Season 13 of Top Chef has been an exciting prospect for Washingtonians, as three of our very own culinary captains will be competing for this coveted title. Ahead of the premiere, we sat down with one of this season’s contenders, Chef Garret Fleming.
You may remember Garret from our October Urban Bourbon feature of Barrel, where we learned about his inspiration for its unique menu. This time, however, we sat with Fleming over a plate of biscuits (the absolute best I’ve had in Washington) to talk Top Chef, his career path, Thanksgiving dinner and cannibalism.
You read that right. Prepare for an interesting interview with one of D.C.’s most brilliant and eccentric chefs.
After sitting down in a cozy corner of Barrel, we sipped our coffee while I explained the format of the interview. In addition to run-of-the-mill questions and THL’s favorite word games, there would also be a Top Chef flair with “quickfire” rounds. Not one to fear anything, Garret was up for the challenge.
CR: Congratulations on being selected for Top Chef! When did you decide you wanted to be a chef?
GF: I’ve always known I wanted to end up at a restaurant. My parents took me on my first trip abroad to Italy when I was eight years old. They were the kind who insisted on three meals a day together, the kind that had their own garden for herbs and produce. Normally kids eat McDonalds or had other garbage in their lunch boxes, while my mom sent me to school with chicken liver pâté and special instructions for the preparation of my food. When I was younger that was a bit hard, because I felt different than the other kids, but I quickly learned to appreciate that they were giving me an education on how to eat, how to live.
The more I listened to Garret’s explanation, the more I understood why he is such a phenomenal chef. After the many international trips he took with his parents, the Flemings would return home, recreate their favorite dishes, critique one another to identify any issues with the flavor and address how to fix it. According to Garret, that’s why nothing he cooks can be just “okay.” Food has always been held to a higher standard.
Barrel’s biscuits with burnt honey butter and ham.
Washingtonians will be surprised to learn that Garret didn’t immediately flock to cooking as his career. In his youth, Garret pursued other interests: he attended undergraduate school in France, immersed himself in French philosopher Henri Bergson’s work (particularly Bergson’s work on “duration and simultaneity”) and once worked at Northwestern University with the ambition of becoming an “international super baller spy lawyer” so he could purchase a mansion in the Balkans.
Finally, his sister urged him to go to culinary school, a suggestion at which he initially scoffed. After some thought however, “it was like a lightbulb,” and at the age of 25 Garret gave in to what he was always meant to do. Shortly after, he headed to The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York and then spent his externship in Charleston, South Carolina. After this, Garret ventured off to pursue his own culinary ideas, first running a kitchen in Maine and then finally moving to D.C.
CR: So this journey has led you all the way to Bravo’s Top Chef. I know you’re sworn to secrecy, but can you tell us what you’ve learned from this process? What has been the best takeaway from this experience?
GF: The best part of Top Chef was realizing how many intriguing, talented chefs are in the U.S. It’s easy to get caught in a bubble and talk s#!t about the so-called restaurants around you and what they’re doing wrong. Seeing so many people who are passionate and dedicated to this profession is inspiring.
CR: Top Chef was in California this year. Do you have a favorite California dish or favorite California city?
GF: California cuisine is both lucky and cursed. It’s lucky because of the great produce and Spanish and Asian influences. It’s cursed because they had to make it all up on their own, which although successful, is devoid of deep historical ties. As that’s where my culinary interests lie, I don’t have a favorite dish. I do have a favorite city – San Francisco.
Fun Fact: Fleming hates In-N-Out Burger, saying Five Guys is better. His ultimate favorite fast food burger, however, is Shake Shack. He applauds the chain’s ability to, for lack of a better term, ‘McDonaldize’ such an excellent product.
CR: Last California question. The state has a tendency to elect actors as governor. If you had to elect an actor as governor, who would it be?
GF: Daniel Day-Lewis, from the milkshake scene in There Will Be Blood.
QUICKFIRE Garret is shipwrecked on a desert island with a coconut, wild boar meat, swordfish and some booze that managed to not get lost at sea. What dish would he make?
GF: I would drink all the booze to settle my stomach. I would roast the wild boar meat to get it crispy…and poach the swordfish and coconut, I guess? I don’t like this game.
CR: Let’s take a break from quickfire rounds and talk about the Washington food scene. You mentioned it’s easy to get caught up in the bubble and what some chefs are doing wrong. What chefs are doing it right? If you had to spend an entire day eating out, but not at Barrel, where would you go?
GF: For breakfast…I’d go to Le Diplomate. They have great pastries and classic breakfast dishes. Stephen Starr is a beast. Hmm…other places I love? Komi is consistently delicious and has the best service. Aaron Silverman at Rose’s Luxury does a great job. Rasika is consistently delicious. There are others I like, such as Red Hen. I also love the Neapolitan pizza at il Canale. As for new restaurants, I’m most excited for the opening of The Shaw Bijou. I like Kwame’s [another Top Chef contender from Washington] food because his palette is similar and yet excitingly different from mine.
CR: Okay, let’s broaden this out to the entire world’s food scene. If you could transport yourself to anywhere in the world and have any meal, where would you go and what would it be?
GF: I can’t help but have France on my mind lately. One of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had was when my father was visiting me in France. It was in Besançon and wasn’t a Michelin star place. We spent forever asking around so we could find a restaurant with historical food, the food of the people. It was calves brains in lime juice alongside a rabbit stew with parsnips. It was amazing because it tasted nostalgic, even though I had never eaten it before.
CR: Fine food is clearly something you share with your family. I’m curious – what does a holiday meal, like Thanksgiving, look like in the Fleming home?
GF: We love Thanksgiving, we f!@k with Thanksgiving really hard. We start with a soup, which changes yearly. Then we have a fresh, seasonal pasta dish like squash ravioli. Then we get into more classic dishes. My parents have screwed around and served goose in the past, but it’s normally turkey with oyster or sausage dressing, cooked with orange zest, chili, fennel, onions, etc. We never have casserole though – it’s disgusting and foul. After everyone annoyed me about never having eaten green bean casserole, I dissected it and redid it my way – poached green beans, mornay sauce and buttermilk fried onions. Much better.
QUICKFIRE It’s Thanksgiving and the turkeys riot. The cooked now become the chefs and the chef is now the entrée. How would you like to be prepared?
WARNING: The answer is graphic and was given in such brilliant, thought-provoking detail that I dare not fully quote it, lest I miss a crucial detail. This is paraphrased and by no means does the actual answer justice.
GF: If the description of a human’s taste [according to infamous Japanese cannibal Issei Sagawa] is any indication, the closest thing to eating a human is eating a succulent pork roast. Given that I’m a grown-a$$ man who’s got plenty of meat, I would roast my tenderloins and then make sausage out of my fatty bits. I would debone my face for porchetta di testa. Then I’d skin my whole body, poke holes in it, season it and slow roast it until crispy.
CR: That was graphic, yet genius, and I find myself at a loss for words. Let’s move on to Famous Fast Five.
FAMOUS FAST FIVE
Top Chef? An event
Trump’s hair or Bernie’s hair (since Garret, too, has luscious locks)? Bernie, because clearly he doesn’t give a f!@k.
Barrel? Dirty (Actual barrels, not Barrel the restaurant)
Bravo? (After some laughter to himself) Television
Be sure to watch Chef Garret Fleming on Season 13 of Bravo’s Top Chef, premiering Wednesday, December 2 at 10:00 P.M. Also, Garret now has Twitter, so follow him for the marvelous musings of one of Washington’s most fun and interesting inhabitants.
Chef Garret Fleming: Twitter