What do chefs George Pagonis and Joy Crump think viewers will remember most about the upcoming season of “Top Chef”?
“George’s hair,” Crump said with a chuckle during a three-way call with her fellow contestant, referring to the slicked-back mane that hints at Pagonis’s Greek roots.
“I think you’ve got me beat on that one,” Pagonis bantered back to Crump, whose face is framed by a good-size Afro.
When Season 12 of the show, filmed in Boston, debuts Wednesday night on Bravo TV, Pagonis and Crump will follow in the footsteps of other Washington-area chefs whose time on the series and its spinoffs served as career springboards. The list includes Carla Hall, Mike Isabella, Spike Mendelsohn, Bryan Voltaggio and Bart Vandaele.
The two latest competitors have one thing in common: Both have worked for “Top Chef” veterans. Pagonis, 31, is executive chef at Kapnos, one of Isabella’s growing line of restaurants, and was previously chef de cuisine at his Graffiato. Isabella, Season 6 veteran and “Top Chef All-Stars” runner-up, “definitely was an influence” in getting him to compete, Pagonis says. (The show airs as the two are preparing to open a second Greek eatery, Kapnos Taverna, in Arlington late this year.)
Crump, 46, worked under Season 6 fan favorite Kevin Gillespie at Woodfire Grill in Atlanta before launching a catering business there in 2008. Crump expanded and moved her gourmet-comfort-food concept, Foodē, from Atlanta to downtown Fredericksburg, Va., in 2010. After being invited to apply for the show, Crump called Gillespie “to get him to hook me up and get me the answer key,” she said.
Still, both chefs said they found their competition experiences full of surprises.
“You’re playing a game you haven’t played before,” said Crump. “Everything you think you know, you don’t know anymore.”
I spoke with the pair before the show’s premiere. Edited excerpts follow.
What made you want to compete on “Top Chef”?
Crump: “Top Chef” is — for anybody in the industry — it’s the best of the best. So to be in that crowd and competing at that level is really a dream come true. If you’re lucky enough to be invited to join, you definitely don’t say no.
Pagonis: A lot of chefs I know, we look at ”Top Chef” as one of the most highly accredited cooking shows out there. Everybody tries to compete for those slots, and to be given the opportunity is definitely a pleasure. It’s something you can’t turn down.
What question do people ask you most about the show, besides “Who wins?”
Pagonis: Everyone asks me about [co-host] Padma [Lakshmi], if she was pretty in person. Then people ask me how was the overall experience. “Was it hard? Was it tough?” There’s only a certain amount of things I can answer. I tell them it’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, and it pushes you to your limits.
Crump: People ask me if the time is real, and that’s what I wanted to know before going into it. Do they really knock that thing out in 25 minutes? I kept thinking, “Eh, it’s TV.” But — dude, no — it’s 25 minutes. And that’s what is so astounding sometimes, to watch what the chefs can create under that pressure in such a short period of time. They put the screws on tighter and tighter, and it’s real time. It’s no joke.
What will viewers like most about this season, besides the hair?
Crump: I think in some of the seasons past, there was drama that seemed to come out of nowhere. I think the drama in Season 12 came from the fact that there were 16 really crazy-talented chefs all going after the same thing. I think we all had a lot of mutual respect for each other, and it still managed to be really intense. It’s a good season.
Pagonis: There’s a lot of great talent on this season. “Top Chef” is going in the direction of more executive chefs and chefs de cuisine. A lot more chefs are applying for this show as opposed to cooks of lower skill levels. The skill level this season is really intense, and it makes for good competition.
Has the competition changed the way you cook?
Pagonis: After doing the show, you just kind of realize anything is possible. Sometimes I feel like we try to do stuff here at Kapnos and say, “Oh, we won’t have time for that; we’ll be busy. Maybe we should hold off.” Now it’s like, “Yeah, let’s do it. Five minutes is a lifetime.” I feel like the show just makes you more hungry and aggressive to keep pushing forward at a fast pace.
Crump: I always remember the other chefs who’ve competed on “Top Chef” saying, “It made me a better chef,” and I didn’t realize what that meant until now. Your cooking skills grow and you’re more self-confident. I understand who I am as a cook more, because I had to measure it against 15 other cooks and had to be absolutely positive of who I was.
What do you hope participation in this show will add to your career?
Pagonis: I hope that Kapnos is booked every night, all day, every day of the week. I did it, obviously, for kind of a personal thing, to see if I could do it, and I did it also because I am opening Kapnos Taverna, and I see what it has done for other chefs in their careers. I said, “Why not? Why not me?”
Crump: I’m on the outskirts a little bit, and I’m not in D.C. proper. My team is cranking the stuff out all day, every day, so it’s really nice to shed some light on that. We’re doing the work, anyway. If “Top Chef” gives us some exposure and lets people know what we’re already doing, I consider that a well-deserved reward.