Top Chef's Whitney: My Thought Process Was Off
Steak-gate hit Top Chef when Lindsay fired Ty-Lor's steaks too early, but it was Whitney Otawka's undercooked potato gratin that sent her packing and bought Ty-Lor another day. Not she has any problem with that. "Ty should not have gone home for the steaks," Whitney tells TVGuide.com. "So many people were working on them and there was bad communication, and it wasn't his fault that they were fired early. I deserved to go." The Georgia-based chef knew the writing was on the wall as soon as Tom Colicchio said his potatoes were raw. So what went wrong? And how was she not aware they were undercooked? Read on.
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Tom said this was one of the easiest eliminations they've done. Was that hard to hear?
Whitney: No, I was fine with that. It was one of those things where as soon as he told me what the problem was, I knew I was going to go home. I undercooked the potato. That's a pretty basic ingredient that we all use every single day. So I was like, "Oh, crap! I'm leaving." He's a chef, I'm a chef, so I get it. It's disappointing, of course, because I want to be there until the end. But I understand the show. I've seen it over nine seasons. I knew what was going to happen to me and it happened!
You didn't think they might go after Ty for the steaks?
Whitney: I didn't think so because I knew that that took a group effort. It wasn't just him. Those were, like, 300 steaks. He grilled them, but they went into so many hands, whereas with my dish, it was my dish. That was one of the problems too. I took ownership of the dish because I knew that it could be a good thing in the end or a really bad thing. It was solely my responsibility, so therefore it should be me to go home.
A lot of people were telling you to cook the gratin the day before. Why didn't you?
Whitney: It was a time constraint. We had three hours ahead of time and when you're prepping it for that many people — just getting it sliced and prepared — there was no way to cook it ahead of time. And then I put it all in one convection oven. You know when you're in those situations under so much pressure that your brain doesn't think linearly? [Laughs] My thought process was off. I threw it all in the convection oven and whenever you do that, it's not going to cook the same; it's going to cook longer. There's so much in [the dish], so it's working harder. So all the ones in the center, I'm assuming, just weren't as well done as the ones on the bottom or the top. All kitchen equipment is different and all ovens work differently. This was brand new equipment and I just shoved it all in there! When I got it out, I was thinking that I had to cool them because cutting a hot gratin is totally impossible. I knew from the beginning like, "What have I done to myself?"
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How did you not tell that some of it was undercooked?
Whitney: It's funny because we cooled it so fast since you don't cut it when it's hot, so you wouldn't be able to tell the difference. They were quizzing me at the Judges' Table, like, "Couldn't you tell with your knife?" It's like, "No, because when a potato is cooled down, it's basically cream and cheese with that dish and hen cream and cheese are cold, it's harder to cut, so it appears hot." The ones that I did try, I thought were overcooked, so it just goes to show that an oven doesn't necessarily cook everything evenly. That's why I was like, "What?! It's undercooked?!"
You're saying you were pressed for time and the judges said six hours was too much time.
Whitney: It's not enough! [Laughs] Just imagine planning a dinner party for, like, 40 people. Think about the time it would take for you to plan it, prepare it and then cook it. But you get to be in your own space. You have to imagine that you're not in your own kitchen, so you're totally not acclimated to everything around you. And then there are 13 of us running into each other. There's so much stress that it carries over into how you're cooking and I go back to that non-linear thought process. Your brain is just bouncing around in a million directions. You look back and you're like, "Oh my gosh! What was I doing?"
The whole steak mishap was weird. Why did Lindsay fire them so early? How much did that affect your dish?
Whitney: The whole thing was such a strange mess. I'm not even sure how it all went down. It affected all of us because we're all trying to make the food hot, so it could've cooled down more. That was one of the hard things, too, because our group made the only hot plate. We were very easily the target. Executing 300 hot plates is not the easiest thing in the world.
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Hugh is your mentor. Did he say anything to you after you were eliminated?
Whitney: He didn't say anything to me directly. He knows me as a chef and I know him. I've worked for him for so long. He's taught me all I know, so it's kind of good that he wasn't like, "You suck! What have you done?" I think he knows me better than that. I think also because he's been on Top Chef Masters, he realizes the stress level we're under, so maybe he didn't want to pile on. Maybe there's a soft spot in Hugh Acheson's heart we don't know about! [Laughs]
What are you up to now?
Whitney: I'm in Athens, Ga. I'm back where Hugh's original restaurant is and I'm at a restaurant called Farm 255. I took over this kitchen about three weeks ago, so it's been crazy busy. It's really amazing. We have our own farm and process our own meats. It's just a really great space. I'm off [Cumberland Island, where she used to work], which is sad, but I thought I should be more accessible because people see you on TV and they should be able to at least come and eat my food!