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D.C. chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley had at least two things you look for in a successful Top Chef contestant going into the show’s 13th season: She works in a couple of successful restaurants (Ripple and Roofers Union), and she had a pedigreed link to the show (she had worked for Top Chef: All-Stars runner-up Mike Isabella).
And sure enough, Meek-Bradley was one of the stronger contestants this season, winning several challenges and even breaking some of the show’s taboos against baking and desserts. After making it all the way to the final four, Meek-Bradley ran into trouble during the first part of the show’s Las Vegas finale last night, burning her tongue on some liquid nitrogen-cooled oranges and ultimately losing a chance to compete for the title next week.
We talked to MM-B about those oranges, getting a Top Chef alum to run her kitchens while she was gone, and just what she learned from being on this season.
Bread seems to be a pretty dangerous thing to do on Top Chef, and you did it a few times really, really well. Was that strategic or just something you pulled out of your pocket?
I definitely did not go on there planning to bake and do desserts. I wouldn’t say it was necessarily a strategy [laughs], but it made sense a few times. I did think, “If I execute this, it’s something that can make me stand out, but if I don’t execute, it’s definitely going to send me home.” Sometimes you just have to weigh the risk against the potential reward.
Well it seemed to pay off.
It was good. It was fun for me, because it’s one of those things that nobody’s done. In the 13th season of a television show, it’s kind of surprising to me.
And that gets to what I wanted to talk about—the style in your restaurants is not necessarily the style that seems to be favored or rewarded on the show. And you talked about this some on the show. How did you think you’d fare this season?
I definitely knew what I was getting myself into. I have had a lot of friends who have gone through it. But I think I wanted to do it to challenge myself. And even though what I do doesn’t always shine on a show like that, I saw this as an opportunity to grow rather than to show off.
How tough was it?
Oh my God. It’s definitely hard. It’s challenging in a lot of ways that you don’t expect. You’re cut off from the outside world, so you don’t really have a support system. I was really lucky because I felt like our season was a group of chefs that were truly very talented but also cooked with a lot of integrity. There wasn’t a lot of drama. There was certainly competitiveness, but there wasn’t any undercutting. Karen and I were roommates for the second half of the season, and Angie before that, and we would vent to each other. We would support each other.
You worked for Mike Isabella and you’ve known people on the show, how prepared were you?
I mean, everyone tries to give you advice, but the reality is that we were a traveling season so it was completely different than what Jen [Carroll] told me or what Mike told me or what George [Pagonis] told me. They tell you things and then you get there and you’re traveling and none of the stuff really applies [laughs]. I think the one thing I took from all of them is to cook food you’re proud of and take risks, but don’t take risks for no reason. Take calculated ones.
There’s a mental aspect to the show. Tell me how much of this is an edit versus reality: It seemed like there were people who really got inside their own heads and it affected them.
We all did a little bit. You can’t help it. It’s a very specific pressure. For me, it was when we were cooking challenges for large groups of chefs that I really respected and you want to impress them. Somebody says, “Oh, you didn’t see my real food, you didn’t see the real me,” and [the judge] says, “If I wanted to see the real you, I’d come to your restaurant; This is completely different.” The people that understood that fared better. If you kept thinking “you don’t see me” … you can’t try to do the same thing you do in your restaurant because you have a staff and time to prep and plan.
You’ve got two places and a third in the works. How do you carve out that time? And how much were you thinking, “If I do well, this is going to be great for me and my restaurants?”
I was very, very fortunate. Smoked & Stacked wasn’t even a twinkle in my eye yet. That’s something that actually came about because of the show and because of the fast casual challenge, it made me think differently. But I was very lucky, the owners of Ripple and Roofers Union were very supportive and allowed me to bring in someone to watch the restaurants while I was gone. Jennifer Carroll actually cooks at Ripple and oversaw the restaurants while I was gone. It was awesome. I could have never left my kitchen without her, but she made it possible and the owner allowed for that to happen. I was very, very fortunate because it can put a very large weight on peoples shoulders when you’re gone for that long.
What was the roadshow aspect like? Could you enjoy any of it?
It was enjoyable. I mean, it was hard living out of a suitcase for so long, and I was one of those stupid, paranoid people who never unpacked because I thought if I unpacked then I would go home. You were in places for only a couple of days where, if you’re in a house, it’s your home base. It was hard and stressful, but I had never been to Palm Springs. I had never been to Santa Barbara before. I hadn’t been to San Diego since I was a kid. It was really cool and then making it up to San Francisco was like a reward because then I felt like I was at home. My brother lives in San Francisco and my whole family’s in Northern California, so when we were done filming, I actually got to see them. It was definitely nice to make it there. It was very, very rewarding to make it to that point and be in my homeland.
Was there anything that you learned as a chef from being on this season?
You know, I learned to cook to my strengths more and not focus on my weaknesses. I tend to focus more on my weaknesses, and it’s what pushes me to be better, but sometimes it can hold me back, because if you live constantly thinking about what you’re bad at, you’re going to go crazy. It’s a fine balance, and I watched it last night and I hated it because I hate looking kind of weak. But at the same time, it is part of that journey, and I’m proud of where I am.
Did you scream at the television “DON’T TRY THE ORANGE”?
[laughs] You know what’s pretty funny? It was pretty bad, but in all honesty, it was at the end of most of my cooking. I had forgotten about it, so it was funny to watch it and see this morning that it was such a thing. Some headline was like that’s how I go out—with liquid nitrogen burns. But I don’t work with that shit. [laughs]
Tom’s comment was interesting, because he said he actually wanted a little more orange. Anything you’d change about that dish?
Yeah, you know the one thing I did scream at the television about was as I was wheeling out the cart, there were two oranges and a microplane that I had meant to zest over them, but my nerves got the best of me and time got me. That would have added the fragrance of orange and the freshness of orange. I think that was a pretty big mess-up and that’s what happens when time kinda goes, you forget those last minute touches.
And then they wheeled you out there to essentially perform as you finished the dishes. Nerve-wracking?
It’s not really the way I am. It was weird, but it was fun. David Copperfield was so cool. His show [the night before] was incredible. I got brought up on stage for the show. It was a really special experience, and it became very personal. It took me back to when I was younger and when I went to culinary school and about my family and where I ended up. Because his show that we got to see, that inspired us, tells the story of a young boy who wanted to do magic and nobody believed in him. And then he grew up to be this great magician. The whole thing was this story and a cool show. It was a great end. I obviously wanted to make it to the very end, but I don’t think I could have gone out in a way that I could have been prouder.
Photo courtesy Bravo