With a four-course meal rooted in his modern take on Italian food, chef Joe Flamm defeated Adrienne Cheatham to win season 15 of Top Chef last night.
A Chicago native, Flamm is the executive chef at his Michelin-starred hometown restaurant Spiaggia—one of President Barack Obama’s favorites—cooking fare similar to the meal he made in the finale.
The winning menu included handmade tortellini in a rich broth and asparagus with smoked bone marrow sauce alongside roasted beef ribeye. While Cheatham focused on a refined approach to Southern cuisine that featured a spoonbread with uni starter that was one of the judges’ favorite dishes of the night.
Flamm took a circuitous route to the Colorado season finale. He won the coveted Restaurant Wars challenge only to be bounced immediately after during a sudden death Quickfire, when he cooked subpar cauliflower risotto for the great David Kinch of Manresa. Through the cooking competition Last Chance Kitchen, where eliminated contestants compete in mini-challenges for the chance to reenter the competition, Flamm proved victorious, returning to take on the four remaining contestants.
Witch this victory, Flamm joins the club of Top Chef winners that includes Michael Voltaggio, Mei Lin, Jeremy Ford, and fellow Chicagoan Stephanie Izard. We caught up with Flamm the day after the season 15 finale to see what’s next for the show’s newest champion.
What was your relationship to Top Chef before coming on the show?
I really loved the old seasons. When I was a line cook when Stephanie Izard’s season was on—that was the year it was in Chicago—everyone I knew was watching. It was such a big deal. Every Friday we’d come in and talk about Stephanie versus Richard Blais. I remember watching how quick they were on their feet and so smart. I ended up working with Stephanie at Girl and the Goat for two years. Now to be in that same spot as her and be mentioned in the same sentence that we both won Top Chef – that’s incredible.
Talking with Joe Sasto, he said the experience of being on the show really helped him find more focus in his cooking. Did the competition change you at all?
It’s such an exercise in clarity and finding your voice. It pushes you outside of comfort zone, oddly enough in order to find where your comfort zone actually is. Being on the show makes you think of every little piece you do. If I get one bite of food to say to the judges, “send me home or keep me here,” the clarity of the dish has to be really dialed in. It pushed you to focus on what your food and style is.
Is there a moment that stands out to you that helped you find clarity?
Winning Last Chance Kitchen, I just cooked what I wanted to in the moment. This is what I cook, this is what I do. Cook great food and have fun. Doing that gave me confidence for when I got back into the competition.
You entered Last Chance Kitchen after a really surprising elimination. What were you thinking after you won a big challenge one moment, and then you’re unceremoniously bounced the next?
It was such a great example of what Top Chef is: You’re on top one day and the bottom next, because it’s not cumulative. It’s so intense and in the moment, and it doesn’t matter what you did last, it only matters what you do next.
I felt like I was building momentum, building confidence, won Restaurant Wars, then it’s over. It was shellshock. I didn’t even have time to think about it. Boom. You’re dead. Gone. Bye. Then weirdly the stress goes away for a moment, because you’re out and everything is actually fine.
Did you feel confident going into Last Chance Kitchen that you could win it?
I came in and I knew it was a dish that had sent me home wasn’t good. I decided that I want someone to beat me for being a better chef, not because I made a stupid mistake. I decided that I wasn’t going to cook against anyone but myself. I’ll make the best I can make and if you beat me because yours is better, great.
Is it hard not to look around at what people are doing and have it affect you?
It’s so hard, especially early in the competition. When I got back from last chance kitchen, I was just doing me. Early when there’s 15 people in the kitchen it’s impossible not to look. But my mentor Tony Mantuano gave me advice before I left that I just needed to make a decision on what I wanted to cook and don’t change it midstream. You may not have the perfect idea, but it’s better to make that to the best of your abilities then to second guess it and try to change things along the way.
Did Stephanie give you advice too?
She told me, “Don’t cook gross food and be yourself. People like you, Joe!”
For the finale menu, how much of that did you have in your back pocket before you even came on the show?
The only thing I had in my back pocket was that cake recipe. That’s my favorite cake, and my pastry chef told me how to cook it before I left. That was it. Everything else was in the moment. My team was Joe and Fati, which is ridiculous, they’re so good. It was such a collaborative effort. We finished the service and I didn’t care whether I’d won or lost, because we had so much fun.
Seemed like both you and Adrienne cooked the meals you wanted to and didn’t have big errors trip you up.
Adrienne cooked a stunner of a meal. She did a great job of representing herself and finding her voice. She had so much fun doing it. It was incredible. Adrienne knew she cooked a rockstar meal. It’s one of those things that’s one shot only and we both nailed it.
You filmed last June. How did you keep this all under wraps until the finale aired last night?
We had a huge party at Spiaggia last night, and I kept it under wraps for that big payoff in the end. When Padma announced I won, the whole room erupted. That was the moment you keep it in for: Standing there with 200 people in a room standing shoulder-to-shoulder packed in and the only people who knew were me and my wife. When the room erupted, it made it totally worth it. It was chaos. People were crying. Super fun. It was amazing to see how happy everyone was. Tony and Stephanie were there. Making my mentors proud was an amazing feeling. Then we went to a bar in my neighborhood last night and it went pretty late into the evening.
What’s next for you?
My goal is to open my own Italian restaurant. It’s the next step in my journey, but I still love Spiaggia and I’m still the executive chef there. I’ll use this win as a launching point.
Spiaggia is known for being a favorite of the Obamas, ever cook for them there?
No, but when I was a line cook at Table 52, they came in for Valentine’s Day right after inauguration in 2009.
What’s more nerve-racking: Cooking for the president or for Tom and Padma in the finale?
Probably cooking for Obama, because the Secret Service isn’t in place with Tom and Padma, so it’s more chill.