Being among the dozen competitors still in the running on Season 13 of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef,” Isaac Toups feels good.
“I’ve placed in the top a bunch of times,” the Rayne native said last week from his New Orleans restaurant, Toups’ Meatery.
Although so far he hasn’t won a challenge, Toups continues to be a front-runner in the reality series in which chefs compete against one another in culinary challenges. A panel of food and wine experts judges the finished products, with one or more contestants eliminated each episode.
With what he calls his contemporary take on Cajun cuisine, Toups wowed the judges just last week with his version of dirty rice with smoked chicken and jalapeñ o sausage. This challenge had the chefs preparing food for a lavish reception following a mass ceremony uniting 25 couples in the episode titled “Big Gay Wedding.” Host Padma Lakshmi, ordained earlier that day, officiated.
“We’ve been watching them (the five ‘Top Chef’ episodes airing thus far) at the restaurant,” Toups said. “There are some people who come in to watch the show with us, and then there are some people who just accidentally look up and say, ‘Hey, you’re on TV,’ and there are some people who are oblivious to it and just came for a good meal.”
Toups and his wife, Amanda, opened their Carrollton Avenue eatery in 2012, where the menu centers on shared plates, meat and cheese boards, cocktails by the pitcher, 80 bourbons, wines, and, of course, meats.
That venture followed Toups’ decade in the kitchens of Emeril Lagasse’s New Orleans restaurants.
“It was sheer accident,” Toups said of getting in the door at Emeril’s Delmonico, which he intially thought was Lagasse’s only restaurant in NOLA. “I went in, they had a fry cook opening, and I took it, and worked my way up his kitchens for 10 years.”
So it was somewhat of a homecoming when Lagasse surfaced as a judge for the “Top Chef” season premiere.
“The hardest judge (so far) is my favorite judge, Emeril Lagasse himself,” he said, “I worked with him for 10 years, the man still makes me nervous. And he’s the type of guy, he wasn’t going to let me slide and if I messed up something he was going to be the one to call me out on it.”
Luckily, Maw-Maw’s Shrimp Court-Bouillon was the bomb, according to the judges, which this season include head judge Tom Colicchio, along with Gail Simmons, Lagasse, and Richard Blais, among others.
The 36-year-old Toups said the series, his first TV competition, has taught him to keep his cool when things get hot in the kitchen, where the timed challenges often involve using a specific ingredient, adhering to a certain theme, or working in small teams.
“I’ve learned to not freak out in freak-out situations. When the times get tough, it’s best to take a deep breath, cool your jets, and think out something properly, even if you only have 30 minutes in the challenge.”
The series, which shot Season 11 in New Orleans in 2013, is being filmed across California this go-round, so Toups had to leave behind his wife and two young daughters back in the Big Easy.
Toups said he’s made sure to focus on the job at hand.
“I went there for them, with a job to do,” he said.
Toups, who’s twice been named a James Beard Best Chef of the South Semi-finalist, said back at home, boiling crawfish is his favorite cooking experience.
“That sounds like a default Cajun answer, but I’d like to explain. Boiling crawfish you have to have people over, you’re at least boiling 30 pounds of crawfish, if not 2 sacks, 60 pounds,” he said. “I could probably eat that by myself if I really wanted to but I like to have people over, and you get people to help you out, and it’s an outdoor event, and you got people, and you’re in your shorts, and you’re drinking beer, and you’re cutting up and you’re playing coon-ass games and what not, and it’s just the communal part of cooking that I enjoy so much.”