Talking to Casey Thompson about her recent elimination from Top Chef: All Stars, you can feel her emotions slicing her in half, like so many deep-fried chicken toenails.
Thompson is executive chef at Brownstone restaurant in Fort Worths West 7th district. On the Jan. 5 episode of the show, she was one of four cheftestants called out for the worst dishes prepared during an insane-looking dim sum elimination challenge in New Yorks Chinatown: there was a language barrier, food was late, diners complained, and many left midway through the meal.
Thompson ambitiously chose chicken feet as her dish (were still shaking the image of her slicing off those toenails), but the end result prepared by another chef didnt fly. Head judge Tom Colicchio called them inedible. Still, many viewers thought Jamie Lauren would be on the chopping block. She had a hand in not one, but two dismal dishes.
Thompson can understand the judges decision. Sort of kind of not really.
I talked to her Thursday while she was in the Bay Area for work. She dished on the episodes dim sum debacle, the chicken feet, and what it means to have been one of three DFW chefs on an All-Stars cast.
How much do you hate chicken feet right now? I dont! And Im sad that Ive maybe deterred people from trying it. Or if I havent, at least I brought it to the forefront. People have always thought of it as a Chinese dish, but I hope this gets people kind of fired up about it.
In the dim sum elimination challenge, you and Carla took one for the team by volunteering to work the floor. [This forced Casey to stop prepping her dish, leaving it for her roommate, Antonia, to finish cooking]. On a scale of 1 to 10, how worried were you that your dish could go so wrong? Probably a 6. What I was most worried about was, according to the rules, you could continue prepping even into the service. But Carla and I didnt have that opportunity. So as soon as that timer went up and service was to begin, we had to stop prepping. So if Id been down in the kitchen still prepping, maybe I wouldve decided that the chicken wasnt ready to come out of the braise. So many different factors. The fry time, the way it was sauced or plated wouldve changed tremendously.
As my mother pointed out: Have you not figured out that the front-of-the-house people it never really works out? I said in my blog this morning: What is Bravo gonna do when zero people agree to volunteer to go up front?
You seem very level on the show Antonia cooked the chicken feet that sent you packing, yet you didnt seem at all ready to rip her head off. No. [There usually arent a lot of offers to help each other out], but Antonia was nice enough to say: Ill do it for you thank God. She was my roommate, she was my friend.
You seemed shocked to hear your name called at elimination. I knew that technically some things had gone wrong, but I did not, in all honesty, think it was gonna be me. I thought having two dishes [go wrong, like Jamie did] would definitely keep me from going home over one. But I guess in this case they just found that the chicken feet just werent tender enough, werent cooked enough. It was a big day, and it sucks. Terribly sucks, but, oh well, you know? I feel pretty good about everything else.
I read on [judge] Gail Simmons blog that the disastrous state of affairs in the dim sum challenge that we saw on TV wasnt a fraction of how cataclysmic things really were. What was it like? That was one of the worst challenges, across the board every season, every cast. You could see it on our faces. We looked miserable. First of all, it had to be 125 degrees in that kitchen. And only half the equipment worked. The dumbwaiter situation, you had to load the carts and it took the dumbwaiter total of probably 60 seconds to get up and then you have to open like four doors to get them out, and the whole time Toms yelling at us, like: Where is the FOOD?
Where do you think things started to go so wrong? Heres where it started going down: When they told us it was a team challenge, everybody in their minds heard: Youre on your own. I felt like as chefs, if we were all in this to make money as far as a restaurant, we wouldve said: OK, one person is doing fry, one person is gonna run the steam table, two people on the woks, and the rest of the team is assembling and traying up. Why didnt we think like that? Everyone was thinking for themselves. Thats why these are genius challenges theyll get someone every time.
What was it like for you, working with two DFW homies on the show? I thought it was great. I love Tre [Wilcox, her fellow season 7 contestant], and hes a dear friend. Since being back from the show, he and I cooked at [Tres Plano restaurant] Loft 610 together, and I think Tiffany had just done it the week before. I think its absolutely great that there were three DFW chefs on the show. That says a lot and that means a lot to us, and to the Metroplex and to Texas, I mean, its a big deal.
Whats your favorite junk food spot in DFW? My all-time favorite place to get junk food is Fuel City Tacos [in Dallas]. They are the best tacos on the face of the earth. Theres also what I call the Elotes Lady at her cart right outside, who sells elotes basically, corn in a cup. I have searched the world over for the best elotes, and that lady outside makes the best hands down.
How are things at Brownstone? Things are really good. I think weve worked out all the kinks, and I think people are really happy with that restaurant, and Fort Worth has received us with open arms. Weve figured out how to make the business work for them, and theyre coming to brunch, theyre doing Friday lunches there, theyre excited about the specials we cant keep specials in the house. Theyre getting it, theyre digging it, and Im really excited about it.
So do you ever see chicken feet on the menu Brownstone? I think that will be interesting [laughs] at Brownstone. Im not saying I cant make it work ... sometime. Maybe Ill do a private dinner sometime where thats a dish that is featured. I could try it as a special well see where it goes.
Read more of Casey Thompson's 'Top Chef' thoughts on her blog.
Check out TV critic Robert Philpot's rundown of Casey's elimination episode.