Top Chef’s 19th season premieres this week, featuring Austin chef Jo Chan as a contestant. The premiere of Bravo’s cooking competition show will air on Thursday, March 3, at 7 p.m.
Ahead of the first episode, Eater Austin caught up with Chan, who’s currently the executive chef of contemporary American restaurant Eberly in Zilker, to talk about how she prepared for the show, what her experience was like, and advice she got from former contestants.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Eater Austin: Why did you decide to do Top Chef?
Jo Chan: I decided I wanted to be a chef when I was 15, right around the time I started watching Top Chef, which was in its third season. I remember watching and thinking it seemed so far away from the place that I was standing. It’s incredible that in a little over 15 years, I was able to close that gap. It was a personal victory.
Casting reached out to me, and we went through the process. And lo and behold, they told me that I was on. I don’t think anyone expects to get on.
Had you been on TV before?
No, not on anything proper. I mean, I worked for [legendary chef] Jonathan Waxman for quite a long period of time, so I’d been adjacent to his success. I’ve been on the sidelines, like the one cleaning up afterward or making sure that everything looks right, but I wasn’t the actual person [on camera]. I had shied away from the spotlight in the early stages of my career.
How did you feel walking into the studio kitchen for the first time?
It was that bizarre experience of being in Disneyland, but you’re a part of the ride rather than someone who’s on the ride.
There’s not really a lot of time to pinch yourself, which is comforting in some senses, because [cooking is] what chefs are best at. Some version of that happens every day in the restaurant, where you just have to get on with it and get to the business of what’s in front of you. So it was actually really comforting once it got the cooking portion.
You don’t understand your environment or anything that’s going on. It feels completely surreal that Padma [Lakshmi] is talking and looking into my face. So you just put your head down and do what you know best. That was a lot of the advice that I was given by previous contestants, was to try to stay in your comfort zone, because there’s going to be so much coming at you and it’s going to feel very overwhelming.
Tell me more about getting advice from former contestants.
I reached out to a few people to touch base and ask what I got myself into and what I should do to prepare. You’re going to the Olympics of the culinary world. What should I pack? There’s a lot of really silly things that I had questions about.
A lot of the advice was to stick to what you know, you wouldn’t be at this point if you didn’t know what you were doing. And to give yourself some time to settle into the competition. Basically, don’t hit a home run every time you swing the bat. That was really helpful. I was trying to remember, ‘You’re here for a reason, don’t let yourself get lost in the moment.’
What surprised you about being on Top Chef?
It was such a bonding experience. Like, you’re going through the weirdest version of summer camp ever. But at the same time, it’s a really isolating experience and you have to get out of your own head. There are a lot of doubts — you don’t have your team with you to ask, “Hey, do you think that this tastes good? Do you think this is a good idea? What do you think this needs?” I definitely missed that aspect of it when I was there.
Again, it was all very, very strange. Like, when you meet someone famous, you’re like, ‘Oh, they’re not actually looking at me.’ But then I would hear my name come out of Padma’s mouth, and I was just like, ‘Wow, this is so weird. I’m that Jo.’ I don’t think I ever got used to that.
Anything else we should know?
I’m so proud to represent Austin, because Austin has just claimed me in a way that has been so powerful in my life, and in a way that I never felt in any other city that I was in. It was a really positive experience, and it feels really powerful to be able to represent the city.