Chicago’s about to celebrate another championship.
Because no matter the outcome of Thursday night’s “Top Chef” season 15 finale, Chicago will emerge victorious. The two finalists for the coveted culinary world title born of the reality show are home-grown toques: Executive Chef Joseph Flamm of Spiaggia and Cafe Spiaggia, and Hyde Park native and now New York-based Chef Adrienne Cheatham. Both are vying for a $125,000 prize in addition to hometown bragging rights.
Flamm’s culinary credits include stints at BellyQ, Girl and the Goat and Table 52. Cheatham grew up (literally) among the hustle and bustle of various South Side restaurants and kitchens where her mother did everything from wait tables to manage the front of the house.
“I grew up around 52nd and Dorchester. I went to Ray Elementary and Whitney Young High School,” Cheatham says excitedly. “The whole idea of cooking started with my mom who worked at Mellow Yellow [Restaurant] on 53rd Street, [among other eateries]. I was literally raised in the non-smoking section of Mellow Yellow because every day after school my sister and I would go to the restaurant and we would sit in that section and do our homework while mom finished her shift, and then we’d walk home together. … As I grew older, somebody would call out from the kitchen and say, ‘Hey can you help bus tables!’ ‘Can you run food?’ And I’d help with that. But I’d always gravitate to the kitchen. That was a whole other world back there. To me, restaurants meant family because that’s where my family was.”
But Cheatham’s parents, especially her mom did not want their daughter to pursue a food industry career. “My mom was so against it because she saw so many of her friends try it and get totally burned out, so it was never an option for me not to go to regular college [she attend Florida A&M]. I pursued a career in journalism because I knew I would be able to tie that back into food [writing].”
Cheatham started working in Orlando-area restaurants and eventually headed off to New York where she attended the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE). After graduation she worked for eight years at Eric Ripert’s world-renowned Le Bernardin in NYC, rising to the position of executive sous chef. Other high-profile gigs included working as corporate chef de cuisine for Marcus Samuelsson at his Streetbird eatery. She most recently worked as the executive chef of Red Rooster in Harlem.
In a world where men still dominate the kitchen landscape (in last week’s semi-finals episode she was predictably mistaken for the sous chef instead of the head chef — her partner in the final challenge was a man), Cheatham says she does not let it faze her. “I’ve been cooking professionally for 15 years. When I walk into the kitchen I don’t see myself as a woman or a minority. I see myself as a chef.”
For Flamm, who grew up in Chicago’s Ashburn neighborhood and went to Marist High School, cooking was also a family affair growing up.
“I grew up with my grandma’s cooking, and I just always liked watching her cook and learning from her. … I cooked a lot of food as a kid growing up because my mom is a Chicago Police lieutenant and she worked second shift, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. [His father worked in the Sun-Times accounting department in the 1990s]. We’d come home from school and she’d have half the dinner made and I’d have to finish it up for me and my sisters. [Laughing] My older sister is the worst cook ever, so a lot of the [driving force] came from ‘I don’t want to eat a lot of bad food so I’ll cook for my me and my sisters.'”
At Spiaggia, Flamm says chef/partner and culinary legend Chef Tony Mantuano has created one of the most nurturing atmospheres he’s ever worked in. “To work at Spiaggia is like being handed the keys to a vintage Bentley,” Flamm says with a chuckle. “And then to have Chef Tony pretty much say, ‘Take it around the block, kid!’ He’s all about creating a spotlight for me, a stage for me to do well. He’s been the greatest mentor to me.”
Flamm’s favorite Chicago haunts include Cafe Marie Jean and Boat House Cafe in Humboldt Park, where he and his wife Hillary make their home. When he returns to his family’s South Side childhood home, “I have to go to Vito & Nick’s [Pizzeria] for a slice of pizza.”
So what advice does the duo give to chefs who might be contemplating a run at a future Top Chef title?
“Be confident in what you’re doing. Once you start to second-guess yourself that’s when you tank,” Cheatham said. “Cook to the best you can. Just own it. Do the things you believe in, the things that are you.”
“Go and enjoy the ride,” Flamm said. “You need to have a clear, concise vision. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. You can spend the whole time being stressed out or just enjoy being around these really incredible people and just take a f—–g moment to enjoy it. I couldn’t be happier that the finals are a [Chicago] South Side showdown.”