Bald ambition: Talking with "Top Chef" Hosea
It’s with a healthy dose of self-deprecation that Hosea Rosenberg can joke about his meteoric rise from obscurity to insta-celebrity in a little less than a year.
Since being named the Season 5 winner of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” Hosea has discovered that it’s nicer to be in the rarified air of previous Kohler Food and Wine Experience invitees like Tom Colicchio, Jacques Pepin and Hubert Keller than on the reality TV chopping block.
If Hosea hadn’t already been sporting a bald dome, this year’s life-altering adventure probably would have led to some manic hair-pulling moments. After a stressful bit of hanky-panky with fellow contestant Leah Cohen, Hosea kept his cool and captured the “Top Chef” crown in February during a three-way battle with Stefan Richter and Carla Hall.
In the immediate aftermath of his victory, Hosea realized that his quiet Colorado kitchen life would never be the same.
Prior to his visit to Wisconsin next weekend, Hosea took time out from visiting his ill father in Colorado to answer a few questions for a story to run in the Press-Gazette on Saturday. Though our Channel Surfers had some fun at his expense last season, he couldn't have been more gracious, polite and candid during the interview.
For more on the Kohler Food and Wine Experience from Oct. 22-25, visit the Green Bay Hub this weekend.
Well, I assume it’s been a crazy year since winning “Top Chef,” but how often do you travel to food and wine events?
This year has been chock full of different events like the Kohler one. It’s been so fun. Events like this are great because it gives me a chance to travel all over the country and meet chefs from different regions. Most of them I’ve read about or heard about but never actually met. So the chance to cook with them is a real treat.
Do you get to pick what you want to do or does the festival set the agenda for you?
The Kohler folks laid it out pretty well. They’re really well organized and gave me information months ago. In fact, it’s a double-edged sword because while I like being prepared and having everything figured out ahead of time, as a chef, sometimes when you’re not in your own restaurant, or you’re traveling so much, it’s not easy to come up with a menu three months in advance. They wanted the food so early I put a menu together, and now I’m kind of wishing I could change a few things. (Laughs).
What will you be presenting?
I’m doing a beer luncheon with (Belgian brewery) Stella Artois and also a demonstration on sustainable seafood. The luncheon is three courses paired with different beers.
You know how to pick a crowd pleaser in Wisconsin.
Yeah, it’ll be fun. We’ll get a good turnout for that one. (Laughs).
Does everything you do in public inevitably turn into one giant discussion about “Top Chef”?
Oh yeah, "Top Chef" is always number one. People want to know the behind-the-scenes stuff, the interactions, how it enhanced my life. Everything. I have no problem talking about those things, especially in those settings. There’s no dead air. I’ve done presentations in the past and the crowd will get quiet, nobody asks questions. In this case, I’ll bring up "Top Chef" if they’re afraid to ask first. I'll volunteer information, get the conversation going and before you know it, everyone is gossiping about it.
Well, I’ll ask now that you’ve brought it up: What has changed the most since you won “Top Chef”?
This (upcoming event) is a perfect example. Or let me put it this way, I wasn’t invited to Kohler last year. (Laughs.)
But Tom Colicchio probably was.
(Laughs.) Exactly. Being instantly recognizable has helped my career so much. It’s opened so many doors. To get that exposure from "Top Chef," obviously, there’s nothing like it. Plus, it brought so much new business to our restaurant that it helped us in what’s been a really terrible year for a lot of people.
Were people coming to your restaurant just to see you? Was that weird?
It’s been crazy. People were scheduling summer vacations to come to the restaurant. Hopefully, I met their expectations when they came out, but that really puts a lot of pressure on you when someone brings their whole family from Florida to eat at your place.
Did travel get in the way of your daily routine?
My restaurant had to start a little travel blog called www.whereishosea.com so they could chronicle all the events I’ve been to. (Laughs.) Actually, I just got back from Montana at a thing called Montana Master Chefs. Before I go to Kohler, I’ll be in Milwaukee for a James Beard Dinner at Bartolotta’s, actually with Stephanie (Izard), who won Season 4 of "Top Chef." We were also in Montana together.
Was that a designed thing, or is it just random that you’re at similar functions?
We’ve definitely met up at a few places, but it’s more accidental. We never really plan it out. We work great together, though, have similar food styles, likes. We did a wine dinner together in Montana that was really well received. They wanted us back next year, so that’s a really good sign.
You’re still at Jax Fish House, right?
Yep. That’s still my home base.
Did your “Top Chef” win change anything in terms of the operation there? Did you feel the need to get more experimental or live up to the billing, so to speak?
