The return of Top Chef to the kitchen is exciting! Mike Bloom of Parade.com interviews the most recent chef who has been instructed to pack their knives and leave Houston every week.
Top Chef is a grueling test of every skill a chef has gained up to that point in his or her career. It would seem difficult to win the show by impairing taste and smell, two of the most crucial senses for effective cooking. Throughout his stay in Houston, however, Jackson Kalb was able to do the seemingly impossible. After a COVID infection a few months prior, the L.A. chef had lost much of his sense of smell and taste. He preferred to keep this information hidden from his competition, and they had no cause to be suspicious.
That’s because Jackson had a fantastic game, winning three challenges and placing first in every Elimination Challenge but one. However, a major hurdle in the form of Restaurant Wars stymied his progress. After just opening his own restaurant, Jackson presented a notion that his crew was confident in. However, the judges at “No Nem” had a difficult time, especially when it came to Jackson’s front-of-the-house service (or lack thereof). For the first and only time, he was voted out of the competition because the judges blamed him for the judges’ bad ideas and poor service. And then, out of nowhere, a frontrunner was eliminated.
Read on to hear Jackson’s comments on his time on the show, and watch Last Chance Kitchen to see how he and other evicted chefs are fighting for redemption and a chance to return.
What made you want to apply for Top Chef in the first place?
They found me on Instagram, not through an application. As a result, I was ecstatic to be a part of the event.
Let’s start with the fact that, while filming Top Chef, you had lost much of your sense of taste and smell owing to COVID. How did you deal with having to eat the food of other chefs or yourself?
I was a twitchy, jittery wreck. Everyone kept wondering why I was always so nervous. I went into the competition with very low hopes. “At least I got to go on the show if I went out first round,” I reasoned. I promised myself that no matter what, I would not use my inability to smell as an excuse. I made the decision to participate in the performance, so I made the decision to be aware of it.
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Did any of your rivals suspect anything before you told them?
I don’t recall any of the rivals suspecting anything. I believe we were all so preoccupied with our own work that it was difficult to focus on anything other than what we were putting on the table.
Despite your limitations, you had a successful run-up to Restaurant Wars, coming first in six of the seven Elimination Challenges and winning two of them, as well as a Quickfire. Was your astonishment at your achievement or did it change your perspective on the competition?
From my perspective, my performance on the show was outstanding. I didn’t think I’d ever make it into the top three. I was largely expecting to crash and burn, to come in second or third place, and fade away shortly. My self-esteem is quite low. To this day, I still feel that all of those victories were purely by chance. I had one hour and a half of sleep the night before Restaurant Wars. I was awakened by the thought that I might have a chance to win the whole thing. All of a sudden, I was filled with irrational emotions.
“Am I more capable than I believe?” Is it possible that my gut feelings are usually correct? Is it simply a case of everyone else making mistakes to make me appear good? Does the fact that my restaurants are successful mean I’m a good chef, or is there something else at play, as I’ve been telling myself for years?” It’s interesting that I was so concerned about the food I served, but I mostly went out because of poor judgment.
You mention that you’re an anxious person by nature. In a high-pressure situation like Top Chef, how difficult was that to handle?
I didn’t handle my stress well at all, owing to the added pressure of keeping this hidden from my competition, which I felt bad about, as well as the fact that I had no way of knowing what I was serving. I meditate frequently, which helps, but it’s difficult to settle down and see things for what they are when everything feels so severe.
Let’s get down to business with the Restaurant Wars. To begin, why did you choose to serve family-style, despite the judges’ later comments that the meals appeared to be disconnected?
Multiple plates of food are frequently served at the same time in high-end restaurants in Los Angeles. That is still done for a purpose, and it works, but not when Tom Colicchio is being served. I was also concerned about the classes’ timetable. I don’t believe it’s fair to say I made that decision on my own because I proposed consulting with the group. However, I strongly recommended it and stand by it. It was clearly the wrong thing to try to put out there, and it was also the wrong decision to go on with after I proposed it.
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You mentioned on Top Chef that your limited senses caused you to miss out on once-in-a-lifetime possibilities. But, looking back on your time in Houston, how do you remember it?
I had a wonderful day in Houston and would return the next day if they would allow it.