GO recently joined Chef Josie Smith-Malave at her favorite hang out, The Pillow Café, in Fort Greene where she enjoys the women, the warm Brooklyn vibe and the garden bagel (which she highly recommends). While we discussed the joys and pressures of Top Chef, the art of being approachable and the exhilaration of getting knocked on one’s ass by a Shark, her laughter spread throughout the cafe. It was a night of good storytelling and great stand-up.
GO: So, is the show as intense behind the scenes as it appears to be on screen?
Josie Smith-Malave: Yes. [Laughs] And you can multiply that by ten. The first challenge was pretty intense: a flambé. We had to use one of the spirits from the table; there was everything from rum to great alcohols to wines. A part of the challenge was knowing which liquid was best to set a fire. I cooked a snapper over a scallop couscous. My couscous was made with the scallops and shrimp minced to a paste and then sautéed with the herbs and butter, garlic and salad. My flambé was the summer fruit: plums and peaches. I sautéed them up, set them aflame with a little dark rum and served that as a complement. Didn’t seem to hit it off with the judges.
Can you describe the process you go through when you create dishes?
That’s where I don’t improvise. I have experience working with some of the top chefs in this city: Jean George, Chef Dan Silverman at the Lever House. Chef Wylie Dufresne at WD Fifty had a very innovative approach. I learned with him that as experimental as his dishes seemed, there was a lot of thought that went into them. I apply the experiences that I’ve had in these top kitchens and when it comes to creating a dish, I do like to take chances. I like to push the envelope with flavors. Growing up Puerto Rican, Italian and Filipino, and then living in Brooklyn, I was exposed to so many different food experiences; I just allow my life to speak through the food. To me it comes naturally: using fresh ingredients, making it taste great, letting my eater, the diner, really be surprised by the flavor and ingredients. I try to present dishes in a way that you would never think of on your own.
It’s gotta be tough with cameras on your tail all the time. Which reminds me, what do you think about the drama in the second episode, with Otto, the chef who allegedly stole lychee nuts?
[Pause. Chin rub.] Let’s just say this. According to production there’s no proof, but when you’re in a competition with so much on the line, why even take a risk? If you leave the store and you know that something is not paid for, I’m sorry, but it sounds like stealing to me. All I know is I was busy leading my team to a victory.
The internet is abuzz about the show. According to the blogs, who are the public’s favorites?
On some polls it’s Sam and me. On some polls it’s Betty and Ilan. I didn’t realize there were so many fans. I’ve been going out in New York since we’ve been on break. One girl came up to me with her hand raised for a high five, singing, “Hey good looking. Watcha got cooking?”
It was cute. I had someone come up to me last night and say, “Are you the girl on Top Chef? I just came all the way from the other side of the room. I love you.” The best thing about it is that my character, well, me, is approachable.
Do you ever read anything about yourself that completely mischaracterizes you?
They call me a loud mouth, a Brooklynite that looks like trouble from a mile away.
That sounds like a compliment to me.
Yeah, I don’t know whether to take that as a compliment. I have a very strong personality; people are either going to love me or hate me.
Can I ask you about your girlfriend?
How did you two meet?
In a bar, like all lesbians do. [Laughs] When Caitlin walked through the door, I have to say, I was blown away. We said hi and exchanged names. That Sunday I ended up going to the Sandra Bernhard show and afterwards I went to my favorite ladies Sunday night party, which was Wanda’s at Starlight. Out of nowhere I felt this jab. I looked over and it was her. I was like, wow, what kind of luck do I have to see her twice in one weekend? I’d never seen this girl, ever. I tried to buy her a drink. She wouldn’t let me, she said, “You can’t buy me a drink when you have a full drink.” So I dumped my drink into a plant and said, “Can I buy you a drink now?” At the end of the night she said, “So what are you doing tonight?” I told her, “Anything you’re doing.” So then it was just a question of your place or mine. We found out we lived on the same block. She’d lived there for two years. I’d lived in my place for about a year and a half and I’d never seen this girl. We worked out at the same gym. Anyway, to make a long story short, we’ve been together for six years.
What gives you inspiration?
I take inspiration from knowing that I’m blessed and knowing that I’m here to do great things. I grew up a Baptist Christian. My parents applied certain Christian values to the way they raised me and I took those values and kept going with them. And I don’t believe that being a lesbian says anything about my faith. When I talk to other Christians, they’ll say, “Josie, you’re a lesbian. That goes against everything that Christianity is all about.” Well, you know what? I’ll take that up with Him when I get there.
What is it like for a woman in the culinary industry?
You know, in our culture it’s okay that our women are great home cooks. But now these women can’t cook professionally? Women have this attention to detail. They have a very developed palate and they’re willing to do the job ten times better just because they’re trying to impress. I had the great opportunity to work for Chef Caroline Fidanza of Marlow and Sons. It was the first kitchen I’d ever worked in that was led by a woman. I have to say this to any women that are out there: support other women. Go ahead and make another woman’s kitchen strong while you’re learning or while you’re coming up or when you’ve already succeeded. Bring more to their team because, the truth of the matter is, it’s still very hard.
That brings me to my next question. Playing for the Sharks…
Playing football for the New York Sharks was one of the most incredible moments in my life. I can’t really describe what football did for me. Everyone knows I’m not a morning person; I have to be very motivated to get up so early. I would be out on Long Island at four o’clock in the morning crawling a hundred yards and doing laps with all these pads on, a helmet that you can’t even breathe in and the mouth piece in. I was like, what am I doing? At tryouts I got flattened by a 300-pound woman. But it was just so good being covered in mud and going out there screaming, “Raaaaaaaa!” You can’t imagine unless you get those pads on yourself and you line up on that line and you hear that ‘hike!’
Is there anything you want to say to the readers of GO Magazine?
As women, we need to stop all the cattiness. Open up and support your sisters or everyone else is going to own the world and the lesbians are still going to be trying to fight for rights. With less drama and more action, we’ll be much better as a community.
Top Chef airs Wednesdays at 10pm on Bravo