Top Chefs

Top Chefs Jen, Zoi and Lisa took the culinary world by storm on Bravo’s Top Chef. Now they spill the beans.

With the influx of competition-based reality shows—some good, some bad, some really bad—we’ve had bisexuals, gay men and lesbian contestants, but until this season we’ve never been graced with a lesbian culinary couple. The wildly popular Bravo show Top Chef not only tests up-and-coming culinary stars in quick-fire challenges and impossible cooking situations, but it has introduced us to Zoi and Jen—America’s dish-licious dyke duo. The twosome (self-taught Zoi, 31, and Jen, 36, trained in French cuisine) has been dating and heating up the kitchen for four years. To us, they spill details about Top Chef and admit to crushing on the gorgeous but inaccessible judge, Padma—and Zoi defends her mushrooms with rosemary, the dish that led to her untimely elimination.  

You are both successful chefs. What prompted you both to try out for Top Chef?
Zoi: We both watched the show. It’s kind of one of those things where you have a “pie in the sky” idea like, “Oh wouldn’t that be great, if we could get on the show?” and it just kind of happened. We were really honored that we were chosen.

Jen: I kind of fell for the show on a trip to New York. [I watched] a marathon of the show. A couple of months later, they had an open casting call. I think that I secretly really wanted to be on the show, but I was playing it off like, “Whatever, who cares?” I got called back for an on-camera interview, but that was it. And then the next casting call they actually called Zoi. They saw her picture or an article about her in a food magazine. They called her in for an interview and during the interview process they figured out that I was her girlfriend. Basically, they were interested in both of us coming onto the show.

What was the initial reaction when you heard that you made the show? That you both made the show?
Zoi: I was called at work and I actually remember specifically that when I got the call, and a woman said, “You’ve been chosen to be on the show,” I said nothing. I was dumbfounded. So shocked. You know, even…through the whole process…you’re kind of getting closer and closer, [but] in the back of your mind you’re still like, “No way.”

Jen: I was elated. I was totally excited! I was jumping up and down.

Did you guys have a strategy going into the Top Chef competition?
Jen: We talked a lot about it and we just decided we needed to compete sepa-
rately. Especially since there [was] going to be a large group of people, so we didn’t want anyone to [think] that we were tag-teaming people. So we just decided to take it on individually.

A lesbian culinary couple on a reality show has never been done. Did you feel any pressure to represent?
Zoi: I mean, the thing is, we’re everywhere. Gay people are everywhere. I certainly don’t feel like in this day and age it should be all that surprising. Bravo is such a gay-friendly network and so there wasn’t a lot of anxiety in terms of that. The anxiety was more “Oh, my God, our personal life is going to be up for discussion, up on display.” We’re essentially running two races. We had the race of trying to compete in this competition, and we also had a whole different kind of challenge, which was that we’re there as a couple. Not only am I getting looked at, scrutinized, blogged about, what have you, as is Jen, but our relationship is being blogged. There’s an additional dynamic that we had to wrestle and deal with. They could’ve picked a straight couple, they could’ve picked a gay male couple, but for whatever reason, Jen and I, the dynamic was such that they felt like they wanted us to do the show together.  

Jen: I think we really underestimated how it was going to affect the community. I’ve been [getting] extremely positive reactions. I went out Friday night and it was just crazy. I had at least 20 gay guys come up to me [and say], “Girl, I love you!” It’s very supportive and positive.

Any negatives to having your lover on the show?
Zoi: We didn’t know how people were going to react behind the camera, when we weren’t there, but overall people were definitely surprised. I mean, the rest of the contestants, the crew were all like, “Oh, my God, really?” But I think pretty quickly they got it that we’re cool girls as individuals, and we’re cool girls as a couple. And we weren’t there to stir up a bunch of lesbian drama. We were there to win. We tried not to rub it in just because we did have an advantage emotionally, in that way.  At the same time, it’s a disadvantage because it’s distracting. [You’re in] the middle of the challenge, and then all of a sudden you look over and there’s your girlfriend. It’s a little bit like, “Whoa, wait, what’s going on?”

