On “Watch What Happens Live” last night, you mentioned wanting to put your finale dishes on the menu at Spiaggia. Can you tell us more about your plans?
I really want to have that menu as one of our tasting menus so that people can taste it. I think it’s hard to watch … and you think you might know what it tastes like, but to be able to really experience it … could be really fun. And I’m excited to cook it again, you know?
One thing we only got a glimpse of last night was the name you chose for your “dream restaurant.” Is there a story behind that?
So the restaurant’s called Monte Verde, which means “green mountain” in Italian. And my last name Grueneberg actually means “green mountain” in German. So the first time I went to Italy, when [Spiaggia chef/partner] Tony [Mantuano] sent me there to train to become the executive chef at Spiaggia, I was sitting there with some new friends, I had just met some of these people. One being Andrea Bezzecchi, who is like the most major balsamic producer in all of Italy, and his friends and we were just sitting around. And I had a journal … and I had the people sign it that I had met. And his friend signed it, “Every time you’re in Italy you will now be ‘monte verde.’” And I was like, oh my god, being accepted off the bat into the Italian culture and the Italian people for my passion for the food … how do you not stick with that name?
How did you feel watching the finale last night?
I think a lot of times you like to prepare yourself for the worst and hope for the best, so I was really nervous to watch it and then it was on, and I was like ‘Wow, this is awesome!’ I was worried I was going to be upset and I might be extremely emotional and then have to go directly into live TV with Andy [Cohen]. But actually, it was awesome. It was really great to see Paul’s dishes. We were at different restaurants. It was great to really hear the feedback from all the chefs and the diners.
Putting yourself on TV opens you up to great fans and support but also a lot of criticism. I remember reading an Entertainment Weekly writer called you "a disgusting person to the core.” How do you handle that?
You know, it’s tough because I’m absolutely not a bully, but then you kind of wonder, do they realize they’re being a bully now? At the end of the day, I know me, and it’s OK. To be a great chef is to be opinionated, is to speak your mind, is to be passionate, is to want to do the best all the time, and the people around you to do the best. Being an executive chef at Spiaggia, I have to really set the standard high for my team and to push them so that they will be great chefs one day, and it really, is what it is. So I just stopped reading everything. I figured it would get in my head. The worst has been Twitter, people saying really hurtful things about my weight or things like that. The thing about “Top Chef” is it’s such a great balance of chefs cooking, but I think that the viewers feel like they know us, and I feel like [Chicago Tribune reporter] Kevin Pang said it the best in one of his recaps. He said that my parents always taught me to base people on 3D not on caricatures, and it’s so true. There is so much more to every single one of us than what was able to be on the show. For me, competing was never about competing against the person. I never felt like I was competing against Paul. My food was competing against Paul’s food. So it wasn’t anything personal … and if anything, it’s a personal battle with yourself.
What happened during the finale’s taping that we didn’t get to see in the show? Like what happened with the bones in the trout?
We cooked so hard and then it’s like on the TV for like glimpses, you know? The steelhead trout … when I fileted everything and portioned it … I took all the pin bones out of the top part of the filet, and then there were these little baby [bones], maybe just like a quarter of an inch long, along the belly. It was really weird. I really haven’t experienced that. I ended up butchering more fish and then just serving the belly. And you know, I even butchered steelhead trout before I left, because I researched what fish were going to be up there [in Canada where the finale was filmed.]
What else did you do to prepare during the break before the final shows?
I staged with Bill Kim. He’s amazing and such a talented guy. I staged with chef Chris Shepherd in Houston. I remember thinking, I need to push myself. If I make it to that spot, I need to be prepared for it. You don’t go there and just decide to make a dish on the fly. I cooked the trout dish for Chef Tony and [my fiance] Jaime [Canete] before I left. I cooked everything. Even up to that day before I left, I was making cakes in my kitchen at home. My pastry chef drove all the way out to the suburbs and picked up some liquid nitrogen so that I could practice with liquid nitrogen. I like to believe that I was prepared for it, and I think it shows in the finale.
How hard has it been having to keep so much of your experience a secret?
You know, it's kind of like a double-edged sword. You want people to watch it live so that they get the full feeling, but at the same time, you want to talk to your best friends and your family and your chefs and tell them how you did and explain to them. When I like walked in to the kitchen, [my sous chefs] looked at me, doing the once over, and I was like, “Guys, I’m not gonna tell you!” They’re like, “Come on, come on! One thing, one thing!”
Do you have plans for the prize money you won in Canada?
I think I’m definitely going to spend it wisely, so either on a home for Jaime and I, like a down payment, or something with the wedding. You know, everything has been a whirlwind. The day that I got engaged was the day that “Top Chef” called. So it’s kind of been … a full year of Top Chef. I think now we’ll be able to focus on the wedding and moving on and getting back to normal. I would do it again in a heartbeat.