If you watched the first episode of “Top Chef: Kentucky” that aired last week, then you saw chef David Viana of Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge—one of the 15 chefs competing on the show’s 16th season—sway a doubtful Tom Colicchio with an “umami bomb” soup.
What you didn’t see was Viana, and every other chef, waiting alone for six hours on the first day with no phone or human contact while production set up at Churchill Downs, the racetrack most famous for annually hosting the Kentucky Derby. That would become the norm for two and a half months of filming: spurts of hectic cooking followed by stretches of empty, anxious time. Waiting. Waiting to see who wins.
Spoiler alert: Viana can’t tell us, or anyone, who wins. The 2018 James Beard Award-nominated chef, who lives in Asbury Park, didn’t go on TV to get famous and still (passionately) loves his work. Though he can tell us a few things. We caught up with Viana on his way to Philadelphia with partner Neilly Robinson to ask about “Top Chef,” Heirloom Kitchen, and if Padma is really that nice in person.
Table Hopping: What made you want to be on “Top Chef”?
David Viana: I’ve been a fan of the show since Season 1. I’ve been cooking for 16 years, so I basically grew up in the industry watching the show. It’s been a lifelong dream. And it does kind of amplify the trajectory of your career. It was an honor when they reached out to me to audition.
TH: You didn’t reach out to them?
DV: They do very little open audition calls anymore. There’s such a wide net of chefs coming through the door. You’re vetted before you even audition.
TH: Were you personally looking to “amplify the trajectory of your career”?
DV: I didn’t necessarily want to change anything! I love my job. I love what I do, where I am, the people I work with. A lot of [the people on the show] wanted to jumpstart their careers. They weren’t happy and were hoping “Top Chef” would catapult them. I was the one like ‘I’m good.’ If nothing were to happen, if no phone ever rang after this, I still get to work with my staff, my partner, I’m good.
TH: Speaking of, how was Heirloom—which is also a cooking school, supper club, and retail boutique—impacted by filming?
DV: I’ve been really fortunate. When I left for “Top Chef,” Rob Santello of Reyla [in Asbury Park] took over, and he was super talented. I had been in every dinner service up to that point, but he filled in so wonderfully. It’s part of the fabric of what we do. We’re a small, intimate group of talented people. We all work our stations every weekend, all at the same place, doing the same thing. It keeps the food amazingly consistent, and we’re better at what we do. With [the cooking] school, it’s not the traditional restaurant model of morning shift, night shift. It lends itself to an extreme level of consistency.
TH: What was it like coming back after filming?
DV: I got back in July. It was a little bit of a process to get back to normalcy. But now we have Rob on board. We kept him. And I’m back into the groove, doing a very high level—if not the best I’ve ever done.
TH: Is your staff ready for the extra attention Heirloom will get, now that your season is airing?
DV: I’ve been preparing them ever since I got back. We’re so niche, so small, baking our own bread, churning our own butter, everything from scratch. We’ve been sheltered, in a way—staff have never really had to have that awkward conversation with a guest who may not know what they’re getting themselves into. But we’ve prepared, because we’re gonna get that person [who comes in] just because they heard my name and not because they care about the food. We have to figure out how gracious we can be, to win over that guest. That’s the difference between being a small Jersey restaurant and something recognized across the country.
TH: How are you celebrating the show within the restaurant?
DV: We’re hosting screenings on Thursday nights. A three-course prix fixe. If I won the Quickfire Challenge that day with something awesome, I’ll make it for guests. At commercial breaks we turn off the volume, and I’ll give a sense of behind the scenes, what was actually happening. I’ve never seen the show, so I’m watching for the first time. And we’ve always done guest chef appearances, so in 2019 we’re going to have the entire cast of “Top Chef” come in at some point and cook. Starting [on December 16] with Brian Young [of Cultivar in Boston] and Kevin Scharpf [of Brazen Open Kitchen in Dubuque] doing a collaborative dinner. Every month, other Top Chefs will be coming in. And there’s a curated dinner at the James Beard House [February 5, 2019], a “Top Chef Reunion” dinner. [Me] and four other chefs from the Kentucky season.
TH: So overall it was a good experience? Something you recommend?
DV: Absolutely. I feel like I can accomplish anything now.
TH: Speaking of “scary,” I have to ask, since you say it in the first episode—did coming from the same hometown as Tom Colicchio [Elizabeth, NJ] really not help you at all?
DV: Not at all. I’ll tell you why. Padma was so lovely—she blew away my expectations of how gracious she could actually be. But Tom was this huge juxtaposition to Padma. He barely said hi. He was all business. What I came to feel toward the end of the show was that Padma had favorites—naturally people gravitate toward people. But Tom didn’t give any kind of favoritism. There was a wall he built up, probably learned to build up over the years for when it’s time to make hard decisions between someone he likes and a dish that he likes. I really respected that.
TH: Or is it just that he’s a cool customer, being from Jersey and all?
DV: Maybe that. I’ll definitely co-sign on Tom Colicchio being cool.
Heirloom Kitchen is located at 3853 Route 516 in Old Bridge. Cooking classes run four days a week including a Sunday morning brunch class; they accept dinner reservations Thursday through Sunday; 732-727-9444. “Top Chef” premiered on December 6. The next episode airs Thursday, December 13 at 9pm.