On the weekly online series, in which ousted Top Chef contestants battle it out for a chance to re-enter the main competition, CJ recently trounced Micah in a head-to-head challenge over tartare. Chef Tom Colicchio, who is the sole judge on Last Chance Kitchen, deemed CJ's beef heart tartare with pickled duck skin and tomato water the winning dish. Some of the comments online, however, have called for blind tasting to remove the perception that Tom may be favoring CJ because of a supposed "bromance" between the two chefs.
"I saw the word 'bromance' and was like, 'What?!? What the f--- are they talking about?'" CJ tells TVGuide.com. "I've known Tom longer than those other contestants ... but I don't think that he likes me so much that he's willing to put his integrity on the line on a show that's won Emmys. That's ridiculous. He doesn't do blind tastings on Top Chef. He knows who cooks what, and he did not like my burger [that caused me to be eliminated] there.
"I just think I've become a much better chef than I was before," he continues. "I wished they used the full thing that Tom said on Last Chance Kitchen. He's been saying that I'm cooking better, and that was hands down the best dish that I've done that he's tasted ... I think that once I won three, the word 'bromance' was going to be used no matter what. I think it's a really lame word."
And although CJ would prefer to be judged solely on the quality and execution of his food, perception does matter when it comes to Last Chance Kitchen. Should he (God forbid) lose a challenge, he has one more shot to stay in the game with the "Save a Chef" competition in which viewers vote each week for an eliminated Last Chance Kitchen chef. In the end, the "saved" contestant will earn a spot in the final round of Last Chance Kitchen. Thus far, the powers that be (and voters of course) have kept Chef Kuniko, and in a sense, both she and CJ have both been a constant presence in the Last Chance Kitchen competition, although she hasn't been actively cooking.
Check out what else CJ has to say about returning to Top Chef, how bad John really is and who he thinks should win among the remaining contestants:
Why did you decide to return to Top Chef? You were originally on Season 3...
CJ: The opportunity presented itself. When I was originally on, it had helped open a few doors. But also, I'm a much different chef than I was back then. I really thought I could win, so I wanted to check it out. And it's fun. I love being on Top Chef. I used to be an athlete, and there's not a lot of places where you can have a competition and satisfy those creative needs as well.
Did the producers have to coax you or reassure you about anything before you returned?
CJ: I had watched Top Chef a few times before and my last terrible vision was of these people shooting guns at the possible things they had to cook with and then they had to go skiing [in Season 9's biathlon challenge]. I was like, "Oh my God. What the f--- happened to this show that I used to love?" So I asked them, "Am I the only one coming back like a d-----bag? Will there be circus acts that we have to perform?" I just wanted to cook. They reassured me that the reason we were coming back was to make it far more culinary-driven for Season 10 and they wanted to make it more serious and stick to the food.
Were you aware that your fellow competitors harbored some resentment for you as a returning contestant, thinking that gave you an advantage?
CJ: If I were them, I'd be like, "What the f--- is this? What's that guy's problem? Why is he coming back? What does he have to prove?" All of those things. But I didn't really go there for their feelings. I'm there because I want to do well and I loved it the first time.
Did you go back in with a strategy or intention?
CJ: I had one rule from before: Just be yourself. So if you lose, at least you were yourself and you don't have any regrets and then feel like a jackass. I think that's why I was sort of pissed off when I lost with Tyler. First of all, it was a team challenge, and I'd rather go down with the food I wanted to make, but we had compromised with that burger. That's why I was so pissed off and ready to kick some ass with Last Chance Kitchen.
Was there anyone you particularly wanted to take down in Last Chance Kitchen?
CJ: I knew I wanted to beat John.
Is John really that bad as he appeared on the show? He certainly rubbed people the wrong way.
CJ: He was really, really that bad. This is the guy who watched every episode of Top Chef since the beginning and applied to Top Chef every single year it's been on. He knows everything about every single episode and has analyzed everything. And [he] has this mental database and all of his weird ego and this sense of he missed the boat. He had cooked with all of these guys, you know? He cooked with [Anthony] Bourdain ... and then he had to deal with all of these "kids" 20 years or younger on the show. I'd probably be a surly weirdo too.
