Keith Rhodes became the first to pack his knives and go on Top Chef: Texas after he used flour tortillas in his enchilada instead of corn tortillas and, most unforgivably, bought pre-cooked shrimp for teammate Lindsay. The North Carolina-based chef admits the purchase was "not the best decision," but thinks things could've turned out differently had Lindsay and Sarah not thrown him under the bus and "kept rolling over me" by harping about the shrimp at Judges' Table. But why did he buy the shrimp in the first place? Read on.
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Why did you buy the pre-cooked shrimp? Was it really a money issue?
Keith: Well, one thing that I'm really adamant about stressing is thinking under pressure. When I first viewed those shrimp in that case, all I thought about was the timing issue of cooking the shrimp, peeling the shrimp, working with others. [Lindsay] had mentioned [doing] a cocktail, so I thought these would be fine. Evidently they weren't fine for her. I thought even if they didn't work, us being "top chefs," we would be able to overcome that. I had no inkling that they would not work until we got back and I looked at the shrimp. They were all frozen and the ones on the display case weren't frozen. It was a little bit of a jam there. I don't use pre-cooked shrimp like that in my restaurant, but it was just something I was thinking about on the fly being under a time constraint.
We saw Chris say, "Whatever, get it," when you asked. Did nobody suggest that they might be a bad idea?
Keith: When we were in the market, there were multiple conversations. We were trying to talk [to the group] in Whole Foods. It was almost pandemonium trying to get a consensus, so that's why Chris was like, "Go for it. Let's just get what we need to get." I don't know how that got to be a recurring thorn because I ended up at Judges' Table for the flour tortilla. But the seed kept getting watered throughout the whole ordeal and it was ultimately something Sarah and Lindsay had to fall back on.
They're supposed to judge you on the dishes that were made too, and no one made a shrimp dish.
Keith: Exactly. It was thrown out there as an excuse. Again, we're chefs and we're supposed to be able to overcome anything during service.
You had to have known that pre-cooked food most likely was not going to fly with the judges though.
Keith: Well, Dakota used boxed cake mix. She had immunity, but that was never an issue. I think it was the fact that it kept getting repeated. If it was just mentioned and left alone, maybe things would've been different. Sarah and Lindsay made it into an issue every time they had a chance. I can understand where they're coming from. We could've done something else with them. Like I said, I don't use them, but they sell those shrimp for a reason. It ended up not being the best decision.
Your team had terrible communication throughout. What happened there?
Keith: No one took a leadership role when they had experience in Mexican food, like what Chuy did for his team. We spent a lot of time going back and forth. There was not a lot of positive, creative planning. One of the things I said was that I don't do well with a lot of B.S. I've been doing this for a long time and my kitchen is not filled with drama and negative energy. To be surrounded by negativity, I felt alone. It was dark. I normally don't feel that way. I was like a turtle; I pulled my head back in and waited for the coast to be clear. That was probably the toughest moment with the shrimp deal. Nyesha and Ty-Lor were the only ones not to make an issue out of it. They were like, "You OK over there?" They knew it was bothering me because of the way Lindsay was making a huge deal.
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Sarah and Lindsay had experience with Mexican cuisine. Why didn't either of them step up or tell you to use corn tortillas?
Keith: I don't know. I think they were more concerned about themselves. For them to have that experience and to give me no input, I mean, put the dagger away. I see it right there. Once Tom [Colicchio] said that at Judges' Table, I just had to let go. Even when I let it go, it was a lot more restrained that it probably should've been. Sarah cut the tortillas for me and not once did she say, "I live in Texas. Maybe you want to use corn tortillas." Not once! The shrimp wasn't a huge deal, but with the flour tortillas, where I'm from, that's how we eat. ... That was all that I knew. It was different if I was running a gamble on it. After the show, going out and eating in different places, I saw that this tortilla thing was very subjective because we would go places and they would have flour ones and where they would have corn ones. Some had white cheese, some had yellow cheese. ... Then to have Hugh [Acheson] call my enchilada a burrito was like, "What?" It was pretty hilarious.
Was it as obvious to you as it was to us that they were going to throw you under the bus?
Keith: Oh, I knew it when we were cooking. Tom came through. Sarah went right in there and the first thing she said was, "Keith bought some frozen shrimp." I'm like, "How can you plant that seed right now?" I don't think like that on a daily basis. We problem-solve. I hold accountability for everything. I bought the shrimp. I made the enchiladas. I did what I said I was going to do. We could've moved on from the shrimp. That showed their bad character. It let you know what they're like on the inside. There were so many tears and whining and all that. I'm like, "You're an executive chef at one of the best, well-known Italian restaurants in Chicago. You both have great reputations. How could you play the emotional-female card right now, knowing how strong you guys are?" They all know the respect I have for all the ladies there, knowing that they have to be tough ladies to be executive chefs in this business.
I think a lot of fans appreciated your calm demeanor throughout the whole thing. How big a part has having been in prison and all that you went through affected your perspective and demeanor?
Keith: That happened really early on in my life. I was coming out of my teens. It was a humbling experience. It taught me to value things and think about things. Having 20 years to develop that character is what I bring to the table now. I'm always willing to give people a second chance, so to be around these particular people, I knew potentially what could happen. I just thought it was a good time to come and share my story and compete and do the best I can. I just hope that some of the other chefs and some aspiring chefs could be inspired by what I brought to the table. You don't have to be a yeller in the kitchen, throwing stuff or just being a stereotypical chef. Being in prison wasn't really a catalyst in me having a calm demeanor. I lost my immediate family in my 20s. That humbled me a lot. I didn't have money. I didn't have credit cards. So when you climb that ladder of success, you take these things in stride. I've truly been blessed, not just with my career, but being around positive people — my wife of 20-plus years, my kids. ... My kids are in college. I have a good story to share.