Did you flirt with Padma?
Jen: Well, I have, yeah. All the guys did. She would just shoo me away like a fly.

Zoi: Ah, well, not outright. [Laughs] I mean, Padma is Padma. Get out of here. She’s hot. I mean, it was kind of a running joke. Every morning we were like, “Ah, what’s Padma going to be wearing today?” And Jen and I being lesbians, you know, there’s Lisa too. We were all kind of like one of the dudes. Like, “Oooh, let’s go look at Padma today.” It was definitely lighthearted. Padma’s hard to flirt with. She doesn’t make it easy, that’s for sure. She’s not letting on. She’s certainly not acknowledging any type of eye contact or anything like that. For me at least, that’s how lesbians let lesbians know, [through] eye contact. She wasn’t doing a whole lot of eye contact. Maybe she’s a lesbian, I don’t know.

How does a girl from Seattle meet a girl from Brooklyn?
Jen: We ended up working in the same kitchen and just liked each other right away.

Zoi: I remember to this day walking into the kitchen and seeing Jen. She and I both kind of looked at each other and there was this instantaneous friendship. We both just liked each other right away. Part of it was that we’re both strong female chefs. We became friends over the course of four years. We were both in relationships and eventually we were both not in relationships and our relationship changed.

Jen: And we both are alpha Aries. We’re both super-fiery, so working together was always really fun! In the beginning, I was a sous chef and she got hired into the restaurant I was working at. We always looked forward to working together side-by-side ’cause we’d just kick ass. Just the same work ethic and [the] same mentality and it was a really good combination.

What are your comfort foods?
Zoi: Roasted chicken. I love roasted chicken. Lots of lemon, rosemary, garlic. I could literally just eat roasted chicken and salad and be happy. There’s a dish that I ate growing up that’s a Greek dish called giouvetsi. I really like pho. If I’m hung over or not feeling great, pho is kind of medicinal. Like, after I eat it, I almost feel high.  

Jen: Anything that’s braised: a short rib or oxtails, roasted chicken and Zoi makes really good Greek salad meatballs called keftedes. I have a thing for Salisbury steak from my childhood. Mashed potatoes and Salisbury steak smothered in mushrooms and onions.

Jen, your cooking has hints of French, Italian and Spanish. And you have been mentored by many exceptional women chefs. Tell me a bit more about your culinary path.   
Jen: I came to San Francisco after working in some great Manhattan restaurants. I came here definitely for the food. Traci Des Jardins was the up-and-coming female chef. I met her in New York and I had worked for a female chef in New York, but Traci had this sort of amazing presence—kind of a fierce presence. She connected me with Loretta Keller, who was my mentor, who I worked with for a couple of years. And later on I ended up working with Traci again. I’d have to say that the female chefs that I worked with, the women from River Café, Rose and Ruthie, Loretta Keller and Traci, they all tend to have this more mentor-y, more nurturing quality about them. Whereas the male chefs, you’re more afraid of them, so you’re acting out of fear. Female chefs I wanted to impress and take on their qualities.

How is it being lesbian in a male-dominated field?  
Jen: Well, I tend to be like one of the boys. When I worked in New Orleans and was 19 years old, I was surprised that there was so much sexism and racism in the kitchen. But that was in the South. That was intimidating, working in a place where all the chefs were male and all the line cooks were male and the women were only working salad stations. It had that hierarchy and that male-dominated-kitchen feel to it. But it’s never really posed a major challenge to me, and I think that’s mostly because I’m a competitive person. I’ve always been taught, and felt, that if you can prove yourself, you will be accepted. In the kitchen, it’s much like a sport. If you’re not going to win the race, if you’re not going to be the best producer, then no, you aren’t going to be accepted.

So it’s more about personality?
Jen: I do believe that if I went up for a job with someone [male] with the same caliber as me for an executive chef position, I guarantee that he would get 10 percent more money than I would. I think that still exists. I think it’s personality. I also think that a lot of times in this industry women will try to find the other aspects in the culinary fields, the other jobs that don’t pay as well [and] aren’t as stressful. I hate to say it, it might be a lot like the corporate world, but [women] will try to not find the job that’s gonna take up your entire life and stress you out.

