NJ’s Leia Gaccione Calls ‘Top Chef’ Ride ‘An Out-of-Body Experience’

The owner of Morristown's South + Pine appears on the 19th season of Bravo's 'Top Chef,' premiering Thursday, March 3, at 8 pm ET.

Leia Gaccione on Top Chef
Leia Gaccione, owner of South + Pine in Morristown, brings the heat on "Top Chef" this season. Photo courtesy of Emily Shur/Bravo

The competition doesn’t stop for Leia Gaccione.

Owner of South + Pine in Morristown, Gaccione has become comfortable with being on camera in the kitchen, previously competing on Beat Bobby Flay and even winning an episode of Chopped last summer.

Starting March 3, Gaccione can be seen competing on Bravo’s 19th season of Top Chef, which she calls the “créme de la créme” of cooking shows.

“It was like an out-of-body experience,” says Gaccione, who has been a fan of Top Chef since season one. “It’s strange to be a fan of the show and then be on it.”

This season, 15 talented chefs from around the country are competing for $250,000 in Houston, a city known for diversity in population and food. The first episode premieres Thursday, March 3, at 8 pm ET.

As for her future in cooking competitions? “I’m game for anything that comes my way,” Gaccione says.

Leia Gaccione poses with six other competing chefs.

“You want to be cool with them and be friends and relate to each other, but they’re also your competitors,” Gaccione (second from right) says of the show’s fellow chefs. Photo courtesy of David Moir/Bravo

What was it like preparing for Top Chef?
It’s always really cool. I remember watching Top Chef when it came out and watching season one. To be in the Top Chef kitchen with Tom [Colicchio], Padma [Lakshmi] and Gail [Simmons] sitting in front of you and talking about the things you cooked is out of this world.

What did you make of Houston?
It was my first time in Houston. It’s extremely diverse. We got to try a lot of food while we were there, which was really exciting. I feel like the best thing in life is, ‘What are we going to eat next?’ My favorite part of it was the Cajun/Vietnam fusion. I really love Vietnamese food, so it was interesting to see how they combined it with Cajun cuisine down in Houston.

What was it like competing against fellow chefs?
It’s always an interesting setting. You’re in a room full of chefs who are your equals, and you want to be cool with them and be friends and relate to each other, but they’re also your competitors. It’s an interesting dynamic to try to balance.

Was the judging more intense than on other competitions?
For me, Top Chef is the créme de la créme. It’s the biggest; it’s the most notable. Some of the most talented chefs have competed on this show and won the competition. I do think there is a different level of intimidation that happens when you are in that kitchen and being judged by those people. It’s also really cool because a lot of the judges were competitors, so they can really relate to what you’re doing—which is also comforting, in a sense.

What did you take from your Food Network experience?
You definitely have a bit of a leg up when you’ve done some cooking competitions previously. The first cooking competition I ever did I was shaking so badly that I ended up cutting myself. The nerves definitely simmer down a bit because you become more comfortable in a kitchen with a camera around you. Also, having to cook a dish in under 20 or 30 minutes in a place you don’t really know is tough, but having those experiences under my belt was definitely useful.

Leia Gaccione prepares to whip up ingredients in a blender on the "Top Chef" set.

Gaccione says past competition-show experience helped her on “Top Chef.” Photo courtesy of David Moir/Bravo

Are there other competitions you’d like to do?
I think the sky’s the limit. Before I did my first show, I was so scared of doing something like that. Now, I really love it and get such a thrill from it. I love the surprise aspect of not knowing what you’re going to get in your basket or in your challenge. It’s so much adrenaline, and I love a good competition.

Anything you can hint at on this season of Top Chef?
There’s always drama. You’ll have to tune in to see what happens. I don’t want to spill all the tea, girl. I lived it, but I’m actually really excited to tune in and watch myself.

What’s new at South + Pine?
We just did a renovation. We were closed for three weeks, which was a much-needed break for all of us. I am very proud of the fact that we were able to pay the entire staff for the full three weeks we were closed, which was really important to me. We got new light fixtures, new floors, new plates and silverware. I’ll be working on the spring menu over the next two or three weeks. It’s like South + Pine 2.0. I feel like I’ve found a spark that’s lit inside me and a new inspiration to work off of.

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