It’s tough to say what was more shocking on Wednesday night’s ‘Top Chef‘: the elimination of Jen Carroll, one of this season’s strongest All-Stars, or the epic sass she displayed at Judges’ Table.
While Jen says she didn’t aim to offend, she certainly stunned the judges, her fellow chefs, and viewers while defending her braised pork belly. When Tom Colicchio criticized her “bland” breakfast, she tersely responded: “No way! Zero doubt in my mind it was under-seasoned.” But it was the eruption that followed Colicchio’s question about why her team didn’t split their dishes onto separate plates – “”You guys are smart enough. You’re the judges. Why didn’t you say ‘Hey, can I get a different plate for this?’” — that caused Tiffany to groan, “Oh, wow.”
Jen admits she groaned watching the episode, too. “I was cringing a little bit, and I was a little scared to see it.”
Although serious in the kitchen, the Philly-based chef showed her humorous side on a call Friday, joking about everything from this season’s black “demon” jackets to her own inner “T-Rex.”
Did you watch Wednesday’s episode with one hand over your eyes?
I knew how passionate I was on the show, but of course you don’t know how you’re going to appear once you see [it]. I was actually at my restaurant working when it came on. I had a bunch of my family in town to watch. I missed the first half of it, but the second half…uhhh, yeah. I kind of had a feeling what was coming. But, my Philly attitude definitely came out! [Laughs.]
What did your dad actually say to you when he saw what happened?
My dad said exactly what I expected him to say. My mom and dad are complete opposites of each other. I’ve got their two personalities inside of me. You had a little more of my mom’s personality in season 6, where I was gracious, proud, and accepting. I think this fiery, competitive aggressiveness of my dad’s came out of me this season. My dad was laughing. He goes, ‘I thought I was just watching myself on TV.’ My parents are proud of me whatever I do. My dad used to own race cars, and his old number was 86, so he goes, ‘Well I guess the 86 always had something to do with cooking: you just got 86′d from the show.’ We have a great sarcastic relationship and I love him to death. I can read you a text message he wrote to me, it says, ‘I don’t care what happens, you’re always on top with me. You’re top daughter, you’ve already won. Stay the same.’
Both you and Elia unexpectedly spoke up at Judges’ Table. Do you think now that you’re “All-Stars,” you feel more comfortable talking back to the judges?
This time around, yes of course we’re more comfortable. We’ve done different events with them and we got to know them on a personal level. It still doesn’t give us any right to be disrespectful, which, well…I didn’t curse at them. I did apologize to the judges immediately. I shook their hands and thanked them for the opportunity to be on the show again. I really wanted to win and I think the competitive aggressiveness just really came out. Was it a good dish? Yes. But could it have been a lot better? Of course. I wanted to really defend myself. I didn’t want to go home or stay quiet at Judges’ Table. I thought going the route I did this time would help, but it definitely did not! [Laughs.]
Was the pressure to win that much greater because the level of competition was higher?
Oh man. I think the pressure was huge this time around. I’m invited back to compete against all these other chefs who’ve made it to the finals in the show. Every single one of them is a great chef. The pressure’s on, we’ve all played the game before, and it’s hard.
You were also working on, what, a half hour of sleep? Forty-five minutes?
Yeah, definitely forty-five minutes of sleep. But guess what? So was every single other person. What, do they all have excuses? I’m not here to make up an excuse that I didn’t get enough sleep. As a chef you work crazy hours and you don’t get enough sleep. Sure, I had a ton of caffeine in me. I also think sleeping with the dinosaurs, the T-Rex came out of me. That’s what came out at Judges’ Table! [Laughs.]
Do you think your reaction at Judges’ Table influenced their decision to eliminate you?
I would hope it wouldn’t influence them. I can’t really answer that, though, because I’m not them. I’d hope it’d be based on the food. I think they were definitely surprised with how I was. I don’t think they were expecting that from me. I read Gail’s blog and she said she was glad I stood up for myself. I don’t think it swayed them either way.
I have to admit I laughed at Tiffany’s reaction. What did the other chefs say to you when you got back into the Stew Room?
Everybody was like, ‘Oh my God, Jen! You’re really standing up for us.’ Because besides standing up for myself, I was standing up for my whole team. I didn’t think they should’ve been on the losing half. I think they were all pretty much in shock.
What do you make of Jamie leaving, only to return with two stitches?
It was Jamie’s decision to leave. She came up to me when she cut herself and said, ‘Jen, I’m so sorry. The medics said I have to leave and get stitches.’ I’m never gonna make that decision for anybody. It wasn’t my finger, but I was concerned about her. I’m glad she was okay and the cut wasn’t worse. I will not pass judgment on her for leaving and making the decision to take care of herself.
So what would you would have done differently?
Oh my gosh. I would have done a bunch of different things. [Laughs.] I probably would have taken a little more time to conceptualize the dish instead of just rushing to get something done. Maybe I would have done the butchering, so I could have had a partner the entire time! I would have cooked the belly a little bit longer. If I’d had herbs and aromatics I would have done the dish differently; I would have added a crunch to it.
What about at Judges’ Table? What would you have changed?
I think I still would have fought, but maybe I would have held my tongue a little bit more!
Were you excited to be back in the Top Chef house?
Walking into the house I was really excited because I had a ton of fun the first time around. Even though it was hard and intense I wanted to play the game this time around. Of course in the back of my mind I was thinking, What the hell did I just get myself into? Did I seriously just do this? Am I crazy? But it’s worth it. I got to meet a lot of the chefs that I watched before. I’d do it again. Hopefully I wouldn’t get eliminated second again! [Laughs.]
How could it have been fun without any Voltaggio brothers around?!
[Laughs.] I know! But I had [Mike] Isabella, who was still making up nicknames for everybody. It was good to hang out with him for a little bit. Also, Elia, who did get eliminated first, obviously — I got to spend a lot of time with her in the cast elimination house. She became one of my very best friends. Sometimes we do not come off in TV the way we are in real life, but I know I’m an excellent chef. I know my family and chef Ripert are behind me 100%. And I know that Philadelphia loves me. So, you know, hey — Rocky came out!
Given your relationship with Eric Ripert as mentor and boss, do you think you may not have reacted the way you did if he had been a judge?
I’ve been working with Chef Eric Ripert for eight years now. Listen, Eric and I have had our disagreements. Of course I respect everything he says, but we don’t have to agree 100% of the time. I’m glad Eric wasn’t there! [Laughs.] I think it would change maybe the way both of us would be. Eric was glad I defended my dish but said, ‘Jen, maybe you were a little disrespectful.’ That’s not what I meant to be. I truly am sorry if anybody took it that way.
OK. Moving on! What’s the deal with the black jackets this season? Is that just a special ‘All-Stars’ thing?
The black jacket is…Bravo is bringing us all back because this season is evil. [Laughs.] The demon comes out in all of us in the black jacket. I was an angel in the white jacket!
Who would you like to see win it?
I think Mike Isabella could definitely take it. I’m partial to him. I became really good friends with him.
Do you think the judges were mistaken in sending Jen home? Do you think she might have stayed in the competition if she didn’t react the way she did at Judges’ Table?