I have to ask—Zoi, why couldn’t you make a simple pasta salad?
Zoi: I can make a delicious pasta salad. I just didn’t that day, for many, many reasons. The error was more in the fact that I decided to serve it [at all], instead of sticking to my guns and saying, “No, I am not going to make pasta salad on Top Chef,” and, “This isn’t what I want it to be so I won’t serve it.” Lesson learned.

What’s your take on Cat Cora?
Zoi: Well, I have to say I don’t know her, obviously. When I first heard of Cat Cora, I’m like, “Wait a minute, a half-Greek lesbian?” I was like, “Get out of here. Totally stealing my thunder.” You know, a little jealous. I’m like, “That’s my angle!” But no, honestly, I’m not that competitive of a person that I’m going to talk shit about somebody because they’re doing well. Her style is definitely a little different than my style, but I’d love to meet her on a personal level and see what her style is really like. But all we see is what’s on TV, which we all know is not real life. So yeah, she seems like a cool lady.

Why were you cut over rosemary mushrooms, Zoi?
Zoi: I do not think I was cut over rosemary mushrooms. I realize that our dish may have not been considered a favorite among the guests, but I will continue to argue and defend the fact that we made a good dish with heart and integrity. Carpaccio of beef is about beef. We chose a good-quality product and felt good about the end result. I wouldn’t want a highly acidic component paired with it, otherwise the delicate flavor of the beef would be overpowered. And as far as mushrooms and rosemary…give me a break. They pair well together and with beef. I stand by that. I deserved to stay, but alas…not my decision.

Are you both partnering up professionally after Top Chef?
Zoi: I personally am trying to get to a place where I can have my own restaurant.

Jen: It’s hard to say at this point. It’s so busy right now, it’s kind of hard to think about. I think we play around with the idea of opening up a place, but I think we’re going to wait a couple of months to make a final decision about that. We’ll have to see what happens.

One last important question. Who does the cooking in your house?
Zoi: It’s probably whoever didn’t work that night.

Jen: We don’t cook that much. Just on the weekends, and I think she probably tends to cook more than me. What usually happens is that someone has the concept, and then basically if I say, “I want to make this,” then she’ll end up being the assistant. I think she tends to cook more than me. I’m kind of lazy like that. I make reservations.

Initially, it was Jen and Zoi, the lesbian couple on Top Chef: Chicago that got all our adoration, with Lisa flying under the proverbial gaydar—well, that is until she came out and started sporting a new sexy buzz cut. But this rebel dyke chef, who battled with a litany of contestants and judges, marched herself all the way to the final three, often with an imposing scowl on her face. She was vilified by her kitchen mates, and accused of not being up to par by some, but her ego refused to be flattened. She gave advice where it wasn't wanted, demanded props when not warranted, and somehow she had us all watching, cheering, wildly debating and nail biting until last night just to see if America would have their first lesbian top chef.

Congratulations on being the villain this season.
[Laughs.] Thank you very much.

According to online blogs and boards, you’re an angry lesbian who didn’t deserve to be one of the final three.
Everybody is entitled to their opinion. And, blogs are very important, and they come with the territory of being on the show. It’s been a great experience. I appreciate the compliments and the criticism that people have said. And I try not to pay too much attention to the negativity that’s out here.

Tom mentioned that you had a bit of an ego, which is critical for top chefs. Do you agree with that?
Absolutely. When you’re this passionate about food and about cooking and what you do, you need to have a little bit of that drive and aggressiveness. You need to defend what you do and you need to be proud of what you do and you need to be stern about it. If you’re a painter [you’re not going to say], “Oh, whatever, here’s my painting, and if you don’t like it, you don’t like it.” You’re going to say, “No, this is what I was trying to accomplish, and I feel that I achieved my goals in this painting.” It’s the same thing for food. A plate is pretty much a canvas, and you have to be passionate, you have to be driven, you have to stand up for it, and obviously I agree with Tom that you need to be strong about what you do.

