TheInsider.com caught up with Top Chef: Texas runner-up Sarah Grueneber, who is the Executive Chef of Spiaggia in Chicago. This season of Top Chef was one of the most controversial in the history of the Bravo show -- and Sarah is no stranger to controversy. Read on to see what the chef had to say about what she really thinks about being runner up, being called a bully, and what she really thinks of fellow cheftestant Beverly Kim.
The Insider: How does it feel to be runner-up?
Sarah: It feels great. Any other circumstance would be awesome too, but the fact that the judges commented that Paul [Qui] and I had the best food out of any finale, how can you beat that? Basically if it was any other season I would have won! It just pushes me to keep going in the right direction and keep on this path that Top Chef has really inspired me to be on.
The Insider: What do you think it was about Paul’s meal that beat you out?
Sarah: I’m not sure. I wasn’t able to taste Paul’s food. I would say, based on the season, he deserved to win. He was consistent the whole time, he was a strong competitor, and was making food that the judges haven’t had before, so I think that he absolutely deserved to it. Also, one thing that was really important to Paul and I is that we both told each other to cook the best food we could make. You want to compete against the best.
The Insider: It seems like there was a lot of support between you and Paul.
Sarah: Absolutely. We celebrated last night together. We are definitely great friends and respect each other a ton.
The Insider: Based on the meal, do you think you deserved to win?
Sarah: I really can’t dwell on this. I absolutely pushed so hard and had a lot of risk, but I think it was really close. I think maybe two of my dishes were their favorite as well as two of his, I think some of it was how we did this season.
The Insider: It seemed like you were really pushing yourself in a different direction while still utilizing your specialty in Italian cuisine during the later part of the season.
Sarah: For me, I felt like everything I made last night was still from an Italian heart and hand. I was really inspired by the other chefs cooking and how they cooked. We would cook at night, and that taught me how to velvet cooking and how to make Kung Pao chicken from scratch, and it’s those things that really inspire you by how delicious they are. Italian food and culture is what I have decided to really hone in on, but I really love every kind of cooking, and I think being on Top Chef really brought that home. That was the inspiration for my final meal. I’m walking away a different person, and I’m excited about the path I’m on right now. Sometimes you have to take yourself out of your comfort zone to reinvigorate your soul and your passion.
The Insider: Would you have changed anything about your meal?
Sarah: I think the only thing I would have changed is the obvious things. At one point I tasted the beets and noticed they were really hard, and I got everyone on the team’s opinion on it. A lot of people loved the texture of them. It’s all about the taste and what people want. I’m trying not to dwell on those things because I can’t go back and change them. At the end of the day, the beets were a little bit too crunchy, but that’s okay.
The Insider: How did you feel when you found out Tyler Stone, who was eliminated within minutes of the first episode, was your sous chef?
Sarah: I had a feeling that he would probably be on my team; it’s the irony of it. When you’re tasting it’s hard. The dishes are cold, and you really learn how hard it is for the judges to taste our food during the whole season. What happened there was the classic case of second guessing yourself, and double guessing, which is what really happens in Top Chef, because you only have a split second to decide.
The Insider: What was it like to have him on your team?
Sarah: He’s a great guy, he really is. He’s a personable guy, so I think he likes those smaller gigs, not running a whole restaurant per-say. That doesn’t mean he’s not talented. It was probably hard for him. He didn’t cook and bond with us, but on the other hand I didn’t get a chance to bond with him, so it was really important for me to try to open him up to the group, but also keep a look out because I didn’t know his style, and didn’t want to make a decision that would fault it. It might have come off as harsh, but at the end of the day, I have to stand in front of the judges and defend my food and decisions, and I want those to be mine, which is why I’m okay now.
The Insider: I feel like a lot of the women in this season have been labeled as ‘bullies.’ How do you feel about that?
Sarah: It hurts. I think it’s sad because I know we’re all beautiful women, and are not catty like how it is on the show. We would film for three or four days and it all gets edited down to 45 minutes, and a lot of times its just facial expressions to a situation and maybe not everybody in the screen at that situation. I can tell you that it’s hard, but deep inside I know who I am. I love Beverly [Kim], and you’re never going to be put in a situation like this where you are thrown together in a house and really have not time to bond. You start cooking immediately. At the end of the day, I respect Beverly. We’re good friends in Chicago, and if it wasn’t for that we probably wouldn’t be as close as we are now.
The Insider: Do you have any regrets about anything that happened with Beverly on the show?
Sarah: I don’t. Like I said, there are other sides to every story. I think she’s a great person and I think that she and I grew a lot. I think that the Beverly from the first two episodes was not the Beverly that she is now. I think that Beverly and I really had to grow and we learned a lot about each other, and I wish the first episode of Vancouver would have really showed her and I coming together. They really didn’t show any of that. I think you felt it a little bit at the end when we said goodbye to each other. That was heartfelt, and I meant every word when I said that she is a beautiful and amazing chef, and I’m so proud of her. She’s such a classy lady.
The Insider: What was your hardest challenge?
Sarah: By far, the ice block challenge [at Whistler]. First of all, it took an amazing amount of physical strength, but you’re also cooking frozen stuff! It was a little hard to get some inspiration.
The Insider: What was your favorite challenge?
Sarah: I have a few. Definitely the Patti LaBelle challenge because it was really the first challenge that we got to cook from our hearts, and then the Charlize Theron challenge because we got to cook and be inspired by something so creative. It seemed like everybody did a great job in that challenge. And then of course the finale because I was able to cook my own food without any parameters.
The Insider: Were you surprised to see your family and fiancé?
Sarah: Absolutely, it was great for them to be there, but it also made it a little bit more painful when I didn’t win. I didn’t want them to see me so upset, but it gave them a chance to see how crazy that production life is.
The Insider: What are your wedding plans?
Sarah: I had no idea you were supposed to be buying a dress like six months before, so I’m definitely not in the place right now to do that. I’m currently working out with a personal trainer, and I really want to get healthy so I can have that great wedding day picture. We’re trying to decide, we are thinking either fall or spring/summer of next year. It’s funny because the day that my fiancé actually proposed was the day that Top Chef called me.
The Insider: What do you think was the hardest part about being on Top Chef?
Sarah: The hardest part was also the most rewarding part, which is really digging deep and being on a spiritual level with yourself and find strength in places where you didn’t know you had it. That’s really something that I’m going to take away the most.
The Insider: What’s your favorite food guilty pleasure?
Sarah: Skittles, starburst, and jalapeño chips, but not together! [laughs]
The Insider: What are your favorite Italian restaurants in the US?
Sarah: In New York I love A Voce, in Chicago Fascia is fantastic, Quince in San Francisco can blow your mind, and in LA I love Pizzeria Mozza. There’s just some really great Italian food in the country, and I think it’s about time that America learns about great regional Italian-American food.
The Insider: What is next for you?
Sarah: I guess it’s time to start doing the wedding planning, but also I really want to continue this route of being inspired by different cuisines, so I’m hoping I’m going to find someone that’s going to help me get to those place! I want to get to Japan and Portugal, and then I have to get back to Italy. There’s a lot more I have to research.
The Insider: Any plans to open your own restaurant?
Sarah: Absolutely, that’s definitely a goal of mine! But not right now, I am excited to keep cooking where I am right now.
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