But he's not really terrible. After Last Chance Kitchen, he relaxed. I like him a lot and respect him a ton. We're actually friends now because on Last Chance Kitchen there's a lot of downtime, so he and I hung out a lot, played tennis.
Despite losing with a burger on Top Chef, you still enjoy them. What are some of your favorites around town?
CJ: I love burgers. I eat burgers like twice a week. It's one of my favorite foods. I like Pie 'n Burger in Pasadena. And The Spice Table burger is sick. It has some kimchee on it and they use American cheese and a really nice, soft bun. I like soft, smaller buns. That sounds funny. And a shrimp paste. They put ground dried shrimp in their grind, so it's a ton of umami.
I hear there was a Top Chef connection on how you got your current job at The Mercantile wine bar in Los Angeles. How did that happen?
CJ: I'm consulting for George Abou-Daoud who owns the Bowery St. group of restaurants. One day I got a phone call from [Top Chef alum and fellow Season 10 returning veteran] Stefan [Richter]. He was like [in a Stefan accent/voice], "Hey, what are you doing? You've got to call this guy. He's got a job. You've got to cook for him. It's easy. No problem, just make it sexy. No problem." So I called George up and we hit it off. He wanted to revamp the menus at a couple of places he owns, including The Mercantile. I love The Mercantile. It's a beautiful setting. It has freaking parking! That's a big f---ing deal in L.A.
Were you able to use your food point of view with this?
CJ: My point of view is very California. I had worked at Noma (in Copenhagen, Denmark) where René Redzepi decided to focus on Nordic Cuisine. I really wanted to do the same thing with California food. Granted, I'm not going to do what René Redzepi does. I'm not going to have an army of foraging sous chefs and go out in the brush of California, but I cook hyper-seasonally and I'm really inspired by the market and have good relationships with the farmers. There are certainly some things that are indigenous to California that are forage-able like sorrel. But George wanted stuff that can be there year 'round.
What's sorrel, and do you use it at The Mercantile?
CJ: It's an herb. What first you taste is this sort of green, chlorophyll flavor and then the acid-citrus comes in and then there's the sweet. It doesn't taste like any other herb. I'm in love with that herb so that's why I wanted to put it into a dish. On The Mercantile menu is this marinated tomato and farro salad with lots of herbs, including sorrel, and smoked ricotta salata. I also have a cured salmon dish with a lot of dill and beans -- very clean and vibrant-- and a grilled cheese sandwich with a cup of soup. I also love our mussels. They're made with a smoked tomatillo, so when I bring them up to temperature and they start to open up, all of that beautiful liquid melts in with this sort of tomatillo base we have. And the smokiness makes it taste sort of like bacon. It's good with tostones -- these potatoes that we bake and then we smash them down, kind of like you would a plantain.
Of the remaining Top Chef contestants, who do you think is the best?
CJ: For me, my frontrunner would be Brooke Williamson. She's modest and is my friend, so she'd be stoked to read that. But she's the real deal and is a really complete cook. She's done pastry. She can make anything really. I think that she's coming into her own in the competition creatively.
What else do you have going on in your career?
CJ: I have a pop-up on Feb. 14-17 called This Is Not a Pop-Up at Square One. I am the executive chef of a restaurant in Studio City called Girasol and that should be opening in late February-early March. I just did a TV show called Knife Fight. It's an hourlong battle, three ingredients, make two dishes. You can use whatever you want and do whatever you want. So I just filmed that yesterday. It'll be on this new network called The Esquire Network, but right now it's G4.
Are you done with the Top Chef franchise for good?
CJ: The franchise, no. There's always little offshoots and stuff, but I'm not doing Top Chef again. I think I've passed that in my life.
Top Chef: Seattle airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on Bravo. Last Chance Kitchen plays online at BravoTV.com.