Three years before Chris Crary was old enough to drive, he was creating dishes and experimenting with flavors in his home kitchen.
Sure, the dishes might not have been the most inventive — or healthy — but the passion was there and it was a spark that carried him to culinary greatness.
Fast forward to today, Crary is the executive chef of 41 Ocean, an exclusive, members-only club in Santa Monica, and was named the “Fan Favorite” of Season 9’s “Top Chef.”
Lucky for us, Crary’s adventures have taken him to Minnesota for the week to take part in a series of cooking demonstrations at the Home and Garden Show.
Before the chef brings his healthy meals to the Minneapolis Convention Center, we sat down to talk about where it all began, the surprising outlier on his resume and of course, the big finale of “Top Chef.”
Well, first of all, welcome to Minneapolis. I saw you dined at Butcher and the Boar last night? What did you think?
It was awesome. It was really, really good. They sent out so much food — I was disgustingly full but I couldn’t stop eating.
Yeah, it’s definitely one of the best new restaurants we have here so great choice. So tomorrow, you’ll be at the Home and Garden Show. What will you be discussing? And what can fans expect?
So tomorrow, I’m going to be doing some healthy dishes. That’s my whole vision on life — healthy eating out, trying to have a healthy lifestyle, so I’ll be doing a couple variations of healthy dishes that people can enjoy and make.
We watched you this morning teach our Chris Stanford how to make an omelet in a healthy way. What’s your best advice when cooking to keep the flavor but cut out unnecessary fat or calories?
That’s a good question. I usually cut out a lot of dairy. So I get rid of dairy, sugars, of course, flour — you know all the things people say you should, it’s best to get rid of those. Within moderation, I think that’s fine.
What do you enjoy cooking?
I dunno. I get that question all the time. I’m really into lamb belly right now. Lamb neck. Just odd cuts of meat.
So where did this love of cooking begin for you? You mentioned you were cooking before you even learned how to drive?
Probably when I was around 12. I started making these crazy tater tot casseroles with hamburger, tater tots and cheese. I mean, it was ridiculous but c’mon I was 12. My mother couldn’t cook but some of my extended family could, so I would go hang with them.
How old were you when you got into the restaurant scene?
I started at a local restaurant when I was like 15-16 years old. And I just kind of fell in love with it. I took Home Ec in high school and then decided it was something I wanted to do with the rest of my life so I went into culinary school right after high school. Moved from Ohio to Virginia when I was 18, all by myself.
So cooking really has been your entire life.
Yeah, I’ve only had one other job.
What was the other job?
It’s horrible. I was a Marlboro Man. They would send out like groups of six people to … they’d get addresses and things from people, you’d scan their ID to get their address if they were a smoker, and then you’d give them a free lighter or whatever. So I did that. It paid really well and it was just part time on the weekends. I got to travel around and go to different nightclubs. So yeah, I mean four or five nightclubs a night to talk to girls and it paid really well? Great. I’ll do it.
Obviously most people remember you from “Top Chef.” So much so that you earned the honor of Fan Favorite. Did you think you’d get Fan Favorite?
I was trying to really hard. I wanted to be badly. I didn’t win anything from the show, so I wanted to get something. And actually, Fan Favorite from the show this season is ending shortly.
Yeah, the finale is upon us. And you’ve been blogging and live tweeting for the show. What did you think of this season?
I think they had it a little easy. I think our season, they were trying to prove a point — everything is bigger and badder in Texas. Traveling around and the challenges were ridiculous. So I think they had it a little easy. They stayed in one location the whole time, until the finale, which, every finale is in a different location.
So we’re down to the two women — Kristen Kish and Brooke Williamson. Do you have a favorite? Who are you rooting for?
I’ve really liked Kristen from the beginning. I think everyone has. I was actually just on Twitter doing some stuff and I was looking at her Twitter followers compared to Brooke’s and she’s almost doubled Brooke’s, which is like 10,000. More than I have. Yeah, I mean, I think everyone as a whole really liked her. And it was really good for ratings when she got eliminated and then made her way back.
Do you know who wins?
Yeah, I have it. I have it on my phone.
You do? Oh wow. OK, well … I don’t want to know. (Laughs) So anyway, obviously we all see the edited version, but what’s it really like being on “Top Chef?”
It’s crazy. It’s nothing like what you see on the show. For each 45-min. episode or whatever it is, it probably takes like 100 hours of shooting, er 50-60 hours. Like the one that I was eliminated on, I was awake for 42 hours straight. And you would never know.
Wow. So when the drama comes out, it’s almost understandable.
Yeah, I mean, we are going to understand it. But for the people watching it, it’s like ‘Well, how can Sarah be so mean to Beverly?’ And it’s like, you weren’t there. You don’t know. She drove everyone crazy.
Do you still keep in touch with everyone from your season?
Yeah, everyone. Just a few months ago I did a little tour, went to Chicago, New York, went and saw my family in Ohio, rented a car, drove to Kentucky, hung out with Ed. Ed’s been out to L.A. a few times. I’ve seen everybody.
Do you think the show changed the way you cook now?
I definitely learned a lot. There’s 15 amazing chefs there that all have something to learn from. If you don’t go into it wanting to learn more and to become a better chef, I think you went in for the wrong reasons. But yeah, I’m definitely a different chef now.
And your life in general, how has that changed?
I mean, a little bit. I just opened my restaurant a few weeks ago and then just traveling, starting a new shoe line for chef shoes. I went to Thailand. So much.
Is there one thing that “Top Chef” viewers don’t know about the show?
I think a lot of people think it’s kind of fake and set up and you know the challenges ahead of time but it’s all real. We really have to think that fast about what you’re going to do, it’s like, ‘OK, go.’ We have to come up with all our ideas and people think we get to use recipes — there’s no recipes, there’s no magazines, there’s no books, no radio, TV, no internet. We’re completely secluded from the outside world.
And are you really going right up until that timer goes off and everyone throws their hands up?
Yeah. All the cooking stuff is as you see it. Live pretty much. There’s never, “OK, stop, can I go back and do that again?” Once the timer starts, it’s not stopping.
OK, I have to ask. Since you know the winner, do you think it’s the right choice? Just tell me that.
(Laughs) I can’t tell you because I already told you who I think should win. You’ll just have to watch and find out.
You can see Chef Chris at the Home and Garden Show on Thursday at the Minneapolis Convention Center. He’ll be doing a cooking demonstration at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. For tickets or more information, click here.