally become more mindful of how she comes across. It hurts, she says, to hear people “say they’re surprised that you’re not a giant ass.”

Happily, Kelly Walsh dulled that ache. When Faison met her future wife at a 2007 industry party in Boston, the connection was immediate—here was someone who didn’t know her as a TV caricature. Walsh was drawn immediately to Faison’s quick wit and sense of humor. They first bonded over having military dads and their love of the food biz—Walsh went to culinary school and earned a business degree—and today complement each other as partners in love and business. Walsh, Big Heart’s director of operations, is the calm eye of the daily hurricane, the pragmatist who knows how to channel Faison’s passionate instincts, and—very important, I’m told—the gatekeeper to the company credit card. Faison, a restless rule-breaker and big-picture creative, finds in her wife a safe harbor and steady hand to hold. “She takes such good care of me,” says Faison, eyes suddenly welling at our Chinatown lunch. She glances up and away, high toward the window, her lashes gripping tears and willing them to not fall. “I have a freedom in my life I’ve never had, because my stupid bills are paid. All the things I didn’t make a priority in my life, she’s made a priority for both of us. She provides me foundation and structure….

“I’m sorry,” she says, turning her cheek, as if from a camera that wants to see too much.

Such glimpses of her soft side were rare during her TV debut, but even without them, Faison’s character has finally earned a more generous reassessment. On the local level, a decade’s worth of work and community engagement has eclipsed her original Top Chef showing, and nationally, she’s finding vindication in an era that’s more literate about how the media portrays strong women versus how it portrays men. Just check the fan forums: In a Reddit conversation from last year, one user wrote, “I’m here re-watching Season 1 and my blood is boiling over the way Tiffani was treated by the other contestants…. When I was first watching this season, I remember thinking she was a bitch.” Others in the strand also leapt to her defense. “I was shocked at how she was treated,” wrote another. “I definitely felt that no one would react that way if she was a man.”

But it isn’t just viewers reconsidering the hate directed at Faison. “Looking back, I see that Tiffani was under scrutiny in ways that some of her co-contestants might not have been,” says Gail Simmons, the longtime Top Chef  judge who today says she “adores” Faison for her focus and enthusiasm. “She stuck to her guns, and sometimes that came across as her being difficult or mean. I wonder, if their season was shot today, if it would’ve played out any differently—and if viewers would have looked at it through a different lens,” Simmons says. “I think our viewers now are much more educated about the dynamics and challenges of the kitchen. And I’d like to think that as a population, we are more woke about gender politics—not just in the kitchen, but in our everyday lives.”

Andrea Beaman, another season one contestant, is more direct. “She was put into the ‘bitch’ category because she was a go-getter,” Beaman says. “If she was a guy, she would have been portrayed differently. It wouldn’t have been the bitch, it would’ve been the hard-nosed, get-it-done fella.”

Indeed, some wonder if Faison really lost deservedly, or if she lost because producers knew the viewers wanted the villain to fail. Martin, the Top Chef  alum who branded her a “bitch,” stands by his experience on the show—if not his choice of words. “Is that something that I would say to her today, or that I feel about her today? Absolutely not,” he says. “I wish the best for everyone, Tiffani included. I’m glad she’s doing well. I hope she’s happy.”

Relentless, nose-to-the-grindstone focus is what it takes to run the city’s hottest restaurants. But women can show it only if they’re also wearing a smile, Faison says, and that infuriates the restaurateur who once penned an essay for the food website Eater titled “I’m a Woman and a Chef. I Shouldn’t Have to Care if You Like Me.” When we see tempestuous male chefs, Faison wrote, “we find it entertaining and we reward it with television shows and big-city restaurant deals.”

But, she asked, “Is there a female counterpart, a woman who’s invited to yell or have a devil-may-care persona and still find blinding success by personifying those qualities? Not yet.”

Maybe Faison will be the first.

Despite her experience on Top Chef, Faison considers herself lucky to have been part of the series, and she returned to compete in season eight, called Top Chef All-Stars (to “rehab” her image, she admits). She won the Top Chef Holiday Special and competed in the spinoff show Top Chef Duels, where she placed second once again. She’s been a guest judge on Top Chef in addition to Chopped. Today, she hardly shrinks from food-TV cameras—though she says you won’t see her returning as a contestant.

One morning last October, Faison was scrolling through an email application she’s received for another potential season of Top Chef All-Stars. Seated in her office at Tiger Mama, she cocks her brow at some of the survey questions, one in particular: “Were you a fan favorite?”

“No,” she scoffs. “I was the opposite of a fan favorite, thank you.”

And yet, she keeps reading. The invitation, it seems, at least intrigues.

“Why are you answering that? I thought we said no,” says Walsh from her own desk chair.

“We said no,” Faison assures her.

“Then why do you have to answer that?”

“I don’t.”

She closes the email. On her laptop is a sticker with one word—not maverick, not fighter, and most certainly not bitch. No, this label, slapped across the computer’s camera, is one she chose for herself: queen. 

Source URL: https://www.bostonmagazine.com/restaurants/2019/01/08/tiffani-faison/