It was only a matter of time before one of the talented (and charismatic) chefs from Bravo's popular cooking competition series "Top Chef" would end up with a show of his or her own. Chef Marcel Vigneron may have a reputation for being abrasive with other chefs and was labeled a villain during the series' second season (where he was runner-up) and the current "All-Stars" season (where he was the ninth chef eliminated) but he is now headlining his own food-centric reality series on Syfy.
In "Marcel's Quantum Kitchen," Vigneron's love for gastronomy (the art of cooking and science) is explored as the 30-year old chef and his newly assembled team are challenged with catering jobs where they employ their unique way of cooking. During his chat last week with our Jim Halterman, Vigneron talked about how it feels to be known as a jerk, whether cooking or science came first for him and how he feels about the ever-expanding use of science in the kitchen.
Jim Halterman: You address in the first episode how some people might think of you as a jerk but you're really just a perfectionist...
Marcel Vigneron: [Laughs.] ...I figured I might as well just put it on the table and get it out in the open!
JH: So when you watch 'Top Chef' and you hear the other chefs say less-than-flattering things about you, does it bother you or do you let it roll off?
MV: I try not to let it bother me but I'm a sensitive guy, believe it or not. I try not to let other people's criticism get to me but at the same time I do take some things to heart but it's also something I'm getting used to.
JH: We have to talk about the current "Top Chef: All Stars" season. Was it more difficult than you expected? They definitely raised the bar with the challenges this season!
MV: It was extremely difficult doing 'Top Chef: All Stars.' It's not just the cooking. There are so many aspects of the whole situation that are challenging. For example, we were out in New York and everybody is in tight living quarters, you don't get to sleep much and it's pretty stressful. The challenges in and of themselves are extremely difficult. It's not easy to make a stuffing dish with no equipment and one hand tied behind your back or create a dish in less than eight minutes! Also, there's a reason they call it 'All Stars.' The competition was fierce! Everybody on that show is an extremely talented chef. You also get the opportunity to learn about yourself as a chef going through those processes. Like, really finding out 'What would I make if I only had eight minutes?' It was a very unique experience but at the same time it was pretty awesome!
JH: In terms of science and cooking, which came first for you?
MV: It's interesting. I never really excelled at chemistry or science when I was going through general education. It wasn't until I really started cooking that I became more curious in the scientific aspect of cooking. I was wondering how was the mayonnaise made? What is the mayonnaise? And once you understand what it is then you can actually apply that understanding and apply that science into what you're doing and utilize that knowledge to help you along that path of cooking. For me, it was cooking that spawned this curiosity in science.
JH: In doing the SyFy show, there are little pop-ups on-screen throughout the show that explain different scientific methods and terminology. Was it important that you educate the audience?
MV: I think it was important thing for all of us. When we were creating the format for the show and trying to figure out what the show was going to be, we wanted to make sure we had all these aspects in there and be able to educate the viewers at home but it wasn't going to be a demonstration-style show. Even if the viewers at home weren't going to be recreating these dishes, they'd be able to take away a little of knowledge and understanding and what we were trying to do and how we were achieving the goals.
JH: A lot of what you do is innovative but what's the line you cross when you don't want to disrespect the history of a particular food?
MV: It's kind of tricky because whenever you're updating a classic dish, you're paying homage to the classic instead of bastardizing it. If I'm reinventing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I want to make sure that in my interpretation I'm paying an homage to the dish but also tweaking it and putting my own twist on it but it's not a bastardization. It's all in the perception and in the execution of the dish. Reinventing classics is something that I really enjoy doing and I think it's a great basis for people to understand the dishes. How many times have you had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? But how much fun is it to have it in a completely different manner? It allows for creativity and so what happens when you turn peanut butter into a different texture or temperature and the same for jelly but when you eat it it's unmistakably peanut butter and jelly but it creates a new experience on something you've had thousands of times.
JH: The crew you have assembled for the show is an interesting mix, especially Robyn, who isn't really a chef. You're such a perfectionist but did you also want someone you could teach along the way?
MV: Yes, I wanted someone that was relatively new and the amazing thing about Robyn is she has such a great attitude and I feel like techniques can be taught but attitude cannot. She also brings something else to the table and that's her experience in front of the house and that whole other aspect of catering parties. She's catered a lot of different parties so she brings that aspect, which is great. She's a huge asset to the team.
JH: As gastronomy is getting more popular with chefs, does it put pressure on you to keep innovating and stay ahead of the curve?
MV: I wouldn't say it puts pressure on me but it's more of collaboration and I think that's one of the beautiful things about cutting edge cooking techniques. I feel like it's a very free-flowing exchange of information and of knowledge and it's all about the progression of gastronomy as opposed to that old school philosophy of 'they're going to steal my recipe!' That way of thinking is going by the wayside. We want to convey that knowledge to all the other chefs out there so it will continue to develop and create this snowball effect that all of a sudden all these other ideas that are now spinning off that one idea of creating these new techniques. I think it's one of the impacting factors that inspire us to continue to develop and continue to create.
JH: Have you gotten used to talking to the press and even watching yourself on television?
MV: I've been kind of doing it long enough now and I feel like I'm getting a little bit more adapted to it but I don't think you an ever completely get used to it. It's like when people in public approach me on the street, it's something that I have been dealing with since 'Top Chef' Season 2 came out. It's a little bit more normal now and it's something - I'm not going to lie - I kind of enjoy and it's kind of nice. It's nice having people come up to you and I always try to take the time to meet with the people. I actually do enjoy it.
"Marcel's Quantum Kitchen" premieres tonight on Syfy at 10:00/9:00c.