Tony Mantuano is the James Beard award-winning chef at the acclaimed Spiaggia restaurant in Chicago, Illinois and a contestant on this season of Top Chef Masters. Competing on behalf of the charity Feeding America, he was eliminated this week (see our recap) and is the third chef to go home from the Champion's Round.
This episode, you and Jonathan Waxman both look so tired early on. Was it shot the day after the weird food challenge?
They're shot really close together. I think we were pretty tired, it's hard work. I'm not sure anyone realizes how physically demanding being on this show is; the way that the producers of the show have laid it out, it's definitely a test. Besides being creative and cooking, it's very demanding. It's not a diet I recommend for everyone.
You're pretty well-established, so I imagine in the kitchen there's stuff that day-to-day you haven't had to do for many years because you can have a sous or someone else do it, but on Top Chef you have to do everything from scratch by yourself. Was that a shock to your system?
You realize the whole you never forget how to ride a bike thing—it's the same thing, you start doing it and it all comes back. Your speed isn't quite what it was. During Wedding Wars, I had to clean 300 shrimp by myself *laughs* so it? took me a little bit longer. It's a lot, you know? Making pizza dough the day before for the tailgating, rolling out 50 pieces prior to a hundred people showing up. So yeah, there's a lot of things I don't do anymore, but I don't do them by choice. *laughs* Not that I can't do them!
I remember watching the shrimp thing thinking "Oh my god, you must be crazy to be doing all of that by yourself." Have you ever regretted doing a particular dish because you'd forgotten it would take so much time to do all of that?
Oh yeah, about a hundred shrimp in I'm like, "Why did I do this?" But I always wanted to stick to things I knew would come off really well and that we do in our restaurants and so I didn't ever regret. Some advice that I got prior was never change your dish one you decide to do it; like, thirty minutes in, "Ah, I'm not going to do that anymore, I'm going to change this." I always stuck with that. I always said "This is what I'm doing, I'm sticking with it, I'm not changing it." So I never wavered.
Did you grow up cooking at tail gates? Or were you just an eater?
I cook occasionally at tail gating but mostly it's something simple: grilled Italian sausage, having a beer, and doing the Midwestern tail gating thing. I never had an Austrian dumpling in Wisconsin.
Speaking of Susur: what's the deal with him always being up in your grill, always trying to use your table? Do you think he has a man crush on you or something? Why is it always your table?
*laughs* It just ended up that we worked next to each other and he began referring to me as "my lucky charm" which you know, became sort of annoying after a while. You know, we became good friends; we teased each other a lot and at the end of the day we were friends. The only time he really annoyed me was the whole Sopranos stereotype thing.
I was watching the show with a friend who's also Asian, we were like, it's kind of really funny to see an Asian dude trying to pull the offensive stereotype on the white dude, it's like a reversal of what we usually see on TV. Have you ever gotten Sopranos jokes or Italian jokes before? I'm in New York so we get the Sopranos jokes and now the Jersey Shore thing.
Yeah, it's offensive. When you think about all the great things that Italian Americans have done in this country, why don't we ever talk about that? It's not humorous anymore; it's not humorous to me, and you know, I didn't throw any Jackie Chan stereotypes at him. That would've been in really bad taste if I'd have done it. It's just not fair to Italian Americans any more, to be compared to these New Jersey mobsters.
How do you feel about the Jersey Shore?
I know trainwrecks make good TV *laughs* so I understand it, but yeah, it's really promoting stereotypes. Jersey Shore. I have not really watched the show, I've only seen interviews with some of the people on the show.
It's amazing and terrifying. Yeah? Don't watch it.
Amazing and terrifying are great descriptions for reality TV.
So, as Susur's lucky charm, do you think now you're off the show he'll be next? What do you think his chances are of getting into the final three?
There's such a love affair between him and the judges so he probably will be on for quite some time. I don't know. Who knows? They love him though; those scores are crazy that he gets. Knife skills? The guy's the best I've ever seen. No doubt about it. And he's very, very, very competitive. He's beyond normal when it comes to competitive.
My friend noticed that he only says "thank you" for a score if it's four or above.
If it's three he's just like, serious face. Every time he loses a Quickfire, he's livid. You've been pretty mellow the whole show—is that how you usually are?
It's how I am. It takes a lot to get me pissed off and it's sort of like a slow build, so by the third show with Susur I'd been pushed to that point, but I'm a pretty mellow guy. I have a lot of confidence in what I do; Spiaggia is the only restaurant with four stars in Chicago that's Italian. I am secure and confident in what we do. I was secure and confident in the food I cooked in the show, I have no regrets. I did the best I could and I thought what I cooked was delicious and tasty, so if that isn't enough, it isn't enough.
Would you recommend the Top Chef or Top Chef Masters experience?
Oh absolutely! It's a great test of your skills, it's a great test of your abilities. Top Chef Masters is a great way to raise money for your charity. And I have ten or twelve new friends now from that show that have restaurants around the country. To build friendships and professional friendships, yeah, it's a great experience. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Who are your favorite people to cook for?
I think the one that really stands out is when Paul McCartney came in. At the time he was married to Heather Mills and they're both vegans. He came in, he sat down, I talked to him and said, "You know, I can cook whatever you want. Just tell me what ingredients you love." "I love porcini mushrooms, I love..." And it was really easy to do a tasting menu for them based on all the great ingredients. It was a thrill. And he ended up talking to me and asking me about my career, we talked about restaurants in London, it was just like talking to a regular guy. And after he was done he came up to the line—we have an open kitchen—and thanked everyone for the meal. So that was really a thrill.
*laughs* He's a great tipper! Absolutely.
· Spiaggia restaurant [Official site]
· The Chefs of Top Chef Masters Season 2: A Field Guide [~EN~]
· All Top Chef Masters Coverage on Eater [~EN~]
· All Top Chef Masters Exit Interviews on Eater [~EN~]