Carmen Gonzalez is a chef, cookbook author, and television host best known for her modern take on classic Puerto Rican cuisine at her award-winning flagship Carmen the Restaurant in Coral Gables, Florida. After recovering from near-certain disaster to make what judges called the biggest come-back in Top Chef Masters history and win an Elimination Challenge in the first round of competitions, she was the first chef to exit the Champion's Round this week (see our full recap). She was kind enough to answer a few questions for us:
Most chefs go on Top Chef Masters to promote their restaurant but you don't have a place open right now, so why'd you decide to join? What kind of stuff do you have in the pipeline?
First of all, when you're invited to do something like this, I mean, I was very honored that they considered me because you said it right there, I don't have a flagship restaurant right now. So I'm working more as a consultant and on my cookbook and, you know, other projects. But I think also for me it was another opportunity to do something else in this fabulous business that I love. I've been breathing this business since I was ten, so it was a different aspect, a way for me to see what I was really made of. It feels good to go ahead on challenges like this. And you know, also, I've been doing this for so long I was welcoming a new opportunity. I don't get to see good friends and I knew some of them would be doing this, the people that would be there would be people that I've known for a very long time.
So who were your pals, of the people that you were on the show with?
I've been doing this for thirty years, you get to know everyone in the business. So you bump into each other one way or another. For instance, Jody Adams is one of my best friends in this business; we've been friends forever, we've done a tremendous amount of dinners together. Jody and I have been friends for a very long time and actually, when I had my restaurant in Miami, Jody used to come every year because we used to do a dinner every week of Valentine's for one of my charities in Miami. It was called Kitchen Divas. I used to have Jody, Melissa Kelly, Emily Luchetti, and Nancy Fullerton come every year. And they would never say no because when you're invited to come to a weekend in Miami in February, you know, Boston is like twenty or zero? Jody says, "I'm there!" so everybody else wanted to go! But we've been friends for a very, very long time. And also Susan Feniger and Rick Moonen are some of my good friends that were on the show.
The kitchen's so macho usually, so male-dominated, and there are so many women in the Champion's Round this year. What's that like for you, especially since you make a point of doing stuff with other women chefs?
I've always been asked in my career how I came from a very small town in Puerto Rico to be a chef and do this. You need to remember, when I was in kitchens in the 80s, there was one female in the kitchen for, I don't know, thirty men. I was working the line which is very, very rare. Filleting fish and doing other stuff—extremely rare. I have to tell you, I'm very happy there are so many females doing this; they're in the championship round, that they're doing so well. I think it's finally, it's there for the viewers. I don't think the kitchen is as much a male and female thing. You know, I never thought about it that way. If you saw me next to Tony, I'm what, up to his hips? They're all taller than me, bigger than me, yet I never feel like that's an advantage. Never felt that way ever, since I was in the kitchen, when I was a line cook. Never asked for help; I would carry my sixty pounds of potatoes on my own, even though it would break my back. It's just a matter of how you ask for respect, how you expect respect and how you respect others. But I'm very happy that finally a show like this one, which is viewed by so many millions of people, they're getting to see what we all know, that I don't think in a kitchen it's a matter of who wears the pants. I think it's a matter of how talented you are, how you can carry yourself in different situations.
Speaking of the others and how they're doing, you mentioned you're good friends with Jody and she won this episode. Who are your picks for the top three? Who do you think is going to win it? who'd you like to win it?
We don't even know who won it, we're like all of you! So I don't even know who will win next episode, because we have to keep a tight lip. And I think it's fantastic because it's a big drama for all of us, including me. To tell you the truth, for me to choose one person or two people, it's very difficult because if you're there—besides the point that I know them all, they're all friends—when you're there with them and competing with them, and I was lucky enough to be in this championship round, there's so much talent and so much willingness to win that it's very hard for me to tell you who I think will move ahead. My experience of being there: it doesn't matter who you are or what you do, it's what they throw at you that particular day.
The judges seemed to really like what you put out, but they gave you lower scores than Marcus Samuelsson, whose meat they really did not like. It seems like you got lower marks because they specifically felt you didn't make enough dishes for the wedding. Is that something you regret? 20/20 hindsight, would you have done it differently and made an entree?
Now, the day after, you start thinking what if I had done it this way. I think the judges liked what I did; they loved the flavors, they loved my dishes. I did do one more dish that wasn't shown last night, which was a side dish, so I made two side dishes and the crab cakes, that was decided when we created the menu. But probably, if I could do the challenge again, I would probably do a main course, that on the scale of the menu was a bigger item. I received low scores and I don't think it was because they didn't like the food. I think they didn't feel like I carried enough weight in terms of the menu and unfortunately I think they're right in one part; I think the other part is I was literally helping everyone as a team to create everything. So I think the judging was balanced both ways, but I think at the end of the day they felt Marcus put more effort into the dishes than what I did.
It kind of goes back to what Marcus said in the first episode that you two were on, when he talked about putting yourself first and maybe not focusing so much on what other people were doing—do you think it would have benefited you, taking that advice?
I think that—look, I'm a tennis player, okay? And when I play singles, I kill you. And I go for me. And I would do everything in my mind and my body to make every single shot that I make. However when I'm playing doubles, I play for me but I also play for the person next to me, and I try to balance it both ways. I think everyone has strategic ways of playing these games and I think that, you know, to each his own. Like I said before, yes, I would've done something that on the scale of the menu would appear to be more of an effort, but I don't know if I would've just gone through I'm-going-to-just-play-for-myself because at the end of the day, it was a team effort. and I think that even Marcus—I think that everybody there helped as much as they could.
Out of curiosity, what was the other dish you made and why didn't it get served?
No, it was served! I don't know why it wasn't shown last night, is what I'm saying. It was served. I made a warm spinach salad to do à la minute at the wedding to cook next to Tony; he was cooking his shrimp, I was cooking my spinach. It didn't make the cut, I don't know why, but that was the dish I made.
— Lia Bulaong