David Viana experiencesTop Chef-Kentucky, homesickness, and new notoriety
David Viana, a partner at Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge, has been nominated for the illustrious James Beard Award, but his star turn as a contestant on Top Chef-Kentucky, brings him out of the kitchen and in the front of the camera. Viana rapidly became one of the most popular contestants of the season. I caught up with Viana to chat about his path to Bravo and to Top Chef. Did you know he just may be expanding the landscape of his adopted home of Asbury Park’s restaurant scene?
Old Bridge, Asbury Park, and everyone in between are beyond thrilled at your success and being on this season of Top Chef!
David Viana: Thank you, that is so nice to hear! I am an Asbury Park adopted son, so I am so thrilled to hear that. It is so nice to get that love, and it is so special. I am looking forward to keep making you proud, and it’s a dream come true to make it to Top Chef!
Going back, did you always see becoming a chef something you wanted to do?
DV: Absolutely not. Actually, my first summer job was as a dishwasher when I was 15 years old. I worked at restaurants all through college for money and to survive. I never actually considered it a profession. Then I got a job as a probation officer and hated my job. I really longed for those days that I had spent in the kitchen. I finally realized that it actually may have been my calling. It was only through reflection and actually getting a big-boy job with a suit and tie that I found my heart truly lay in the kitchen.
What made you have the confidence in your skills to try out for a show like Top Chef?
DV: That is truly the pinnacle of many a chef’s career and can be a launching pad for them. It was a bit of a fear when I took the job at Heirloom Kitchen; it is a very open kitchen. You are eye to eye, and one on one, with the people that you are serving. I was really nervous. And you think things like, “what if they don’t like my food, I may have a real visceral reaction if they don’t like my food.” I was a little afraid, honestly. It has become probably one of the most rewarding things I have ever done, though. It tied me back to why I originally liked cooking to begin with: making people happy, that smile when they get something special they really enjoy.
Sometimes, when you’re in the kitchen you’re staring at the tickets, and you’re away from the people and what you’re doing, and you kind of lose sight of why you even started cooking to begin with. Heirloom Kitchen and the ability to be one on one with our guests and interact while we are cooking and make it more of an experience, not just dining, that has really reawakened all of those feelings. I don’t know that I could ever go back to being an anonymous kitchen member again.
What was it like walking into the Top Chef kitchen for the first time? Was it everything you would expect it to be?
DV: I will say that it is grand. Goosebumps is kind of an understatement. You get the chills and your stomach turns inside out. I have been watching since season 1, and we are season 16. I’m a fan; I am a Top Chef groupie, so to speak. I kind of grew up in the industry watching. So to be on Top Chef was like a true “pinch-me” moment. Every minute, every moment, every second that I was in Kentucky it felt like that.
They say every season that Top Chef is a lot harder than it looks, and I hate to be the cliché and everyone always says that, but it really is so much harder than it looks. To be sitting on your couch and being that Monday morning quarterback, I mean for me it was appointment television. It was my only guilty pleasure of my week. As a chef I would watch very little TV. But I would always watch Top Chef from my couch! You are in the moment with the clock ticking, the inability to really be comfortable. Because you are not in your own kitchen and there are little things that you take for granted on a day-to-day basis being a chef. When you are in those moments, you think, “I made the classic mistake”! It is totally harder than it looks. And it definitely lives up to the hype and it is wonderful and a great experience.
Is there one thing that sticks out about your whole Top Chef experience that you are most grateful about?
DV: What I am most grateful about is meeting 15 other amazingly passionate people. I think that the level to which I love food is almost obsessive, and kind of makes me feel like almost an outsider in the real world. I spend hours in the kitchen, plus the amount of hours I spend reading about chefs, and so much of it consumes me. I sometimes even downplay how much I love food because I don’t want to seem that strange. To meet one of 15 other people who completely do the exact same thing, it’s almost like, “Wow, I’m not so weird; these people are just as passionate and obsessive.” I have this fun little group of misfits that are intertwined for the rest of our lives. And I have met some fun great people, and made some lifelong friends. I think that is the most special part of the entire experience.
Post-Top Chef, your life will greatly change. What do you think you want to do with the experience that you have been given?
DV: I have met 15 other passionate chefs and we are all at different places in our journey. I was honestly homesick. I love my kitchen, and I love my job. I want to highlight how special the team that I have here at Heirloom Kitchen is. I hope that with this attention, people like my pastry chef, Sean, can get some of that same shine and credit for all of the work that they do for me and with that just grow. Maybe open up an Heirloom Kitchen right in my adopted home of Asbury Park; that is definitely on the radar for us. That would be great to just grow naturally and highlight some of the talent that we already have and let them get some of that attention because they definitely deserve it. It would not have happened without my team. I could not be happier with Heirloom Kitchen and the experience made me realize how homesick I was and how lucky I was to love my job and love what we have started here at Heirloom. I am hoping it spreads to Asbury Park and maybe even Philadelphia.
With the holidays just past, what is one holiday tip that you think every cook could definitely use?
DV: I know many have turkey for the holidays and I have been brining my turkey for eight years with amazing results, so I don’t know that I would not serve turkey that was not brined anymore. I brine it for three whole days. I think it is the best way to not have a dry turkey. People need to make sure that they season everything as well. It sometimes is one of those things that home cooks don’t do enough so definitely season with salt — it is very important!
Top Chef-Kentucky airs on Thursdays on Bravo.