This December, Charlotte’s Jamie Lynch will be challenging some of the nation’s best culinary minds on Bravo TV’s Top Chef. We sat down with the 5Church chef and partner to discuss the show, how he prepared for it, and the challenges of the television experience. He couldn’t reveal too much about the inner workings of the show, but we did find out a bit about the contestant’s mindset, and how terrifying head judge Tom Colicchio could be.
How did you discover that you enjoyed cooking?
I guess it kind of all started when I was 16, I got my first job at this trashy sort of local bar in Marblehead Massachusetts, where I grew up. It was a small neighborhood spot, and I kind of fell in love with this high-octane kitchen life. I went from being a dishwasher then moved on to a prep cook to being the fry guy and it just stuck.
How did you find your way to Charlotte originally and how did you end up at 5Church?
I was working in New York and after 9/11 the restaurant that I was working at was on 15th St. and at that point ground zero started at 11th, so there was just nothing going on in New York, it was kind of desolate. So after 3 months I made a move. I had to find a place to cook. After a quick visit with a friend in Charlotte, I thought it was a cool town, so I packed up my car and hit the road. Just like that. As far as 5Church, I ended up cooking around Charlotte for years, at that point there weren’t too many places doing chef-driven stuff, maybe two or three restaurants at the time were focused on chef-inspired food. There wasn’t really a ton of opportunity, and I just kind of started cooking around at different places to build a name for myself. Then maybe 5 years ago, I ran into Mills, Patrick, and Alejandro and they were pitching this idea of no longer working for people, of doing my own thing. 5Church was my first executive chef gig, I’ve been assisting chefs in kitchens all around but this was my first opportunity as a lead, and I’m also a partner there. So this was a big step for me.
What dish on the 5Church menu would you recommend to anybody who’s never set foot in there?
I would probably get shot if I didn’t say the 60 Second Steak or the lamb burger. Those are dishes that were on the menu when we started. [The Prime “60 Second” New York Strip Steak] is actually the reason I got hired as a chef. I prepared that steak as a tasting for the owners, and it blew their mind. They loved it and we put it on the menu when we opened. I’ve tried to present several alternatives to replace it and they always say, “No way, this stays!” [laughs]
So how did you become a contestant on Top Chef? How does this kind of thing happen to a Charlottean?
For me it was really the stars aligning I think. I’m not a competition chef by trade, I’m a restaurant chef, so I wasn’t sure I was comfortable with putting myself out there on a national level. A friend of one of the casting directors had eaten at one of the 5Church restaurants. They researched me and contacted me. My partners, of course, told me I was insane if I didn’t go for it.
So you’d never expected to part of anything like this?
Never, not in a million years.
When you started filming the show, did you feel like there was a reason you were there? Did you feel like there was something you had to prove, going in?
Yeah, I guess I kind of got into that mindset. Not everybody gets to do this, you know? It’s a rare opportunity. So I started getting really fired up and focused. I really wanted to perform well; I didn’t want to be a fool and burn and cut myself all the time (laughs).
You’ve got some of the most knowledgeable foodies asking you about what you’re cooking up and there’s a clock ticking in front of you—it’s terrifying.
Were you familiar with the judges? Did you know much about them?
I didn’t know Tom but I knew of [head judge] Tom Colicchio from New York. He was the chef at Gramercy Tavern when I cooked in New York. So I was pretty blown away. I’ve known of him for years and have a ton of respect for him. Tom knows food, I don’t know that anyone understands food and can taste food they way he can. He can understand your techniques just by trying your food, and he breaks your dish down. It’s scary.
How did you interact with them? I’m just curious about how things work on and off the show.
There’s no real interaction outside of what’s on the show, we’re not hanging out and drinking beers off-set. [laughs] The judges walk around, talking to you about what you’re doing. But you’re freaking out because you don’t really know what you’re doing. You kind of know what you’re doing. So usually you try to be polite and then run away. You’ve got some of the most knowledgeable foodies asking you about what you’re cooking up and there’s a clock ticking in front of you—it’s terrifying.
What was your first reaction to encountering your competitors? Were you intimidated?
It’s hard to remember. When they say “go!” and you’re in there, it’s a blur. You don’t really notice what [the competitors] are doing. I felt like I had as good a chance as anyone.
How do you think being executive chef and part-owner at 5Church prepared you for being on the show? Was there anything else you did to prepare outside of a typical day at 5Church?
Being a partner and executive chef, I encounter an insane amount of problems daily. Problem-solving is probably about 75 percent of our job, doing so much on the fly. So I think that played a big part in the preparation for the show. I did a lot of research on the show as well, watched as many seasons as I could stuff in, just to try to get an idea of what they might throw at us, what kind of challenges I might see. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t do a couple fires too…just to see what I could do.
What kinds of challenges did you face on a personal level?
You’re pulled out of your comfort zone, and I think that’s the idea. You’re not with your family, you’re not eating the meals that you typically eat, you’re away, sleeping in a strange bed, you don’t get to say goodnight to your kid. Performing well under those circumstances, totally differently from how I usually operate—I would say that would be the most challenging for anyone. That’s the idea.
What kind of support system did you have on the show?
While you’re on the show, you don’t have access to your phone. It’s a very controlled environment. All the calls were filmed, so you couldn’t phone a friend for a secret recipe or anything. I was able to talk to my kid, but you aren’t able to stay in touch, really. There isn’t a whole lot of support structure. All the other chefs that you’re living with, they become your support system. And the thing is, they’re not really there to support you—they’re all there to win the competition.
It sounds like a really intimidating place to be.
Yeah it was really intense! There are only executive chefs in this competition, and they’re all prepared. Everyone there is at the top of their game.
Did you adjust eventually and get comfortable with the other contestants or were you always on edge?
I have no idea! I don’t know if I got comfortable or just got used to it. I would say I was pretty on edge. Being on edge gave me focus. I don’t know if that kind of thing is just normal for me, but it feels normal.
Do you think being on Top Chef will affect what you do at 5Church in any way?
How can an experience like that not influence the rest of my work? It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For me not to learn from it, to evolve how I operate at the restaurant, would be a waste.
Do you think you would be on television again?
Yeah I probably would! When we first finished filming, I don’t know if I would’ve answered that way. But now, yeah I would.
How does it feel to be a local celebrity here in Charlotte?
It’s taken some getting used to. I’ve spent the last 15 years building a name for myself here in Charlotte. So there was a little bit of recognition there already through 5Church. But since the announcement came that I was going to be on the show, it’s been crazy. I think it’s kind of a big responsibility, representing the city. I’m conscious of doing things the right way and being a role model.