Meet the ‘Top Chef’ contestant who lost his taste to COVID: ‘It was a total crapshoot’
The following contains spoilers from the eighth episode of “Top Chef: Houston.”
Amid the ongoing pandemic, the almost inevitable happened: a “Top Chef” contestant competing without the ability to smell or taste.
But for “Top Chef: Houston” competitor Jackson Kalb, who battled COVID weeks before filming began, a lack of senses never equated to a lack of boldness — in concept, in flavor, in presentation. The Los Angeles native elevated the everything bagel as a salmon tartare with a cream cheese bavarois, and “bastardized” brisket by grinding it up and stuffing it into a scarpinocc pasta, a dish then served to 20 of the region’s best pitmasters. His cacao cake’s “bloody” velociraptor footprint (made from raspberries) was one of the series’ most visually memorable plates to date.
Kalb, considered one of the frontrunners of the season, fell victim on Thursday to the franchise’s infamous Restaurant Wars, which challenged teams to serve a chef’s table of judges along with fifty diners. Months after filming his elimination episode, the chef and owner of El Segundo’s Jame Enoteca and Venice’s Ospi told The Times about cooking without taste and beating himself up over his front-of-house decisions.
By embracing health and safety restrictions, Bravo’s cooking competition brilliantly highlighted its strengths — and turned lemons into lemonade.
At what point did you get COVID?
I got COVID in mid-August, about two weeks before I was set to head out for the season. It was totally mild — I just felt like I had a cold — except all of my smell and taste were gone. I had this ultra-empathetic moment for Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago. Years ago, as he was skyrocketing to fame as one of the best chefs in the world, he lost his taste due to radiation treatment from tongue cancer. I can’t imagine what it was like to experience that by himself, and having no guarantee that it was ever coming back.
During those weeks, I tried this wild list of things. I did acupuncture. I took all the supplements and vitamins A through E. Four or five days before I had to leave, I started getting these weird sensations on my tongue — this tingling or burning with salts, as well as acids like champagne vinegar or lemon juice, but there was no discernible difference for me. Umami, like mushrooms and soy sauce, felt bitter, which I still can’t explain.
Did you ever consider not competing, or asking if you could defer a season?
No. I thought the opposite, that they would want to replace me. The producers felt sorry for me and kept checking in, but there was no question I was still going to be on it as long as I was not contagious. Now thinking about it from a producer’s standpoint, it’s actually a good thing because it made things interesting and, at the end of the day, they’re making a TV show.
I can’t say I was smart in my decision-making, I really can’t. There was no heavy analysis of the pros and cons or anything like that. I guess it was such a long interview process that by the time I got on it, I figured, “Why not? If I embarrass myself and make an ass of myself, at least I can say I went on it.” In some ways, it was kind of freeing. I gave myself permission to do whatever because I had very little to lose.
Why keep this a secret from your fellow competitors, even during team challenges?
That was strategic on my part, thinking if I were in their shoes and there’s one schmuck without his taste, who are you gonna pick last? It’s pretty obvious. And I have no idea if the judges knew or not. I assume they didn’t, and I never asked.
So how did you cook without being able to taste what you were making?
Honestly, a lot of it was instincts, and a lot of it was a total crapshoot. I wish there was a better story, like, “I was relying on what I learned from my grandma when I was 6,” but I didn’t have any of that.
Something odd about me is I often don’t taste the food that I’m making, which I know is a cardinal sin among chefs. Sometimes I’ll do it piecemeal, sometimes I’ll do that at the end. But often when I’m developing recipes, I go with my gut feeling of what I think will work and then let other people try it, and if I get this huge “Wow!” reaction, then I pursue it.
San Gabriel Valley native Melissa King took the coveted title in Thursday’s Tuscany, Italy-set finale of “Top Chef: All-Stars L.A.”
The episodes often showed moments of you asking competitors or teammates to taste your dishes and getting their feedback. What were you looking for in their reactions?
Anything. Do they really like it? Are they trying to screw me? I was purely looking out for myself and whether or not what I was making was actually anywhere near what I thought it would be in my head. Every second of the day, I was so stressed out and nervous because I didn’t know what I was doing the entire time. I was an anxious, s— mess; it was difficult and made me want to cry a lot.
I don’t think [the series] ever shows me doing this, but I would try my food and often plug my ears and close my eyes, and try to piece together what I think it would taste like while I chewed. I was relying completely on texture at that point. One of the producers asked me why I kept doing that, and I was like, “Dude, I’m trying to figure it out. What do you want from me?”
Did anyone ever guess?
I don’t think so. Everything is so high-stress that you don’t have time to look out for anyone else. There was one time when everyone was talking about who had COVID and who didn’t, and I think I said, “I had it, my symptoms were mild but my taste went away.”
Jae [Jung] asked me off-camera when we were in an elevator, “So, how long did it take to come back?” I kind of stopped and malfunctioned — like, Jackson, you just said way too much — and said, “Oh, you know, a couple weeks.”
And yet, there were many, many times where you were revealed to be among a challenge’s top three, and even its winner.
It’s gonna sound stupid to say, but I was genuinely shocked every single time. The judges would ask, “Why are you so shocked?” And I couldn’t just tell them. I mean, I guess technically I could’ve, but I didn’t want to. So I would just stand there and nod like Eeyore and just look dumb. I think I just got lucky. I’m telling you, a lot of my life has just been dumb, blind luck, and I think this is part of it.
I still can’t tell you what any of that stuff tastes like.
Let’s talk about Restaurant Wars. You immediately and confidently proposed a concept and a name to the team. Was that an idea you had been sitting on?
