In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, paper, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
Since its premiere in 2006, Top Chef has built a reputation for being one of the best reality competitions out there. It mixes “I’m not here to make friends”-style personality clashes with genuinely impressive culinary skill, as more than a dozen initial contestants—ranging from chefs straight out of culinary school to apprentices under Michelin-starred masters—are whittled down through themed elimination challenges to one final champion. Unlike the winners of other reality shows (how many contestants from America’s Next Top Model remain forces in their industry?), the title of Top Chef holds a lot of weight in the restaurant world, as some contestants use the show as a springboard to subsequent success.
Dale Talde was a contestant in the show’s fourth season, as well as one in a season of the spin-off Top Chef All-Stars; he placed sixth in both. Talde currently runs multiple restaurants, including Talde and Pork Slope in Brooklyn, and his first cookbook, Asian American: Proudly Inauthentic Recipes From The Philippines To Brooklyn, was released in September. Ahead of the show’s 13th season—which premieres Wednesday, December 2—he spoke to The A.V. Club about his “punk Asian kid” persona on the shows, as well as the inability to be prepared for what the judges throw at you.
The A.V. Club: How familiar were you with Top Chef before you went on?
Dale Talde: I was pretty familiar with it. I had watched maybe two seasons and was a regular viewer.
AVC: Did you have an idea of what to expect?
DT: Of course. I mean, I knew the structure, I knew how it worked. I mean, no. No one has an idea of what it’s going to be like on the show until you’re on the show. But I did understand the show. [But] you have no clue until you actually do it.
AVC: Were you able to develop any kind of strategy going in? Was there any way to prepare?
DT: Well, I cooked some dishes that I hadn’t cooked in a while. I tried to remember some dessert recipes because I knew that would come up and it wasn’t something I was as familiar with. But all the challenges are surprises, so there’s no way to really prepare.
AVC: What was the audition process like?
DT: It was a cold casting call. There was an ad out, basically saying that they were doing interviews at [host Tom Colicchio’s] Colicchio & Sons, so I swung by. It was just an interview, 100-percent personality-based, though they also looked at your resumé. At the time I had already been to culinary school, I had worked in an Outback Steakhouse, Michelin-starred restaurants, so obviously I had a resumé. It wasn’t like I couldn’t cook, so in my case they put me on entirely because of my personality. All the contestants fit into some kind of personality category, and I kind of had the reputation for being the punk Asian kid, which I was.
AVC: While you were on, you were portrayed as being quick-tempered, even positioned as a kind of villain of the season. Did you feel the way you were presented was accurate?
DT: 100 percent. It was me. It wasn’t like they had me saying things I didn’t say. Some people who go on TV say that they way they were presented was wrong, but no one makes you say stupid shit, that’s you saying it.
AVC: Was it a complete portrait of you, or did they cherry-pick moments and elements to make everyone come off a particular way?
DT: Well, it is still TV, so they have to edit it, right? They did use bits and pieces of me, but again, if you say something stupid, that’s you who said something stupid. I never felt like anything that was shown was made up. I was the asshole who got drunk and started shit; that’s what they showed.
AVC: You had some moments that are somewhat infamous, like when you punched a locker after losing a Quickfire competition. Looking back, are you happy with the way you came off?
DT: As far as the locker goes, you know, I wanted to win. But yeah, I have some regrets. I don’t like the person I was back then. I mean, again, I said what I said. I feel like a lot of times I could have handled myself differently. I was getting shit-faced and talking shit a lot. That was actually the biggest difference for me in terms of Top Chef versus Top Chef: All Stars. The way I approached the cooking was the same, but I felt I was a better person when I did All Stars.
AVC: What was the day-to-day like on the show, as far as living in the house?
DT: Rough. Really fucking rough. There was very little downtime, a lot of “hurry up and wait,” which you don’t see on TV. You have no idea how much we were being made to hurry around, and then how long we just had to sit before being called in to do whatever it was we had to do.
As far as the house, you’re living in close quarters, and you’re living with strangers. It was kind of like a dorm. You’re sharing bathrooms and waiting in line for the shower. And at the time, you know, I was 27 or 28; I didn’t want to be living in a dorm. Then you had people walking around with cameras, sound booms. Those guys were there a lot. Not all the time, and you could tell when the cameras were on, but they were there a lot. That stuff was rough.
The house was gorgeous. Both times I was on it was amazing, but especially the first time, in Chicago. That was nice, and it definitely got better as the season went on. As people left there got to be more space and it was calmer.
AVC: How long did it take for everyone to get acclimated?
DT: It took about a week or two for people to get their shit together. If you lasted that long, it got to be not as bad.
AVC: You mentioned having little downtime. Was that because you had a challenge or something every day?
DT: There’d be a challenge, an elimination, then you’d be right back at it. You’d have a couple days where you might have an event you’d have to attend or something, but it was pretty much every day.
AVC: Did you have much opportunity to talk to your family or do things that weren’t part of the show?
