MB: How did you end up on this season of Top Chef?
JAMIE LAUREN: The casting directors for the first season got my name from a friend here in the city, called me and asked me if I would like to come to the interview. I went and hit it off with the casting directors, but I didn’t make it on. I didn’t really think about it again until they called me to be on this season.
Bravo has been groundbreaking in terms of queer exposure on non-queer-specific programming. There’s a legacy of lesbian chefs before you on Top Chef. Were any of them an inspiration?
I don’t think I took that into account. It wasn’t about the other people that have been on the show before. It was more of a challenge for myself, seeing how well I could do.
Is there anyone from a previous season that you admire?
I can’t say that I watched it religiously. The only season I did watch was the last season and I thought Richard did some pretty cool stuff. I think he would be one person I would actually want to go work with and have him show me some of the things he does.
Is the show really as intense as it looks?
Yes. It’s harder than it looks. I think it’s easy for people, especially people in the restaurant industry, to criticize and critique when you’re at home watching it on your couch. When you’re actually doing it it’s a totally different experience. I now have a lot more respect for people that were on the show before.
Is there camaraderie among chefs, or are you all at each other’s throats?
Yeah, there is camaraderie. There definitely is. I have nothing bad to say about anyone on the show.
Were you concerned about your behavior in front of the camera?
I tried to be myself, I didn’t put on a front or anything. I’m more concerned about it now, just seeing how it’s all going to unfold. I wasn’t concerned about it when we were shooting, which may or may not be a good thing. I don’t know, because I can be very blunt. We’ll see.
Every year on Top Chef there’s a junk food challenge. Are you into junk food?
Yes, I am. It’s very bad. For my birthday I got a Burger King Gold Card.
They exist! It’s actually one of my favorite presents.
And just what does that get you?
It’s just a gift card, there’s $20 on it, so I can get 20 99-cent meals. I would actually never eat that much Burger King, but it’s kind of funny. I do like junk food, I’m not going to lie.
What’s your weakness?
I like hotdogs. I really like movie theatre popcorn and I like Cherry Coke a lot, but only at the movies. I don’t ever really drink it, but if I go to the movies I always have Cherry Coke and popcorn.
Are you at all prepared for what’s to come once the show airs, being a celesbian and all?
[Laughs.] Celesbian? I’ve never heard that one before.
You heard it here first!
No, not at all. It’s funny, I’ve run into some people that were on the show before and they told me I have no idea what I’m in for. I don’t think I do. I think a week from now I’ll know, but right now I don’t and it’s a little strange. I’m still living anonymously right now. I think that’s all going to change.
What opportunities do you think this experience will bring you?
What’s always been the most important thing for me as a chef and as a person is to keep learning and growing and evolving, so if I can continue to do that I’ll be really happy. What I’d really like to do is travel a little bit. There are so many parts of the world I haven’t seen, I’d really like to go to India. I’d really like to go to Asia, to eat and to work.
You left the University of Massachusetts to follow your dreams of being a chef. How did you know you were making the right decision?
I was cooking at a restaurant in a small town in [Amherst] and it just felt right for me and that’s why I left to go culinary school. It just seemed like the right fit.
How did you end up in San Francisco?
I moved out to SF after 9/11 happened in New York. It was a wake up call for me. I just wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with my life anymore. My girlfriend at the time was moving out here and she invited me to come along, so I decided to come.
Do you cook at home?
Rarely. I used to cook a lot with my mom when I was a kid though, and pre-culinary school. When I do cook at home it’s usually pasta with garlic and oil, we’re talking really basic. I have perfected the art of microwaving things. I’m moving into my own apartment so I think I might start cooking more now that I’ll have my own space.
So does that mean you’re single?
I don’t really want to answer that. I don’t think it’s important to me as a chef, and I really would rather keep personal things out of the media. Plus, I think it’s more interesting to keep the ladies at home guessing.
Fair enough. Can you at least tell us what attracts you and what turns you off?
I like women who are confident, strong, secure, sexy, girly and independent. I find all those things to be a turn on. I have great displeasure for bad breath and lack of concern for physical appearance. Showering is important to me.
Does being a chef affect your romantic life?
Yes, it absolutely does. I’m always at work, and when I get off work I’m generally exhausted and just want to go home. I think I would make a great part-time girlfriend.
Anyone who has ever fantasized about dating a chef thinks about a private dinners for two. Would you mind indulging us with your most romantic dinner date?
I cooked a really romantic dinner for a girlfriend once. We sat on the floor, ate by candlelight and listened to Feist. I knew she was a fan of oysters so I bought and shucked some for her, and I don’t even eat oysters. We had seared kampachi with corn and maitake mushrooms. We also had caramelized Brussels sprouts with bacon. I bought flowers for her and put them on the table and it was all waiting for her with some wine and cheese when she got home from work. That was probably the most romantic thing I have done in recent years.
What about the most nerve-wracking dinner you’ve prepared (pre-Top Chef, of course)?
When I was doing the try-out to get the job at Absinthe [where Lauren is now executive chef], I had to go through two different tasting dinners. The first one was for eight people and the second was for 14 people. Creating food for people to try to get a job was probably the most nerve-wracking thing I’d ever done. Most of the food I cook on a regular basis I’m pretty comfortable doing, and if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. It’s not the end of the world. It’s not rocket science, it is just food. I can’t beat myself up over it.
For the aspiring chefs out there, do you have any tips for a sure-fire crowd pleaser?
There’s a great snack that we do at Absinthe that’s really, really simple. They’re really good if you’re having a cocktail party or you’re just hanging out with friends. Instead of eating potato chips you can say, “Look, I whipped these up!” Take chickpeas out of a can and fry them and then toss them with a bunch of different spices. They’re awesome.
The restaurant industry has historically been a male-dominated industry. What it’s like to be a woman in the kitchen? Does being gay affect your experience at all?
Being a gay woman has nothing to do with me being a chef. I’m very proud to be a lesbian, but I’m a chef first, and a lesbian chef second. I’ve never had a problem as a lesbian in the kitchen, but I also live in San Francisco. It’s a very politically correct city and everyone is super liberal, so it’s a little different in this city as opposed to being in New York or a small town.
Being a woman is interesting. I run an entirely male staff, except for one tranny. It’s a really interesting environment because they have to listen to me. I’m the boss, but at the same time I can tell they don’t want to listen to me—but they do. Coming up into the ranks was really difficult. I had one really horrible experience when I worked at a restaurant in New Mexico where the sous chef sexually harassed me. There hasn’t been anything that’s happened since then, and that was probably 10 years ago.
What’s the difference between kitchens in New York and San Francisco?
New York is definitely more cutting edge and competitive, for sure. From what I understand, there are a lot of drugs in kitchens in New York and that tends to breed a different type of individual working. I don’t have that here in San Francisco, at least not in my kitchen, and I haven’t seen it since I’ve been out here. I think drugs and alcohol tend to be problems that run rampant in the industry. From what I understand that’s one of the problems in New York kitchens.
What’s it like to live in California in light of recent political events? How are you feeling?
I think everyone around here is little bummed out about Prop. 8 passing. For a so-called “liberal” state, the idea that Prop. 8 passed makes me sick to my stomach. To me, it’s less about being gay and more about being human. It’s amazing to think that the constitution of this country cannot support the same rights for everyone. I am upset about it and disappointed in the voting public in California. It’s a major upset and totally surprising. I’m still in shock that it passed.
We’re with you on that.
Season Five of Top Chef premieres Wednesday, November 12 at 10pm on Bravo.