It came to me the night before. Both of my restaurants, and the one that’s opening soon, are Italian, but I knew for certain that going in there and being like, “Hey guys, I know Italian food, we can crush this, just follow me,” is a terrible strategy. Because that would be just focusing on myself, and this is an especially team-focused challenge. None of the chefs there specialized in Italian cuisine, almost none of them even knew how to properly make pasta, which I believe is a very specific thing to do well.
I had a few concepts in my mind, based on who I’d get paired with. My strategy was, in general, to play to the strengths of the strongest personality, and then we all tag along. I think no one will dispute that Evelyn is a very strong personality — which is not a bad thing by the way, especially in a chef. She says what she wants, she does what she wants.
I don’t know how much they showed it in the episode but [on a team] with me and Nick [earlier in the season], she was kind of forcing her opinion on everything. Have I cooked Southeast Asian cuisine before? No, but I just wanted to play to her and have her drive the ship. That’s how I thought everyone would be most successful.
It was also your idea to send out two courses at a time. Where did that come from?
I’ve opened three restaurants now in my lifetime, and things always go wrong, so I was worrying about timing. But also, all over L.A., the really nice restaurants are relatively casual, compared to New York City, Chicago, San Francisco. It’s very common to get items at the same time. That’s how we do things in L.A.; no one knocks that for happening at Bestia, Felix or Spago.
If you have two little bites of food, does it make sense for them to come out at the same time? I still believe that’s true. Just not for Tom Colicchio. He would never agree with that. He is a fine dining chef; if you say you’re going to course something, you course it.
I forgot that we weren’t opening a restaurant for people. We are cooking for five individuals and they are the only ones that matter. It’s a mistake I’ve beaten myself up over for five months now, because it’s just so obvious in hindsight. Who’s your audience? The 50 guests in there, some of whom were raving about our dinner, don’t matter one ounce, not one shred. It was a decision, and I stand by it because I take full responsibility for everything I did, but it was the wrong decision.
How did you feel when you saw diners struggling to eat your dessert with their utensils?
It was about two months after I had COVID, and I’d say my taste was 75% back at that point, so I was really excited. But Evelyn or Jae told me that one of the guests tried to cut into it and it went flying, and my heart sank. I just tried to solve that problem quickly and told everyone to pick it up and start eating it with their hands. Someone said that was fun, and that made me feel better.
I don’t know if this gets into the episode, but Evelyn made a decision to put the dessert on its own plate and not family style. Tom knocked me for that with this rant: “It didn’t make any sense. You did this double course thing and then you put the dessert on a plate? I don’t get it.” I turned to look at everyone, like, “Are you gonna say anything? Like, that wasn’t me?” and no one said anything.
But I’m not going to fight that because I think it’s irrelevant and my [front-of-house] mistakes would have sent me home anyway, to be completely honest.
The front-of-house role has taken out many “Top Chef” competitors in the past. Why did you volunteer for it?
I actually had no idea about that. I had seen the first two or three seasons and I remember very little, and then I saw Season 18 when I knew I was coming on the show. Again, a terrible decision to not study [the show]; it’s stupid, it’s unintelligent to do that.
I ran front-of-house in both of my restaurants for a period of time, and I specifically do the training of all my servers, so I know how to do it in a real restaurant, and I just thought I was helping out the team. When we were discussing who was gonna go front-of-house, it was like, deer in the headlights.
How did you feel when you were getting feedback about how you neglected the chef’s table?
I had just talked to some diners who went to both restaurants and told me ours was so much better, so I went into judges’ table with this shred of hope that there wouldn’t be a best and worst on our side, and I was so mistakenly wrong. Within an hour or two, I went from thinking we had a chance of winning to, not only does our team lose, but also, I’m f— done.
I don’t regret doing front-of-house; I regret the really dumb decisions I made. I put my head down and did what I would in real life, and I had a server assigned to the judges. In hindsight, obviously, that’s not what they want; there are cameras everywhere, I’m the one who’s mic’d up and in the competition. Horribly stupid to think that I should make it in any way like a true restaurant.
Luke was also on the chopping block for his under-seasoned dish, which you mentioned at judges’ table that it was over-seasoned…
It absolutely was. That is actually the only thing that I can tell you that I tasted the entire time that I knew for certain. I could feel that burning sensation from the salt. And Jae and Evelyn actually said that before me, or at the same time. Did [the episode] not show them saying it was over-seasoned when they tried it?
No, just that they tried it — and then your opinion.
I wish we could find the raw footage. My assumption is that he didn’t serve those over-seasoned pieces; when everyone told him that, he went so far back that he actually under-seasoned, but I can’t say for sure.
Why did you decide to then tell the other competitors about your lack of taste?
It was very obvious that I was going home, so I just wanted to let them know. It was a relief to get that burden off my chest. I’m a pretty open and direct dude. I was developing some real friendships and I don’t like keeping things like that from people. I figured it would be a good time.
I remember Buddha said, “Plot twist,” which I thought was funny.
How are you doing now?
Our two restaurants are doing well, and I’m grateful for that. I’m opening Gemma di Mare, a seafood-focused Italian restaurant in Brentwood. I don’t want it to be this big cerebral experience that people go to once or twice a year and talk about and post about, but then you look around the dining room and it’s two-thirds empty. I just want it to be good.
I think my taste is 100% back now, but I’m not sure.
Overall, what did you think of your “Top Chef” experience?
I’ve been beating myself up over it, but it was fun and I really did love it. I had a great time. I would go back today, if they let me start over with a fresh new set of 15 other people. I always said to myself: It’s not gonna be this make-or-break thing that if I win, then I’m everything and if I lose, then I’m nothing. No matter what happens, it’s not the outcome of this specific show that matters, it’s what you do with it afterward.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Rated: TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for coarse language)
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