Chef Carlos Fernandez of Hi-Life Cafe and Top Chef fame shares with us some of his experiences on the show and gives us some insight as to what's in store for this neighborhood bistro now that it's under new management.
New Times: You were on Top Chef, season two, in 2006. How did you get on the show?
Carlos Fernandez: I saw the first season, fell in love with it, and really wanted to be on it. Most of my friends thought I was crazy, but I was determined. There were 14,000 applicants, and I knew that I had to wow the judges with more than just a video submission. So I flew up to Chicago for their open casting. When I got in front of them, I did my thing and was able to charm them into a callback for the next day. I told them that I couldn't, that I had just flown up for the day, so they shuffled me into another room right then to audition in front of a camera. A few weeks later, I found out I got it!
How would you describe the experience?
It was amazing but
exhausting. They take away all your communication with the outside
world for the nine weeks of taping. No phones, no laptops, nothing -- I was
allowed to bring one novel. People get a little cabin fever, and
everyone reverts back to high school. It all got very cliquey. I just
kept my head down and tried to not get too involved.
Anything in particular you can share with us?
producers were always trying to get reactions out of us. For example,
when on set, the AC would be shut off for "sound quality"... right... we
all knew they wanted us hot, exhausted, and on edge. Trust me, there
was no need to turn off the AC for that.
How was it coming back to reality?
first, I felt a little stifled. I had hired two people to replace me
when I was away, so when I was done halfway through the season, I got
back home and thought, "That was it?" But then the advertising started,
and I knew it was going to be good for me.
And was it?
it opened a lot of doors. I got a bimonthly segment on Telemundo, was
a judge for a national 7UP contest and had some work with Univision.
One thing led to another. It was a lot of fun.
Do you watch the show now?
Yes, I feel their pain. To me, the show is like eating peanuts; you can't stop at just one.
So now that Hi-Life Cafe has new owners, what can we expect to see in the coming months?
There are no major changes planned. We've always tried to keep it fresh and fun and will continue to do so. We'll continue with our wine dinners coming up, cooking demos, and, of course, Scrabble night. I play against several guests [all at once], and if you beat me, you get a $50 gift certificate. I've gotten quite good...
When you do the cooking demos, what is your teaching style?
A lot of chefs overcomplicate things and make cooking intimidating. I like to teach cooking classes to "mobilize the victimized." Break it down and encourage them to make it their own. Even those who have a fear of cooking.
Can we expect any changes on the menu?
Just some updates, but nothing drastic. People say they like change, but they are lying! You have to be careful when making menu changes, because there can be quite a backlash. We try to involve the guests in the decision-making process by having menu voting cards and a "vote online" option. That's how we lost the stuffed chicken. But it's OK; I never liked her anyway.
Several of your dishes come in two sizes. What is the thought behind that?
This is something we started to offer when the economy took a downturn. We wanted our guests to still have the opportunity to eat out so offered a smaller size at a lower cost. It's actually been great, and people have embraced it. I think they actually end up ordering more because they like to try different things.
What about the décor -- any changes planned?
Just updating, not changing. We'll give her a "fresher look."
What do you want people to say when they walk out of Hi-Life Cafe after a meal?
That we have a good product and a sincere approach. I want my guests to come in and always feel comfortable.
Tomorrow Chef Carlos will share with us one of his signature recipes. In the meantime, you can check out his restaurant's website site at hilifecafe.com for upcoming events and specials.