Kapnos chef George Pagonis wants to break away from the shadow of Mike Isabella. So he’s appearing on the show that made his boss a star. With the latest season of Top Chef set to premiere on Oct. 15, Y&H talked to Pagonis about why he wanted to be on the show, what advice Isabella gave him, and how he plans to use his reality TV fame.
Why did you want to be on Top Chef?
You know, working with Mike Isabella and being with him and kind of being exposed to Top Chef for a while, it seemed the show would be a great opportunity, a great way to kind of challenge and push yourself. And it was an opportunity I just couldn’t pass up.
Did Mike push you to be on the show?
I wouldn’t say he pushed me. Somehow I guess my name kind of came up with the whole casting process, and I kind of decided from there that it would be a good idea to do it. Mike, he encouraged me. I’m not going to say he made me do it, but he definitely encouraged me for sure.
So is Mike the one who helped your name come up?
I believe so, yes.
Did you do any training or prep for your time on Top Chef?
Definitely. Now that I’m in a Greek restaurant, I’m really focused on Greek cuisine and Greek flavors, so I need to branch out and go into a bunch of restaurants and trail and check out different types of cuisine and get a crash course, a refresher course on different cuisines and their ingredients. Just in case you get thrown into a situation, you’re more well-rounded.
Did you do any practice challenges in advance?
Uh, I didn’t really do that that much, I’ll be honest. I worked on the line a lot more. Right now, I’m a chef and I have cooks, so I would work on the line with my guys just to keep my skills fresh. The show is very time sensitive; I just wanted to make sure I could do certain things at a fast pace.
What advice, if any, did Mike give you before you went on the show?
Mike gave advice to promise to be myself and stay true to who I am and what I do and what got me as far as I am in my career now… Don’t try to step too much outside of your box because that’s when you mess up, when you start doing food that you’re not very comfortable with or things that you’re not used to doing.
Did Mike give us any tips about dealing with the judges?
I don’t know. He kind of treated it like, ‘You know what, I went into it blindfolded…’ It’s up to me to figure it out on my own. But I don’t know, it wasn’t that harsh. He just really stressed that your food really has to be spot on. If it’s under-seasoned or over-seasoned by a grain of salt here or there, or if a fish is just cooked a little too much, they’re going to spot it. There’s no way around it. They’re going to catch it. And your food has to be perfect. Especially Tom [Colicchio].
So ultimately was it what you expected?
Way more difficult than I expected… You just kind of get pushed to your limits, and you get thrown into certain challenges that you feel like you’re incapable of doing. But you make it happen, you dig deep, and you persevere and you find a way to make it happen. And I feel like that’s a big part of it. Everything seems very daunting. Especially when you’re a chef, you know you have prep cooks, you have line cooks, you have all these people to do things for you. And then here I am peeling my own garlic, running around like a crazy man trying to do every part of the recipe on my own.
In what ways would you say your approach to the competition was different from what you witnessed with Mike on the show?
Mike is very, very confident in himself, and he shows that. I’m not saying that I have a lack of confidence, but I’m a pretty under-the-radar guy more than the star-of-the-show guy.
Anything similar about your approaches?
Our cooking abilities and our techniques are fairly similar. We both specialize in Greek food, and that’s one of our comfort food cuisines that we fall back on.
Should viewers expect you to be a drama-maker this season or not so much?
Nah, not at all. I am drama free.
Mike used Top Chef as a stepping stone to break out on his own and open his own restaurant. Is that your plan?
No, actually it’s not. Mike and I are business partners in Kapnos. I invested into this restaurant, and my brother’s general manager of Kapnos. So at the end of the day, I have no desire to leave the company. We’re growing and I’m excited about the direction in which the company is going. I just feel like being with Mike for so long and being the guy behind the scenes and running the restaurant and doing all his prep for dinners and this and that that I’ve been doing for the past couple years now, I feel like Top Chef was a good opportunity for me to kind of just step out on my own and have my own identity. I did the whole Mike Isabella No. 2 man for a good period of time, and it was a great opportunity for me to do my own thing and be my own name and be my own person—but at the same time stay within the company.
Photo via Bravo