The Top Chef Interview With Kenny Gilbert, Bravo Star and New Executive Chef at PGA National Resort

Categories: Behind the Line
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Chef Kenny Gilbert, star of Bravo's Top Chef and new executive chef at PGA National Resort and Spa.
Watch any of this season's episodes of Top Chef and it's clear that the level of competition has been raised higher than ever. There have been furious quickfires with crab parts exploding across the kitchen, heated battles between fierce competitors, and plenty of gastronomic masterpieces to marvel at. And at the center of it all is charismatic and highly talented chef Kenny Gilbert.

The Pennsylvania Culinary Institute grad with a propensity toward exotic, high-flavor dishes has already wowed judges and viewers with his modern take on fine American dining. He even has fans across America rooting for him in a dramatic battle of good versus evil, with equally talented New York toque Angela Sosa playing the easy foil. So far, the fireworks (and fallout) have been epic fun to watch. But with Gilbert's recent appointment as executive chef of PGA National Resort and Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, the ultra-talented chef now has everyone in South Florida firmly entrenched in his corner. Feel that? This season of Top Chef just got even more exciting.

New Times caught up with Kenny via telephone following his huge elimination win against Miami-based chef Andrea Curto Randazzo. Today, in part one of that interview, Kenny talks winning dishes, what it was like to bunk in a house full of chefs, and his foolproof method of wowing Padma every time.

New Times: First of all, big congrats on the victory in this week's episode!

Kenny: Thank you! Yeah, it was very exciting to win one.

Did you know as you were preparing that winning eggplant dish that you had something special?

Basically I wanted to do something with a big flavor profile, something intense that would compliment my partner's [Kevin Sbraga] dish. Being that we were in charge of veg and starch, it kind of made sense based on how cool it was that day to go in the direction of a curry. Something with some heat and a balance of sweet and sour. And since it was so chilly out, I wanted to do something that would warm everyone up. And it worked.

That must have been exciting because it seemed like you were pulling up second on a lot of these challenges, especially the quickfire ones. Was that in the back of your head at all?

Honestly, at my restaurant I've always done these blind tasting menus, so I'm used to guests coming in and saying, "I love seafood, but I don't like mushrooms -- can you make a ten-course meal?" So for me, coming up with a dish on the fly is like breathing; it's no big deal. The hard part is more so the mental challenge of making the right decision on the dish that's going to stand apart from what everyone else is doing. Which, you have no idea what everyone else is doing because they're so secretive about it. It's not like someone comes up and says, "Oh, Kenny, I'm going to do an olive oil-poached cod today with soba noodles and a passion fruit ponzu. What are you going to make today?"

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Kenny dismantles Maryland blue crab during episode five.
And that trick works, right?

Not at all! Basically, you're trying to figure out what's the most cravable dish you can put out that's going to totally take over what everyone else is doing. Sometimes that means going in the direction of something very subtle, very simple. Other times, you want complex. And up to this point, that was my challenge on the show, not the creation of the dish per se, but is it so cravable that it's going to stay in the minds of the judges? That's what was so interesting about the eggplant dish. It had such a strong flavor, it could have gone either way. They could've said it was too strong, too spicy, or they could say you win. And I feel like I left everything on the field every time I competed.

You definitely seem to have taken risks. I think Tom Colicchio even mentioned on the show that Padma's pretty tough on curries, yet you continued to make them.

Ironically, up until this point, I've won [favor] with Padma on quite a few curry-infused dishes, from the quickfire with the duo of chicken and Moroccan spice to the Panang curry I made last week to the curry I made with the eggplant that won.

So you're pretty much a curry guy!

Yeah, I guess so!

How does it feel watching the shows unfold after the fact?

It's definitely amazing. It's incredible to see how true Top Chef is to how everything actually happens. It's all presented very organically. So to see it on television, to hear the judges' feedback, it's like I was just there.

That seems really refreshing, because you often hear the complaint about reality programs that scenes were edited a certain way to create more drama.

Well, Top Chef is the best. I really respect the show and how everything comes together. It's not like a makeshift reality show; what you see is literally what's going down. These are the true personalities that are coming across. When the conversations are happening, there's nothing that's egged on or encouraged to continue. Plus, everyone that came on the show knew exactly what they were there to do, and that's compete. It was a real honor to be there.

On that note, is the tension between you and [chef-testant] Angelo [Sosa] really that evident?

You know, it's funny, because I really don't think it's as bad as people may think. Obviously when we're going back and forth on the show, it's real. But, I mean, I've gotten up and made breakfast for everyone in the house, and he and I sit and talk, whether it's about our favorite restaurants in New York or Japan or whatever. So we actually have a pretty good relationship.

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Courtesy of Bravo.
Kenny puts his game face on.
With the competitive nature of the show being what it is, what was it like to live in a house with all these chefs and be around them all the time?

You know what? For me, it was like the best fraternity/frathouse ever. I mean, you're working with chefs that are incredibly talented. And it's funny, I was asked in the application process what one of my favorite restaurants in New York was, and I said "Spice Market." Well, at the time Angelo was chef there, that's the time I was eating there. And I told him that I loved the food, and we had conversations about that kind of stuff all the time. When you have everyone who has this common bond around food, you sit around talking about food and philosophy a lot. All the intensity and drama of the competition just kind of melts away. We're all starving artists when it's all said and done. I look at us all as artists who are each trying to put together that perfect sculpture. I hadn't roomed with anyone since I was in college, gosh 19 years ago, so to be put in that situation with someone who's as talented and interested as you, it's an incredible experience. We definitely developed lifelong friendships out of it.

You definitely seem to have that kind of relationship with Kevin [Sbraga].

Well, Kevin and I are from the same pedigree of training, that Ritz-Carlton alumni. We both worked under an executive chef named Lawrence McFadden, so we had a similar mentor and came up through the ranks the same way. So for us to work right next to each other was effortless. I love working with Kevin, and luckily the challenges we've done together so far have worked out. We support each other 100 percent.

Monday: Kenny talks about coming back to South Florida at his new appointment as executive chef of PGA National Resort.      

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PGA National Resort & Spa

400 Avenue of the Champions, Palm Beach Gardens, FL

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