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Jeff Houck

The Tampa Tribune’s food writer since 2005, Jeff Houck covers the way people live through their food. He also hosts the Table Conversations food podcast and believes that everything crunchy is good.

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‘Top Chef Texas’ Runner-Up Cooks At Rolling Pin For Two Nights [‘It Was Hard, But I Would Go Back’]

Posted Oct 24, 2012 by Jeff Houck

Updated Oct 24, 2012 at 10:24 AM

Sara Gruenberg

Food nerds rejoice. Two weeks from tonight, the Bravo cable channel once again will launch its “Top Chef” series, this time in Seattle.

Our long national Padma-less nightmare is almost over.

The massive hit show which has spawned numerous spin-off series, cookbooks, product lines and now a Caribbean cruise will introduce 21 new contestants underneath the “Top Chef” umbrella. Forever more – or at least until the series goes off the air – they will be associated with that show.

That’s fine for Sarah Grueneberg, runner-up earlier this year during the Texas-based season.

Grueneberg, who is executive chef at Spiaggia in Chicago, will perform cooking demonstrations and dinner at 6:15 p.m. Thursday and Friday evenings at the Rolling Pin Kitchen Emporium in Brandon. She will showcase her talent for Italian food, including Sicilian Dungeness Crab Salad with Capers, Barolo Risotto with Tuscan Pecorino and Honey Panna Cotta with Fresh Citrus and Pistachios. For tickets and information about her appearance, go online or call (813) 653-2418.

I had a chance to chat with her the other day about her post-“Top Chef” life and her goals for the future:

* * * * * *

You became a sous chef at 22? That’s really young.

I was a sous at 22. I became an exec chef at 27, four years ago at Spiaggia. I stepped back down [the ranks] when I came to Spiaggia because I didn’t know anything about Italian food. My goal was to keep my head down. I’ve been nicely surprised so far with what has happened. I feel lucky. I feel blessed to have my career at this age now.

That’s pretty extraordinary from an age standpoint, but it’s also difficult for women to be in the kitchen atmosphere to build a career.

Being a woman you can feel like you’re in a locker room, like most men do at the gym. That kind of camaraderie. Women when they first go into the kitchen go, whoa, this is very different. You’ve kind of got to build a little bit of a shell.

I’m guessing that’s what women in culinary school are looking at you and saying, “What did you do? What can I do?”

Sara GruenbergThe culinary schools these days are very crazy. There are so many of them and there are so many young, talented people wanting to get a job. I might be a little jaded, but I ask them, “Are you sure? Are you positive this is what you want to do?” Because there are only so many executive chef jobs. There are only so many jobs that are going to pay what everybody hopes. There are only so many celebrity chef gigs. And I think a lot of people do it because they want to have that. They’re wasting their time if they really don’t love it. It won’t happen.

I always want to make sure that they work in a kitchen, that they know what it’s like in a kitchen and that they’ve passed all those tests. Then I bring them on. We have a lot of externs we bring on with us at Spiaggia. We bring them on and train them and build them. I have five sous chefs under me and every single one of them started in our intern program at the bottom and worked themselves up.

It takes the right person, but you’ve gotta make sure that it’s the right thing. Nowadays there are so many things you can do with cooking. You can be a nutritionist, you can work on a bakery line, some people like to do product development. But there are only so many exec chef jobs.

They’re about to launch into another season of “Top Chef” in Seattle.

And it looks like they’re going back to basics.

What advice would you give that group coming out the other side that you weren’t aware of.

Oh man.

Specifically dealing with having been under that “Top Chef” umbrella.

The new contestants on the show are going to experience a whirlwind of emotions, excitement and fun and disappointment and hurt at some point. Just be ready and enjoy it because it goes by so fast. You really have to be ready to jump at it with everything you have.

Is it something you embrace or are you trying to move past it? Where are you?

Oh, I love it. I love it. I was a fan of the show. I’ve watched every season diligently. I am very proud to be from the “Top Chef” cast. I think it’s very exciting and very cool and I hope it never goes away.
Have they asked you to be on the “Top Chef” cruise or anything?

I did a few things with the equipment line, like the “Top Chef” spatulas. So many of the core chefs who are all-stars I think are still getting a lot of the deals. Hopefully if they do another all-star cast, they’ll let me try out for it. I don’t know why I would go back, because it was really hard. [laughs] But I would always still go back.

Sara Gruenberg cooks at SpiaggiaI asked Tre Wilcox about why he would go back on all-stars and he said that even if you don’t win, you’re still considered an all-star. That’s not a bad thing. All I can see is the brutality of trying to make a soufflé in 50 seconds. The time pressure has to be enormous and I can’t imagine anyone wanting to do that twice. But everyone I’ve talked to who has done it said they would do it again in a heartbeat.


What’s the plan for here on out? What do you still want to achieve?

I want to do some traveling. I want to go to Asia, I want to learn Thai techniques, Vietnamese, Chinese. It’s a new style of cooking for me and I want to branch out while creating my style.

Why Thai techniques?

I’m really interested in the parallels of the mortar and pestle. It’s such an ancient tool that people don’t think about. In Italy you use it and in Mexico you use it and Thailand you use it to make a lot of the curry paste. I’m really interested in this parallel in each cuisine. I think it’s something that hasn’t been tapped yet.

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