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Top Chef Chicago! A Q&A with Nikki Cascone » the strong buzz, by andrea strong
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“Top Chef Chicago! A Q&A with Nikki Cascone”

With the Season Premiere of Season Four of Top Chef around the corner (it airs on Bravo on Wednesday March 12th at 10 p.m.), I thought it might be nice to get to know some of the competition. A few weeks ago I had the chance to have a chat with New York’s very own Top Chef contender, Nikki Cascone, to get to know her a little better and to get the skinny on her experience on Top Chef and more.

The daughter of a Russian Jew (mom) and a Sicilian Italian (dad), Cascone, who speaks with an undeniable New York accent, is a native of Staten Island and is the chef and a partner of 24 Prince, a seasonal Mediterranean bistro on Prince Street in Soho. (A Top Chef sign currently hangs in the window so you can’t miss it.)

Before going toque-to-toque with 15 other contestants on Top Chef, Nikki worked for many years as a chef in Atlanta under acclaimed chef Gunther Seeger. She moved to New York and worked front of house at Public and then began a stint in management with Jean Georges’ restaurants, opening Spice Market and V Steakhouse.

In 2005, she became the Director of Food and Beverage for the New York Yankees where she was charged with creating the menus for 32 VIP suites, the players clubhouse, Steinbrenner’s suite, and three ballpark restaurants. (That sounds like a formula for a reality show.) After a year with George, she moved on to a consulting job at 24 Prince, which turned into a full time gig as chef-partner with owners Brad Grossman and Chris Heller.

Strong Buzz: Have you been a fan of Top Chef since the beginning?
Nikki Cascone: I did not see Season One. I started to watch Season Two and my staff was harassing me to apply. They rallied. I wish I had it on camera. It got to the point that they brought me the application. At that point, I was a fan of the show. It was one of the more respectable competitions on reality TV.

SB: Who was your favorite last season?
NC: Last season I was impressed by Hung’s technical skills, but as a cook I wasn’t blown away. I was rooting for Casey. In Season Two I felt like Sam was such an underdog and felt like he got a raw deal. I felt like he should have won Season Two. 100%. Of course, I wasn’t judging it.

SB: What is your definition of a great chef?
NC: I think that a great chef needs to be a leader first and foremost. That Marco Pierre White brigade doesn’t exist anymore. People need to look up to you and you need to be able to lead and you need to know how to run a business because you’ll be out of business in three months if you don’t. A great chef needs to be very well rounded and have passion. I mean I cook every day and prep every day. I am here so that my cooks are here and learn from me and I am learning every day too. You can’t be afraid to do the work and lead by example.

SB: Were you impressed with your competition on the show?
NC: Absolutely. I was definitely impressed. Every day is Christmas on Top Chef. You have that excited anxious energy and you don’t know what will happen next. You’re excited and nervous all the time.

SB: Was it harder or easier than you thought?
NC: I think the show was as hard as I thought it would be. Physically being a chef you’re kind of prepared, but it’s boot camp. It challenges you to the limit. Your day-to-day 200 people at once doesn’t prepare you for the show. I hope that people get that when they watch the show. It’s not always the best person who wins, it’s a lot of will and wit. It’s an intense competition.

SB: Who was the toughest judge?
NC: I definitely feel that Tom was intimidating to me. Of course you hold everyone in high regard but he, I know his background, and he’s not a very outwardly vocal person, but he’s such a nice guy he’s got a presence that you want to be respectful and perform. I feel like I had the most respect for him and looked forward to his commentary.

SB: What would you say are your strengths and weaknesses as a chef?
NC: My weakness is that I was out of the kitchen for many years, but it’s also a strength. I think like a business operator, which is great, but years of not cooking with knives is tough. I would love to work with Gray Kunz and go to Europe. Sometimes I would have liked to have experiences like that but now I own my own business so It’s hard to say I’ll go to El Bulli and work for free. That was my weakness in the competition was that I was in Front-of-House, but I tried to turn it around to an advantage. My strength is that I think I understand what people want. It’s a natural thing that either you have it or you don’t. I meet a lot of chefs who are technically skilled and they don’t have that. I feel like that’s a strength.

SB: Do you think you had an advantage being a New York City chef?
NC: Yes! New York is the culinary capital of the world and I have been exposed to different cuisines and that gave me an edge. You also have the street smarts and that helps carry you.

SB: What was the audition process like?
NC: I tried out for Season Three (Top Chef Miami), and was in finals and was not selected, but that didn’t discourage me. I was determined to be part of the show and thought it would be great for the restaurant. Also if you aren’t competing you aren’t excelling, and I was now obsessed with it. So I went back.

SB: Once you got on the show, who ran kitchen at 24 Prince while you were out?
NC: One of my partners got in the kitchen and learned how to cook. He is rock solid.

SB: Do you have any advice for future Top Chef contestants?
NC: Bring a dessert recipe, definitely. I think everyone has learned that by now you should sleep the month before you go.

SB: So, I guess the final question has to be, Would you do it again?
NC: Absolutely, 100%. I don’t think you leave the experience saying that but in retrospect you’d do it a thousand times over. It was a life changing experience. To see how I am edited is what makes me nervous.

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