DT: Yeah, of course you can talk to your family, but no as far as doing things that weren’t Top Chef. You were always on the show; there were always cameras somewhere around.
AVC: Were there any challenges that stick out to you now as particularly memorable?
DT: The ones I remember were the hard ones, the 24-hour ones. We were the first season that ever had to do two 24-hour challenges. We had both a Restaurant Wars episode, where we create a restaurant from scratch, and one where we had to cater a wedding. I don’t think anyone had to do anything like that in the seasons before. Those sucked. Just the sheer physical drain of doing them. Far more than the cooking, the hard part with those was just actually doing them.
AVC: What is your thought process when it comes to starting a challenge? Once you get the assignment, where do you begin? Do you start by looking for what the protein is going to be, or the flavor profile you want to hit?
DT: Well, it’s real—just like you see on TV. There is no thought process. You don’t have time to think. You just do the best job you can. But this is a broad spectrum, what you’re asking. You take each challenge as it is. Each challenge will require that you start somewhere different because each is asking you to do a different thing, therefore they inspire you in different ways. One thing I learned to do was to play to my strengths. My strength was staying in an Asian realm. So I stayed close to those flavors and those techniques. I was stronger doing that, like when I improvised a version of the halo-halo, which is a Filipino dessert. Actually, I continue to make the recipe I made on Top Chef at my restaurant Talde.
AVC: Were you worried that by sticking to a specific type of cuisine you wouldn’t demonstrate everything you could do?
DT: I was a little concerned about repeating myself by doing Asian all the time, but ultimately the idea is to make good food. I cared less about repeating myself or showing range than I did consistently cooking something that was good. I learned that very quickly. The show is 100 percent about cooking well, despite the personality drama in the episodes. I always thought the judging was very fair on that regard; the food that was good was safe, and the food that wasn’t, those cooks got kicked off. The judging was always 100 percent about the food, and I always felt I was treated fairly. There wasn’t a time when I turned in something that I thought was great but they didn’t like.
AVC: Let’s talk about your process in a specific example. In one episode, you had to make a meal for a family of four with only a $10 budget. How do you approach that kind of limitation, which would seem to prohibit basic stuff like spices or herbs, to say nothing of limiting your other options?
DT: That was a stupid challenge, I don’t want to talk about that.
AVC: How about Restaurant Wars, then? There you at least had the benefit of having time to plan out a menu.
DT: That’s also kind of hard to talk about, because you’re working with a team in a bigger capacity. You had to deal with a bunch of people when it came to designing the menu or the process or anything else. And these are people who may not want to work with you, may not give a shit about who you are, they may not want to listen, or maybe you don’t want to listen to them.
AVC: When you had the time to plan out a menu, were you relying on recipes that you knew well, or was it more improvisational?
DT: Both. Definitely both. If you had knowledge that you were working from, that’s probably when you were the most successful. If they worked in the past, they’ll probably work again. At the same time, you have to be fluid enough to change and try different things. But I had the most success when I stayed closer to stuff I knew, as opposed to trying new stuff and hoping it would work. On Top Chef, the first time I was on, I got eliminated after making miso-butterscotch scallops, which were something new, and which weren’t good. I deserved to get cut after those.
AVC: As far as your experience goes, what proved the most useful on Top Chef? Was it knowing ingredients and techniques or having practice with speed?
DT: It was probably the first time I was a sous chef, since I was responsible for creating an amuse-bouche everyday, along with a soup of the day, an appetizer of the day, and an entrée. A lot of specials, basically. That really helped me in my process. I knew how to not just recreate food, but to create new food. For Quickfire challenges, when you don’t have the time to really think, having those instincts honed was obviously incredibly useful.
AVC: Was there any element of Top Chef that you didn’t feel prepared for? A skill that would have been advantageous to have?
DT: That would probably be less related to cooking than to my people skills. My people skills were terrible back in the day. Like I said, when I went on All Stars, that was an element where I feel I had improved. The older I got, the better I was at dealing with people, managing people. In order to do well on Top Chef, you have to be a great cook, of course, but you also have to know how to work with people, how to play the game a bit.
AVC: Beyond the personality element, was there any way in which you approached All Stars differently?
DT: I think All Stars is less about the challenge they’re giving you, and more about the food tasting good. In order to win, you have to make good food that fits the bill of the challenge, but in order to not get kicked off, you just have to make good food. I’d probably say you have a better chance with good food that’s not really in the challenge, than bad food that is in it. It really does come down to the food.
AVC: Looking back, do you see any mistake you made that you in particular wish you hadn’t? For example, those scallops?
DT: Well the scallops were bad, though that was the kind of big swing that could have been a home run. I’d probably say my bigger mistake was not keeping my ego in check. If I had worked with people better, who knows.
AVC: Did being on Top Chef adjust the trajectory of your career?
DT: Well I was a chef before the show and I was a chef after the show, so no. But it is good publicity. I opened my restaurants after I was on there, and there are people who walk through the door of Talde or Pork Slope and want to say hi to you because they remember you from the show. That stuff is great.