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The Interview

Joseph Flamm

Chicago Chef Joseph Flamm Cooks in Colorado

"She said,”Don’t cook anything gross!”"

by Jerry Nunn

Bravo’s Top Chef is coming back with a 15th season now set in Colorado. The hit cooking competition show has the usual progressive elimination format. Contestants battle it out on a quick fire challenge and an elimination challenge each episode. After the elimination challenge the chefs talk to the judges before someone is sent home. 

Chefs can ultimately win $125,000 along with the possibility of being fan favorite for $10,000. 

This season we have a Chicago contestant named Joseph Flamm in the mix. He is currently the executive chef at Spiaggia & Cafe downtown. This spicy Italian chef brings major experience to the table having previous worked for Art Smith’s Table 52, Stephanie Izard’s Girl and the Goat, and Bill Kim’s Belly Q. He took a break from the kitchen to talk about his involvement as the newest competitor on Top Chef.

JN: (Jerry Nunn) Where did you grow up?

JF: (Joseph Flamm) I grew up just outside of Chicago. My mom is a cop. I went to the same grade school as my dad. I am Irish and Italian. 

JN: Did you learn cooking from your family?

JF: Yes. I grew up cooking with my Italian grandmother. We still have the same traditions. We make ravioli for Thanksgiving and Feast of the Seven Fishes for Christmas. 

JN: What do you like to cook?

JF: I love making pasta. There is something so beautiful and simple about it. It is always challenging and never perfected. 

JN: How long have you worked here at Spiaggia?

JF: I have been here just over three years. I started just when they renovated the dining room. I started as a sous chef in the cafe. I have been the main chef here for two years. 

JN: Did Tony Mantuano help you get on Top Chef?

JF: Tony called one day when I was at the restaurant. He asked me how I felt about doing Top Chef. They were in town doing a casting. I wasn’t sure but Tony told them they should meet me. Suddenly they were on the way to the restaurant! 

I sat down with the two ladies from the production company. After 15 minutes they told me I had to do it. They warned me the application process would be long and hard. I talked to my wife and she thought I should do it. 

JN: Had you watched the show before?

JF: I had watched it a ton before. I worked for Stephanie Izard for two years. I was on the opening team there as a cook. I was there at the ground floor when nobody knew her to a ton of people knowing her! 

JN: I heard she is great to work for. 

JF: The best! She is one of my favorite people ever. We were texting two days ago and she was just on Iron Chef. I was her sous chef years ago on Iron Chef when we lost. She went back to win her first battle. 

JN: So you knew how reality shows work.

JF: Yes, I had been around cameras. I worked for Art Smith and Stephanie Izard who came from that same place. I thought I would know what to expect but I didn’t. 

It’s like when people describe having a kid but you don’t know until you are in it. 

JN: It seems like the show is always changing things. I heard Last Chance Kitchen is bringing in past contestants. 

JF: Before I started I binge watched the last two seasons to see what was going on. Last season there were half veterans. With season 15 I thought they might go totally crazy. 

They were throwing the works at us!

JN: Where is this season set?

JF: Colorado. I love it there. I have been going there for the last 16 years. I have cousins out there so we would go on ski trips. I was excited for it to be set out there. 

JN: Did Stephanie Izard give you any advice?

JF: She said,”Don’t cook anything gross!” She told me to be myself and show my personality. She told me to start taking people out one at a time. She is great competitor. 

JN: Art Smith is another example of a big personality. Have you cooked for a lot of celebrities through him?

JF: Everyone knows Art. He’s a riot. I worked for him for two years. We cooked for Barack and Michelle, Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z and Beyonce, and Robert Redford. 

I cooked for Oprah and went on the show when I worked there. That was only three weeks into my cooking career. 

JN: Were you nervous?

JF: Yes. I had to walk into the audience and give out biscuits. I was hoping to not fall with my tray of biscuits! 

JN: Did you try to focus on Top Chef with one dish such as Art does with chicken?

JF: No. I just wanted to cook and show a good representation of what I like. I spent so much time cooking in other people’s kitchens. The chefs I have known had developed their own style of cuisine. For me that is still developing and who I am as a chef. I don’t have my own restaurant. As much as I create food here at Cafe Spiaggia it is still Tony’s restaurant. 

It was a really cool journey of creating what I wanted to do and having a lot of fun with it. 

JN: Is it your goal to open your own place?

JF: For sure. When I was 16 and working for restaurants I fell in love with it right away. I wanted to have my own restaurant one day. 

JN: Would you open one with your own family?

JF: No, [laughs] definitely not! There will be no ol’ school South Side Italian joint!!!

JN: With this platform would you move into fundraisers?

JF: I am already involved with Pilot Light. It is an organization that goes into Chicago public schools. They integrate class lessons with chefs. Last year I was with Mitchell Elementary School with two fourth grade classes. We would tie a food lesson into what they were learning. 

It is a cool program that teaches kids about nutrition and sustainability. 

They either like or they don’t so they are raw talents. The students are amazing, brutal, and wonderful. 

JN: Do you have a favorite Chicago restaurant?

JF: I live in Humboldt Park so I like the neighborhood spots over there. I like Cafe Marie Jeanne, and Boeufhaus. Lula Cafe is one of my all time favorite restaurants. Avec was my wife and I’s first date. It is amazing. 

JN: What is your day to day life at this restaurant?

JF: I run the operations for Cafe Spiaggia. It is incredible working for someone like Tony. I have been in awe of him my whole career. He is still married and has a great relationship with his kid. Those are hard things to manage in the chef world. 

I get to be here everyday. It is like someone gave me their keys to a vintage Ferrari. I get to drive it for awhile! 

Watch the chefs cook it up Thursdays at 9:00 p.m. central on Bravo.

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