We’re celebrating our 15th anniversary right now, so things are definitely good there. There’s always something I could be improving on, but I think we decided right away not to change what the restaurant was about just because there was more attention. We wanted to do exactly what we had been doing. We’ve been open for 15 years, so obviously we’re doing something right. And obviously I can cook.
Early on, people wanted dishes from the show, like, they were expected that would all be on the menu now, which is kind of funny. A lot of those dishes are made on the fly. You don’t really plan them out, and win or lose, you wouldn’t necessarily want them on a menu. But for the anniversary, at the beginning of November, we are doing some specials and one of the nights, I will do all my winning "Top Chef" dishes on the menu.
Based on your background, you had accomplished a lot in Colorado prior to “Top Chef.” Was something still missing? What made you want to push yourself on a national stage?
My joke before going on the show is that I was a really big deal on the 900 block of Pearl Street, which is where the restaurant is. People knew me in downtown Boulder and I won a lot of cooking competitions in Colorado. Always placed well. But I thought "Top Chef" would be a good chance to see how I stacked up against other people in the country. I do live in a little bubble there, and a lot of times as a chef, you work so much, you don’t get a chance to travel. So really, it was a good way to expose myself to other styles and other parts of the country.
Did you have a lot of built-in confidence right away or was there a period on the show where you thought, ‘Man, I can really win this?’
I was really confident when I got there, and certainly felt that I could go very far. I always knew I was in the top 25 percent. But after the (romantic) stuff went down with Leah, I got a little shaky. I really started to lose confidence at the end in New York. I made a lot of mistakes. I mean, they put you in this pressure cooker. There’s no way to describe it. People who are on the show get it, but you don’t have any freedom. You’re not allowed to make phone calls. You can’t just leave the house and go for a walk.
So you’re basically under house arrest.
Totally. The camera is always going, so it’s really hard to catch your breath. You have to free your mind a little bit. So all that was starting to weigh on me. And it got in my head too much. I was doubting myself at the end of New York. But when I made it to the finale, we had a pretty serious break. I was able to go home, get back in my kitchen, deal with my personal life, my family life, all that. When I got to New Orleans, I felt really good.
It recharged your batteries then.
Absolutely. I was ready. I knew what I was cooking. I felt like I could totally do it once I got there.
You don’t really get that impression when you watch “Top Chef,” but you’re basically saying that the whole time you’re on the show, you’re not allowed to have any kind of outside life, even after the challenges are done.
You can’t do anything. You just hang out with the same people everyday. They can only put an hour show together, but it was 24 hours for us.
On the show, your biggest rival was Stefan. Did the TV portion amplify that a bit, or was it mostly good-natured, heat-of-battle type stuff?
That’s exactly what it was. I have no hard feelings with Stefan. We’re good friends and were actually just talking on my way down to my dad’s house. He’s ill right now, so he was wishing us well. He and I are friends. We’ve seen each other quite a few times since the show. I think they played it up as more of a rivalry than it was. I liken it to two guys on the basketball court, talking smack and bumping into each other. It was all in good fun. You’re just trying to get the best of the other guy.
Well, and Stefan is a talker.
Oh yeah, definitely. He likes to get under people’s skin. That was sort of his game. Everyone had a way of approaching the challenge.
Are you still in touch with other contestants from your season?
I was hanging out with Jamie not that long ago. Jeff, Leah, Stefan, Fabio … I haven’t really seen that much of Carla since the show. Some of the people that got knocked off early, I didn’t get a chance to connect with them. Melissa, though, the girl with the bangs, was also from Boulder. She and I were good friends before the show, but they didn’t really highlight that. That was kind of odd to me. I thought they’d make something out of that.
Especially since this season is all about previous connections and past work relationships.
I know. That’s why it was really weird that they never mentioned us being friends. We even work in the same restaurant group. So I was surprised by that going in because we were friends, and are now better ones because of it.
I believe you had mentioned on the “Top Chef” reunion that you were considering the possibility of moving from Boulder if the right opportunity presented itself. Maybe New York. Obviously that hasn’t happened. Any reason you’ve decided to stay?
Nothing has pulled me away. I’m working on a few projects based out of Boulder. I’m involved with a food company and a start-up, a gourmet food cart sort of thing. It’s also nice to have Jax as a home base. There are seven restaurants in the group and it’s good to have that network, that support to lean on. Plus, with all the traveling, they’ve supported me through everything. It’s good to keep that going. If I move somewhere else, I’m just the new guy in a big city.
Are you ever amazed at how far celebrity food culture has come?
