Top Chef talks competition and navigating the restaurant world during COVID-19

Chef Jennifer Carroll competing on Bravo's 'Top Chef.'

Philly has always had its fair share of incredible culinary talent who have helped put the City of Brotherly Love on the map when it comes to comestible achievements, including chef Jennifer Carroll. Some may know Carroll from her catering company, Carroll Couture Cuisine, or from her popular Center City eatery Spice Finch that serves up enticing and fresh mediterranean fare. But nationally, the culinary whiz has gained fame from competing on numerous seasons of Bravo’s hit show ‘Top Chef,’ including its current season, ‘Top Chef All Stars: LA.’ But what might be most impressive about Carroll is her acute desire to help the restaurant community as a whole during this difficult time, and helped she has.

Carroll sat down with Metro to give some essential advice to newbies in the kitchen, discuss her experience on Bravo’s ‘Top Chef,’ and to dive into more on how she has been navigating this precarious time as a business-owner.


What keeps you coming back to ‘Top Chef’?

For me, I’ve always been competitive my whole life and I always try to challenge myself. I’m never complacent, I always want to do better and I always want to push myself, that’s why it’s always pretty much a yes whenever they call.

What have you learned from competing as a chef and as a person?

Honestly, after going on the first time in season 6 and then leaving the competition and seeing how crazy and intense it was, it gave me the confidence to really be able to walk into anywhere and figure out how to make a bad situation good. It changed my view on so many things and it changed my idea of the ‘perfect’ kitchen to cook out of. It made me realize that I have skills within myself that were untapped before, and it really brought them to life. Without ‘Top Chef,’ I don’t think I would be out doing as much stuff as I am now, the show itself and the national attention has allowed me to give back in so many ways—that’s the best part about it.

What’s the hardest part of competing on the show?

It’s a crazy, intense and stressful situation no matter what, but I think the most stressful part is walking into the kitchen and not knowing what your challenge is going to be beforehand. You get the nerves in your stomach and butterflies over what’s going to happen, because you honestly have no idea what they’re going to throw at you. That has not changed, no matter how many times I’ve gone back. It’s still always like, ‘Oh my gosh, what is coming at us?’ So that’s probably the most stressful thing.


Are there any moments from your time on the show that stand out to you in particular?

There are so many, but probably the first episode of season 6 when I won the Quick Fire Challenge—that is very memorable to me because it helped me set the tone [of the season] and gave me automatic confidence in myself. Like okay, I’m here, I can do this and I can compete against everybody. That’s one, but there are really so many great moments and a lot of friendships and bonds that have come out of it.

As a chef, owner of a catering company and owner of Center City’s Spice Finch, how have you been navigating business during the pandemic?

It has been an extreme rollercoaster of emotions, it’s just a whole other type of stress. I’ve been busy trying to read up on every single thing that I need to do in order to make my employees whole and get both of my businesses re-opened. There are just so many unknowns, and that’s the hardest thing about it, just how hard it is to plan in order to give my team who is struggling financially right now any timeframe. Not being able to be that leader with the answers to my team has been really difficult for me because I don’t like not having those answers, so I’ve thrown myself into lots of different organizations and initiatives. I set up a GoFundMe page for my team at Spice Finch and I’m doing some things with Save Philly Eats, I’ve really thrown myself into that. A lot of my other restaurant friends who run some smaller establishments don’t have the platform I have, so to get them up on the Save Philly Eats website to sell whatever they want, whether it’s gift cards or experiences—anything like that, the site has just been really great. I’ve also been working with the James Beard foundation along with Bravo and NBC to do and the whole James Beard Food and Beverage Industry Relief Fund—I’ve really been trying to do anything I can with not only myself and my team, but the restaurant community as a whole. That is something that has been making the days go by a little bit faster. It’s really just trying to find answers and trying to find ways to help as many people as I possibly can and that’s been helping me emotionally get through it, it makes me feel like I’m doing something. Our community is all about hospitality and giving back, so I’ve been trying to do as much as I possibly can to give back and to help others.


What tips do you have for those of us figuring out our way in the kitchen while social distancing? 

If anybody wants to follow along on my Instagram (@chefjencarroll), I’ve been posting videos and I’ve been posting some stuff there. But the best thing for people to do is to not be afraid of cooking and to not be afraid of making mistakes. Just go for it, pick up anything you like and Google it, there’s recipes all over the place and just try it out. The way you get better is by making a mistake and doing it again and again and again. Cooking is a learned skill just like playing basketball or soccer, you get better the more you do it. Don’t give up and don’t get disappointed if something doesn’t turn out the way you like, ultimately have fun in the kitchen and don’t get intimated by it.

Catch Jennifer Carroll on Bravo’s ‘Top Chef’ All-Stars: LA,’ Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET.

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