Rioja's Jennifer Jasinski dishes on her debut on Top Chef Masters, Wednesday on Bravo
Jennifer Jasinki, exec chef-owner of Rioja.
On Wednesday night, Jennifer Jasinski, the executive chef and co-owner of Rioja, makes her debut on Top Chef Masters, where she'll go head-to-head against twelve other chefs, including Douglas Keane, David Burke and Bryan Voltaggio, for a chance to win the Top Chef Masters title and $100,000, the earnings of which will be donated to a charity of the winner's choice. Jasinski, should she emerge victorious, will give her prize money to Work Options for Women, a local nonprofit that equips impoverished women with the necessary skills to seek employment in the hospitality industry.
I can't tell you the outcome of the first episode, but after getting a sneak peek at the press cut, I spoke with Jasinski about her debut, and she had plenty to say about her first challenge, yellow cards and "excessive douchebaggery" and Jorel Pierce, her chef de cuisine at Euclid Hall.
On this season of Top Chef Masters, there's a separate battle between sous chefs -- yours is Jorel Pierce, your chef de cuisine at Euclid Hall -- and depending upon how well the sous chefs do in their own competitions, they have the ability to help or hinder the Master chefs. Pierce does really well (we can't say how well) in the first sous chef battle. How bad do you think he wants to win this for you? Oh, my gosh, are you kidding me? Nobody wants to win more than Jorel. When I got the little card telling me how Jorel did, I was so fucking excited for him because he's had this monkey on his back ever since being eliminated from Top Chef -- and, of course, he was eliminated before he even got a chance to cook, which I think is crap, but I'm really, really proud of how hard he pushed himself this time.
Part of your first challenge included the opportunity to have two hours of prep time rather than one...but only if you chose to skydive and land in a random airfield. You made the decision to skydive. How nervous where you, and did you have any hesitations? I'd gone skydiving before in 1995 or 1996, and I was super-excited that first time, but when it was all over with, I felt sick and really didn't really like it. And I didn't really want to do it on the show either; I was thinking that I don't want to throw up in mid-air, so I didn't eat anything that morning, but I was still a little nauseous. I was just trying to breathe. Still, I knew that I'd be fine -- it would be bad TV if one of us died. And having two hours of prep time instead of just one was super-important, because they throw all these wrenches into everything, and it literally took me the whole two hours to get all the prep work done and finish my dish.
When you landed, you were in the middle of nowhere without a kitchen in site. In fact, there wasn't much of anything, including running water or electricity -- not exactly optimal cooking conditions. How did you make the best of a less that desirable situation? It was really tough. We each had a six-foot table, a camping stove, grills and a cooler with raw ingredients. We had to find our cooler, drag it back to our station and figure it all out on our own. I had to clean mushrooms and boil my fregula, but I'd used the last of my water -- all of us only had a gallon of water each -- so I had to borrow water from other people, and that still wasn't enough, but I had soda water in my cooler, so I ended up using that. I was totally macgyvering everything. You think something is going to take this long and it ends up taking a lot longer, plus it was super-windy, and we had to protect all of our food from the dust and dirt that was flying around, and it was really difficult to chop stuff without it blowing away. I wrapped foil around the camping stove and got it to start burning really well, but I had a hard time with the grill. I thought I'd cook the skirt steak and let It rest, but half an hour later, it still wasn't cooked, so I had to pan sear it in a cast-iron skillet. You just have to keep pushing through.
What was the most difficult ingredient to work with? I was given a list of ingredients that Joel used in his competition, which were the same ingredients that we had to use in our challenge. The list was daunting and I was definitely a little nervous about having to use every single one of those ingredients in one dish, but I think it turned out great. I did have some problems with the spices -- there was no grinder so I had to crush them and they kept blowing all over the place. The wind was just crazy.
At one point, you referred to another chef as a "douchebag." It was clearly said in jest, but you quipped that you sometimes give yellow cards for "excessive douchebaggery" in the Rioja kitchen. What defines "excessive douchebaggery?" It could be people messing with your mise en place, or taking your tools. If something's gone because someone grabbed it and never put it back, that qualifies as excessive douchebaggery. No one really does it to me at Rioja because I'm the chef, but it happens to other people in my kitchen every few weeks or so. It's more of a joke than anything else, and it actually lightens the mood because of the silliness of it.
Do you hand out red flags, too? No, we don't have red ones. If you're in the red zone, that just means you're getting fired.
The dish you made -- and presented to the judges -- was an orange-and-fried-ginger-marinated skirt steak, which one of the judges (we won't call him out) deemed a "big, slabby arm-size piece of meat that was a turn-off." That's probably not the kind of praise you were hoping for. What would you say in your defense? I made sure that skirt steak was cooked perfectly. A few of the pieces might have been cut too big, but I knew that it would be really weird if I was sent home because of it. All of the components tasted really good, and the strip was seasoned really well. I'll admit that the presentation wasn't great, but we had to put our food on these monstrous platters and serve them family style, so my presentation was kind of a little messy. In retrospect, I could have made the portions smaller and it probably would have looked prettier.
What's the one thing that you promised yourself you wouldn't do on Top Chef Masters? I promised myself I wouldn't talk shit about anyone or anything. I know that they can edit footage however they want and they can use certain phrases that might portray me as a bitch, but I don't think I'm a bitch. I tried to make sure I was professional at all times.
Does cooking on Top Chef Masters mimic cooking in a real-life kitchen? I don't think so. I think it's designed to push you to your limits, and see how you react and who rises to the top. It's a challenge -- and it's challenging. In real life, I'm in control, I make up the rules, it's my kitchen, and it's my restaurant. But on Top Chef Masters, I'm not the one making the rules.
Who do you view as your strongest competition? I didn't know everyone, but when I walked in the kitchen and saw Douglas Keane from Cyrus there, I knew he was a badass from a cooking point of view. In fact, my husband Max and I had two of the best meals of our whole life at Cyrus. I also saw David Burke, who's a legend, and I knew that there was a lot of stuff that he could teach me. I also knew Neal Fraser, and there was no doubt in my mind that he was going to be awesome. I had never met Bryan Voltaggio, who competed on Top Chef, but he looked like he was just killer when I was watching him, and I actually thought he'd won instead of his brother. He just looked really, really good.
How would you describe your journey on Top Chef Masters? It's the hardest thing I've ever done. Let me just say this: The challenges are so real and they just pop them on you and you don't have any time to think. It kicked my ass and was exhausting...watch it and you'll see what I mean.
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