Q&A: Heather Chittum, cheftestant
Just as Bravo's "Top Chef: D.C." finishes the season tonight, Washington viewers have a reason to stay tuned for the premiere of the franchise's latest spinoff: "Top Chef: Just Desserts." In the cast of cheftestants is a face familiar to close followers of Washington's restaurant scene: Hook's Heather Chittum. After watching a screener of the first episode, I got the 37-year-old pastry chef on the phone to talk about her profession, her portrayal on the show and whether audiences will know their sables from their shortbread. Edited excerpts:
-- Joe Yonan
How do you prepare for something like this?
You just try to think about what potentially could be asked of you, potentially what challenges you might face, be as creative as possible about what might come your way and practice being as adaptable as possible.
Have you watched "Top Chef"? Did you have ideas about how it might be similar or different?
I've been watching all along. I suppose I thought the format would need to be a little different given the nature of pastry. I tried to think what the challenges would be: Could there be quickbreads? What would we be asked to do, knowing the format for a quickfire? Especially the quickfire, actually: What could you do in a certain amount of time? I've been a diehard fan of "Top Chef," but I've never watched it thinking strategy. Always just for entertainment.
Do you think the show might change the way people think of pastry chefs?
I think the perception about us is, 'Oh, it must be fun, to make cupcakes all day.' " Life is sweet, that type of thing. But it’s actually grueling. Pastry people are always either the first in or the last to leave, depending on what your schedule is. In the industry, the idea about us is definitely that we strive for perfection, that we try to be as precise and detail-oriented and some would say probably neurotic. I don’t know how anything was edited, so we’ll see.
On "Top Chef," there have been some obvious divisions, such as between chefs who cook very sophisticated, molecular gastronomy-type food and those who are more rustic and homey. Will we see that same sort of differences with pastry chefs?
Yeah, you could see it even more, depending on people's training. A so-called "pastry chef" could work at a bakery, a hotel, an independent restaurant. You could do wedding cakes or chocolate showpieces. There are lots of different fields within pastry you can be proficient at.
You can't have recipes, and I would think the memorization issue has to be even more difficult than on "Top Chef." How do you compensate?
Either you know certain ratios or you rely on recipes you’ve done a million times.
What about timing issues? At the restaurant you're prepping a lot ahead of time, aren't you?
Absolutely. In pastry that’s one of the advantages. You can set a game plan for yourself and strategize in that way. You have your prep list. With savory you can prep or clean vegetables, but come service, everything is a la minute. Everything that we had to do on the show was obviously still in the same time constraints of quickfire, elimination, so depending on how long you had, that would also shape what you were able to create.
How do you think you come across on the show?
No one knows how they’re going to be portrayed, but I would hope I’m not portrayed in a negative light, and I definitely stay true to myself as far as not saying anything that I wouldn’t repeat or say to someone’s face or be proud of. I don’t think I’ll be the villain. But who knows?
In the premiere, some pretty sophisticated pastry terms were thrown around, such as cremeux, that had me reaching for my food dictionary. Do you think people will follow it? Will they learn things?
I hope so. Pastry chefs joke about being a stepchild and banished to a corner of the kitchen, and people joke about cupcakes tongue-in-cheek and make all sorts of comments. But pastry and pastry chefs have definitely been more in the spotlight recently, and this show is a testament to that.
I hope people have a good response to the show and the industry, and their interest grows more as a result. If they see terms they’re not familiar with, I hope they do run to their food dictionary and their computer and get more excited about it and see things they want to try and do. I think that’s kind of a trend already, so this is just adding momentum to it.
September 15, 2010; 1:00 PM ET
Categories: Chefs , Television | Tags: Joe Yonan, chefs, television
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