He didn’t go about it the way you would expect. But when all was said and done, Joe Flamm was the last man standing on this season of Top Chef. The Chicago-born chef worked his way through some of the best kitchen’s in Chicago, including former Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard’s Girl & the Goat, ultimately ending up in Colorado to compete against 15 of the country’s most promising cooks.
Flamm was eliminated in episode nine—taken out by a sudden death Quickfire challenge—but worked his way back into the finale by winning challenge after challenge in the “Last Chance Kitchen.” His winning meal was an ode to the Italian food he cooks every day at Chicago's Spiaggia. It consisted of elegant plates of raw tuna with veal aioli and smoked Waygu powder as well as more rustic tortellini en brodo. Flamm and I met over a round of Miller High Lifes at Sportman’s Club in Chicago, where we talked about his road to success and the beers he drank along the way.
How do you feel?
I feel good. I feel really good. I won so long ago in actuality—I was done filming last June—so I knew and have been holding on to this forever, but now, all of a sudden, everybody knows. Now, I go places and people know who I am. It’s really weird and funny. People want to talk to me, see me and meet me.
What was that time period like between winning and the rest of the world knowing you won?
It’s so weird. You go and you do the show and, when you come back, you can’t even tell anybody you left. You just come back and everybody's like, “Where were you?” And I’m just like, ‘Oh I was gone.’ I told people I was in Florida working at a restaurant. So, you come back from this massive thing that just happened in your life and nobody fucking knows about it. It’s almost like having a weird blackout drunk night and pieces of it come back to you sometimes. I’d be in the shower or something just be like, ‘Did that really happen? Did I really win Top Chef three weeks ago and now I’m just home, chilling, back at the restaurant?’ It’s nuts how much everything has changed since then.
How have things changed now that the news is out?
Especially in Chicago, we’re such a hometown city, everybody is just so psyched about it. I’d be walking down Michigan Avenue and somebody would come up and be like, ‘Congratulations, man,’ and give me a high five. That’s insane to me, but it’s really amazing to have that experience. I worked for Stephanie Izard for three years—and now we did something that was the same. That’s fucking nuts.
Did she give you any advice going into the show?
Don’t cook anything gross and be yourself.
You’re path to winning was very different from hers. What was it like winning your way through the "Last Chance Kitchen"?
It was not my strategy. I wasn’t like, ‘Alright, this episode, you get kicked off, come back, it’s going to be so much drama.’ It’s so exhausting, so stressful. The whole time you’re at your fucking wit’s end. By the time I got kicked off, it was a relief. This weight of the competition was off my shoulders. I was sleeping in a fucking bunk-bed with three other grown men for five weeks. I was like, ‘Ok, bring me to hotel now and I can sleep in a big-boy-bed by my fucking self.’ That felt really good and then, when you get thrown into the "Last Chance Kitchen", it’s whatever at this point. I already lost, so whatever happens now is just extra. I just wanted to cook good food and I think that changed what I was doing. I was cooking for me, against me.
Which dish are you most proud of that you cooked during the show?
I think the pasta I did for the finale. That was a really cool dish. It was the only time I ever made it. That one I thought was super awesome. The zucchini we did for the grill-out show, I really liked that. The trout too, that was cool because we had to catch the fish. I like that one though, because I caught a fish and I was so excited.
What is the dish you are least proud of?
There was a Quickfire when they came to the house for breakfast. We had to make a Nutella dish. I made this gross-ass Nutella risotto and it was with Nutella, banana and coconut stock. That was a bad dish. The judge was Brooke Williamson, who won last season, and I sent her a message after the episode and was like, ‘Hey, I feel like I owe you a proper-ass dinner the next time you’re in Chicago. I swear I’m not that shitty of a cook. I just don’t do breakfast at 5 a.m. well.’
Did you practice to prepare for the show?
I binged watched two season before I left, because I hadn’t watched it in a while. So, I binged watched two seasons back-to-back to get myself ready. The one thing I did was, I had never really used a pressure cooker, so I bought a pressure cooker and I was pressure cooking stuff every day, just to get used to it before I left. And I memorized one cake recipe; the cake I did for the finale. It was the only dessert I memorized, because you can’t bring any recipes. That was the only thing I really planned. Everything else was so reactionary.
You guys clearly drink on the show, when does that happen and what are you drinking?
There are a couple different times when you are able to drink. When you go to judges table, there’s an in-between time when they tell you who won and you go to the back and you find out who’s on the bottom. Sometimes you’re in the back for an hour or two, and they have beer, wine and whiskey back there. The different seasons they do the booze by wherever they are. It was Colorado, so they had a bunch of Oskar Blues and [Odell] 90 Shilling and stuff like that. We drank a shit ton of rosé. They had some pretty good whiskey, too. Then, after judges table, we would go back to the house and drink. We would mostly sit in the backyard and drink beers.
Did it ever hinder your ability to compete?
The whole process, you’re so stressed, you’re so tired. It’s one of those things, where you don’t even know if you’re tired or hungover or sick or whatever. Your adrenaline is so through the roof that it doesn’t matter.
What’s your beer of choice when watching the show?
I’m a huge [Miller] High Life fan. I feel like it’s the cook’s beer of choice. I have a rule in my kitchen: I take all the cooks out on Saturday nights. I buy all the drinks, but only if they they drink bottles of High Life. You want anything else, you buy your own beer. I’ll buy you what I’m drinking. When I got married, it was the only beer at my wedding. My wife liked the way it looked in pictures.
What other beers do you like?
I love Chicago beers. I love Marz Brewing on the South Side. I think he’s doing really cool stuff. I lived in Logan for a while, so I like Revolution. They’re really good. Off Color does cool stuff too.
Do you consider yourself more of a beer drinker, a wine drinker or a cocktail drinker?
It’s weird, because at work it’s always wine. Working with somebody like [sommelier] Rachel Lowe, our program is so ridiculous. We do all the pairings together, so we work out those for every menu, and I’ve learned a ton about wine from her. Also, my wife is more of a wine drinker. So, if I’m drinking with her, we’re drinking wine. If I’m drinking with the cooks, we’re drinking beer. It’s situational. The Italians do a really good job—there’s things you drink at certain times. I think that’s really cool. You don’t drink wine at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, you have aperitivo, spritz or you can have a Negroni. You drink wine with dinner, unless you are having pizza. If you’re having pizza, you always drink beer.
Does Italy have a big beer scene?
It’s growing now. At Bonci in Rome, the really cool thing is there’s a craft beer scene happening in Italy and [Gabriele Bonci] is one of the people who’s a huge supporter of it. So, he carries all these Italian craft beers that I’ve never see anywhere else. That are really neat. They’re doing some fun, funky stuff with beer, but it’s definitely still very much on the back-burner.
What is the beer beer program like at Spiaggia?
The beer program at Spiaggia is local stuff—we have Marz and Three Floyds. We have a little but very well-curated beer program. And then we have Peronis too, which I love. I’ll still crush a Peroni. Besides being in Italy, before I worked at Spiaggia, I probably drank five Peronis in my life. There, it’s kinda one of those things like, ‘Yeah, I’ll have a Pieroni.'