Tell me what the most difficult thing about being at the judge’s table was.
Honestly, the hardest part is standing there and just waiting. And waiting. And waiting.
And waiting. It’s such a long process and it’s hot. You’re literally trying to find a focal point to stare at and not fall asleep. It’s really rough.

What do you think of Stephanie’s cooking?
I think Stephanie is an amazing chef. I hope that now she’ll finally stop doubting herself.

There was much to-do about Jen and Zoi being lesbians, and their sexuality was a well-known fact from the get-go. You flew under the radar for the first half.
I spoke about it very, very freely and openly on a regular basis. I guess they didn’t focus on it, just to amp up the lesbian couple. I’m completely out, and I’m not ashamed of it. I talk about it all the time. I’m very proud to be gay and—you can pretty much look at me and tell that I’m a lesbian. For some people, I guess they really weren’t too sure until that episode where I said, “My girlfriend has a son,” and all these people were like, “Oh my god, she’s gay? What does she mean? Her friend? Her girlfriend?” Just sort of freaking out, and I was like, “You can’t look at me and tell? OK.”

When you came back to go to Puerto Rico, you had a sexy new ’do for the finale. Why the switch?
My girlfriend convinced me to cut my hair. She’s been trying to get me to chop all my hair off for some time. Before the finale, I went to a salon where they do short haircuts for women, and between my girlfriend, her son and the stylist, they were all like, “No, go shorter, go shorter,” and the next thing you know, all my hair was cut off. It took me a while to get used to it, but now I love it. I think it suits me and I like it. And it’s not a faux hawk, to set the record straight. It’s nowhere near a faux hawk.

So are you getting hit on now?
Oh, come on, look at me! No, I’m just kidding. I definitely get approached, but I’m in love with my girlfriend. And people who want to hit, flirt and be with me just because I’m on TV for my 15 minutes of fame—it’s awesome, it’s a nice feeling, I love the flattery, but my girlfriend was with me before Top Chef and she’s with me now and that’s more important.

What food, in your opinion, should be banned? As an example, I think Velveeta should be banned.
[Laughs.] I don’t know if I would say banned. I’m definitely not a fan of Spam. I managed to go the majority of my life without trying it and then I tasted it and I thought it was hideous. But I know a lot of people who really like it. As for banned from me ever having to eat it again. That would totally be salmon. I hate the taste of salmon. I don’t like the smell of it. The more you cook it, the worse it smells. If it is cooked in front of me, I gag every time.

So if you could make dinner for one person who would that be?
Anyone? Dead or alive? I think I would like to cook for Anthony Bourdain again, so I could redeem myself from restaurant wars.

What would you make him?
I would make him the smoked laksa, but I would make it the right way, without making massive mistakes.

Say you got your own cooking show, and you needed a brand or a catch. What would that be? And it can’t be Cooking with Bold and Spicy Lisa.
[Laughs.] I don’t know, it would depend on how PG I would have to keep it. Maybe Cooking Fish with a Lesbian Chef? I don’t think that would fly. Something like, The Four S’s of Asian Cuisine, that’s kind of the code that I live by when I cook.

Since your girlfriend isn’t around right now, who do you have a crush on?
My newest crush is Jordin Sparks.

I didn’t see that coming.
No, I’m sure you didn’t. I didn’t watch American Idol. I had no idea who she was, and then I saw her video with Chris Brown, and I was like, “Ooh! She’s kind of cute.” There’s just something about her I kind of like. I don’t know what it is. Alicia Keys is beautiful, like, absolutely beautiful. Me and my girlfriend would have to fight over who would get to attack her first. Jordin Sparks is the most recent crush.

Speaking of your girlfriend, how has she handled the publicity?
People know that I have a girlfriend. I try to keep her out of the public eye. It’s not really any of their business. And watching how difficult it was for Zoi and Jen, to really exploit their relationship. My parents are loving it. They’re this super happy, proud family, like, “That’s my daughter! That’s my daughter! That’s my daughter!” My sister, too. Everyone’s been really supportive and really great.