Michelle Minori, the former executive chef of SF’s Barzotto, has quietly and confidently risen through the ranks on Top Chef Season 16, breaking out last night on Episode 9 with what judge Tom Colicchio called “the best dish of the season.”
After tasting Minori’s red snapper with corn and fava ragout, citrus vinaigrette, and fennel onion purée, guest judge Sean Brock declared he wanted to hire her.
Minori made the dish for a special “music city” detour episode from the Kentucky-based season to Nashville. It was inspired by memories of gardening and listening to the Beatles with her late father, who took his own life when she was 15, she told the judges.
Minori won the challenge — she’s one of seven cheftestants remaining from an initial 18 — and she looks poised for more success to come. The Lodi native graduated top of her class at the California Culinary Academy of San Francisco, then joined two-Michelin-starred restaurants Aqua and Acquerello before serving as executive sous chef of the Ne Timeas restaurant group (Flour & Water, Central Kitchen).
But Minori isn’t taking that job with Sean Brock just yet. Before last night’s episode. Eater SF spoke with Minori about her experience and what lies ahead. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Eater SF: Congrats on all your success on Top Chef Kentucky! How are you watching the show, assuming you’re watching along, week by week?
Michelle Minori: I am — I’m getting friends together and hosting, actually.
Eater SF: Are you cooking for them?
Minori: A bit! It’s kinda funny, because I left Barzotto at the end of October, and since then, I’ve regained a lot of my love of cooking, being out of the restaurant.
Eater SF: Obviously this is a big question, but do you know what’s next for you?
Minori: It’s a big one, and something I’ve been thinking about a lot, because for me, being a chef is such a great way to build community, and support others in our industry, and I also feel like a huge pull to be a part of positive change. And as you know, our industry is the most wasteful in the world, and as chefs, we have a responsibility to make that better.
So now I’m staying open and reaching out to other places, reaching out to La Cocina [the Mission’s incubator for food businesses from women of color]... I want to do something that supports women in our industry, maybe some kind of bakery that might employ immigrant women... I don’t know if [what’s next] is a restaurant right now.
Eater SF: On the show so far, has there been a moment or a dish that’s been a breakthrough for you? Your agnolotti on “restaurant wars,” for instance, which was a hit?
Minori: I think the agnolotti was a really big one. It took that moment of like “Tom Colicchio loves my pasta!” to realize, yeah, I am really friggin’ good at pasta.
Eater SF: Obviously based on your experience in SF, pasta seems like a big thing for you.
Minori: I’m really passionate about it. I love that pasta has a story and a history, and who doesn’t like a little dumpling? Every culture has their version of a dumpling, something stuffed, and its really comforting. And I love that pasta can be elegant at the same time.
Eater SF: Do you have a favorite pasta?
Minori: Honestly I love agnolotti, it’s probably my favorite shape — that or orechiette, it’s a fun shape that everybody can make, and it doesn’t have to be perfect, which I love because perfection’s overrated.
Eater SF: Top Chef judges Tom and Padma Lakshmi seem so intimidating — how was it to be judged by them?
Minori: I felt honored to be judged by Tom — he’s a really well respected chef in our industry, and the feedback he gives is really insightful and on point, and you really feel like you’re talking to a mentor. He’s not just giving you criticism because something went wrong, but because he wants to make you better.
And Padma, she’s just intimidating in general. She’s got daggers for eyes, sometimes. She’s the mother you don’t want to disappoint.
Eater SF: On the Christmas episode, when you all met surprise guest judge Eric Ripert, it was striking how calm and collected you were — and you mentioned that you’d met him before in the kitchen at Aqua. Your experience really seems to help you remain poised.
Minori: It’s funny because Eric [Adjepong, another contestant] was like totally freaking out, and I was like, you’re embarrassing us, like, ‘be cool man.’
Another time, Sara [Bradley] said, on a Bravo interview, that she was intimidated by me because of my pedigree. I remember once everyone was talking about their different resumes, and I was like you know, mine stacks up pretty well. I decided to work at the best restaurants I could early in my career, and get my ass handed to me, and that’s really paid off.
Eater SF: You guys seem to get really close as a group during the show. Are you still in close contact?
Minori: We all text each other almost every day still — funny things, to ask for advice, to talk about work. And that’s one thing I’m really grateful to walk away with from Top Chef, with that network.
Eater SF: It must also be difficult to compete among that close-knit group.
Minori: I think this season is unique in that it never felt cutthroat — it never felt like anyone was trying to take anybody down, which is the way our industry is in real life. If your’e down a dishwasher you reach out to other chefs, if you need some ingredients, they’ve got your back, that’s something I really do love about the community of food.
Eater SF: On an early episode, you mentioned that you grandmother was a shaman for the most dangerous tribe in Mexico. What?! Say more.
Minori: It’s funny cause I grew up with my grandmother visiting [California]; we didn’t see her a lot. She actually ran an herbal shop, a wholistic medicine shop, so she was always making tinctures and teas to bless our house.
She’s a born again Christian now, but she was a part of the Yaqui tribe in Mexico, centered in Sonora, and they’re technically the most violent tribe in Mexico, because they’re the protectors of the land.
My father, when I was a kid, would just call her a shaman, he would use that term kinda vaguely — I recently saw her, she just turned 90, and she’s like not really a shaman, she doesn’t walk around holding a tiny head or anything.
I do wanna say I think that’s where I get my fire blood from, from her. I’m a huge protector of people.
Eater SF: Is she watching the show?
Minori: She is. She’s so proud, she’s so excited,
Eater SF: I know you can’t give anything away, but is there anything viewers should watch out for in the coming episodes?
Minori: I will say, and this doesn’t give anything away on the plot, but for me, mental health has been a really big issue. In our industry as you know, it’s a big issue. And part of the reason I don’t have a much contact with my grandmother, is that’s my father’s side of the family. He suffered from anxiety and depression, and passed when I was young, and I also have that, and if anyone sees one thing from this show and from me being on it, it’s that you can accomplish anything no matter who you are and what you struggle with.
We all have a responsibility as chefs… There’s alcohol and drugs and late hours and you don’t always see your family and friends, and it’s our responsibility to improve that culture, because we’re in charge and we set that dialogue.
Eater SF: Would you recommend competing on Top Chef to your colleagues or friends in the industry?
Minori: I would recommend it. It certainly wasn’t easy. It was a full time job, and it’s challenging, but that’s what makes it great. There’s so much interviewing [of contestants] going on…. In a way, it was a sadistic type of therapy. Because, normally, nobody sits you down and asks you “why did you do that, what were you thinking.” I learned a lot about myself and myself as a chef.