It blows my mind. I graduated from college with an engineering degree. I became a chef because I really loved it, not because I thought I’d ever make a lot of money. So the fact that people recognize chefs now and want to be chefs because of so many food programs, it’s just mind-blowing.
Are you getting used to being recognized in public?
I am. It’s still weird at times, but I’ve taken so many pictures by now, I’m used to it. The first few weeks after I won, I could barely work in the kitchen. It was a joke to everyone, among all the cooks, because we had to hire an extra guy on since I was spending at least 40, 50 percent of my evening out in the dining room. Talking to customers, signing autographs, taking pictures … some people would call their parents so I could talk to them. I’m much more comfortable with it now, but at first, I couldn’t believe people cared that much.
Do you suspect it will die down when the new season ends?
Yeah, it will die down once the season ends, but people are so addicted to “Top Chef,” I think they’ll always remember the winners.
Well, you’re part of the brand now. They brought you back to judge “Top Chef Masters.” How was that?
So cool. It was great to see other chefs sweat.
And the food?
Amazing. Brilliant. There’s a reason they made it that far and are masters. My favorite dish to eat was definitely by Rick Bayless.
When you were judging with the other winners, did you feel like you were part of an elite club? Is it something you talk about or acknowledge?
Not really. It’s all been so shocking to our lives, we don’t need to talk about it. We get it. Thing is, the flipside is that there’s so much pressure everywhere we go now. People expect the best food of their lives from us. But you have to remember, “Top Chef” is just a TV competition. It’s not like they had every food critic on the planet go to every restaurant and decide who the best chef is out there. On “Top Chef,” you have a competition with a lot of limitations, whether it’s time limits, food limits or working in other kitchens. It’s survival as much as it is cooking.
So people have to remember, we’re the same chefs we were before. We were just unknown. The show is a jumpstart to your career, but winning doesn’t make you a better chef. That’s on you. And there’s a lot of pressure with that. Especially at food and wine events. People expect greatness, and I hope I can deliver. It’s definitely something you think about.
That said, did the show provide some sense of validation that you were doing what you were supposed to do?
Once I was on the show, I really wanted to prove myself. Yes. But I never set out to be a famous chef. It’s never something I tried to do. It feels really good in the competition area of cooking, but I didn’t need it. I felt I had proved myself as a chef, but I am a competition kind of guy. I’m really low key and mellow, but when it comes to contests or races, that sort of thing, I hate to lose. So that was a personal quest of mine. It had nothing to do with how other people felt. I don’t like to lose. I felt really terrible being on the bottom (during the show), so it was something I wanted to do for myself.
Through all of it, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned this past year?
I’d say the biggest lesson is be careful what you ask for. It’s been great. But it’s a lot more work that I thought it would be. My life has changed so much. I can never go back to the life I had before. And that life was great. Now ... it’s different. I was talking to one of the producers on the show, right after I won, and I said, “What do I do now?” and she said, “Well, you’ve got about four weeks before this airs, so if you’ve always wanted to do something crazy, do it now. Because all eyes are on you after this point.”
You’re not anonymous anymore, and before, I didn’t think of that. I didn’t think about being famous. Not that I did anything stupid before, like run around naked with my hair on fire, but now I have to be careful about what I say to people because anything you do can be quoted and end up on the Web.
Well, you kind of learned that the hard way on TV with Leah, I’d imagine.
(Laughs.) Yeah, exactly.
Are you watching the new season?
Definitely. I feel this season, as a small group, there are so many talented people. Some of the best people the show has seen. But it’s that group and then everybody else. The same people keep winning.
Do you have favorites? Predictions?
My top four are Kevin, the Voltaggio brothers and … the blonde girl, I can’t remember her name.
Yeah, those are my top four picks. But as I learned in competition, and I’m sure Stefan would agree, it doesn’t matter until the last plate goes out. Everybody probably agrees that Stefan was the favorite to win my season, but you have to perform the whole way through.
It’s more about consistency then. Is that why you think you won?
Yeah. I definitely stayed consistent throughout.
Would you come back to the show in competition form if they asked?
It really depends. If it were some charitable thing for fun, then I’d do it. Another competition, staged thing? It’d have to be a pretty significant prize. Because I don’t wish that stress on anybody, being on that show.
Well, my last question then is about your dad. How is he doing?
He’s doing OK. He’s going through some really aggressive chemotherapy right now. He’s certainly weak. Doesn’t look like himself anymore. This is the first time in awhile I’ve had some days off.
Does he live close to you?
He’s in the mountains, about a five-hour drive away. It’s beautiful here right now. The leaves are changing, falling. I’m enjoying my time with him before I have to get back to work.
-- Thomas Rozwadowski, firstname.lastname@example.org