When Chris Scott was rejected by Top Chef four times, he gave up on the dream. Instead, he and his wife Eugenie Woo opened a second restaurant, Brooklyn’s popular Butterfunk Kitchen, and had two more kids. By all accounts, Scott achieved success on his own — the accomplished chef has after all been on a team twice that received the James Beard Foundation’s “Dinner of the Year” award and counts Barack Obama and Nelson Mandala as guests at some of his restaurants — but the slight from the show stung so much that he had to stop watching altogether. Then a producer called about season 15.
“The whole process is pretty lengthy and can be very deflating, so I told them I don’t want to go down this road anymore,” Scott told Fatherly. Then he went home and told Eugenie. “She told me to call them back and say yes.”
The fifth time proved to be the charm for Scott, who after being selected out of 100,000 applicants, became a Top Chef finalist. And as much as the experience has changed this father of four’s life, he considers himself the same father he’s always been to his children. Scott shared with Fatherly how he balances family and work, the struggles with addiction he opened up about on the show, and what it was like to finally pack his knives and go.
When you found out you were going to be on the show, how did you prepare for being away from your family?
When I got selected the only person who knew was my wife, because I couldn’t go missing for seven weeks. But otherwise, I contractually couldn’t tell anyone. I have four daughters, one is 21, the other is 15, and the two younger ones are four and three, so I’m wondering how my wife is going to take care of two small children and two restaurants and she told me she’d figure it out. Being away from them was tough, but when you’re there, you’re focused on the task at hand. The show takes your phone, you don’t have access to email, you don’t watch TV, you don’t know what’s going on in the world, you don’t have access to a newspaper — none of that. It’s just you and what you have to do on the show. You occasionally get to make a phone call, but even that is taped.
So you’re really in a vacuum.
It was intense.
I really appreciated how open you were on the show about being a recovering alcoholic in an industry where alcohol is used frequently. What was it like to share such a personal experience?
I discuss personal experience with alcoholism on the show — how my mother passed away the day before I got married, how I became a father almost right away, how the demons going on in my life kind of compounded with the alcohol abuse and got out of hand for quite a long time. I wanted to talk about it because in this industry addiction runs rampant. We have free access to any type of alcohol you want. It’s right there in front of you.
What advice do you have for other chefs and fathers who struggle with addiction?
As a chef, you still have to work with the ingredients. If you’re working with wine, you can work with wine. If you’re working with alcohol, you can work with alcohol. That doesn’t mean you have to drink it, or taste it. And when you’re cooking, you cook the alcohol out.
So the idea that you have to taste alcohol to cook with it is a myth then?
Because I drank for so long it’s easy for me to still remember what those flavor profiles are like, and it’s easy for me to incorporate those into a dish. I don’t have to go to a bourbon tasting to know what bourbon tastes like. I almost killed myself over bottles and bottles of booze. I know what it tastes like.
That doesn’t seem like something you’d be soon to forget.
I don’t ever want to put my family or myself through that. I’m just grateful now to be four years sober and just being able to share that experience on air, with viewers and other chefs.
Your family seems to be such a huge motivator for you. What has life been like for them since you’ve been on the show? What do your daughters think about seeing their dad on TV?
My children have certainly see the growth of the restaurants and my personal success since the show. But the great thing is, I’m sure they don’t care. They’re happy everything is going well, but I don’t think they really care that I’m Chris Scott the chef. They want me to be Chris Scott the dad. That’s what’s important to them, and being that person 100 percent of the time is what matters to them.
How has being a chef influenced your approach to parenting? What parts of work help you at home?
I’m very structured and regimented in my ways and sometimes that will bleed off into my parenting. When you’re a chef you have 30-second deadlines, every 30 seconds. The way that you manage that is with kind of an iron fist, but that’s wrapped in feathers and fur. Even though you are firm and strict you still don’t want to be that jackass that a lot of chefs are. My wife tells me all the time to be less rigid at home, and I’m not like a dictator. But, with me, we’re up by 6:00 a.m., by 6:15 our teeth are brushed, so we can be out the door at this time, so we can be at school at this time, so I can be back at work and do what I gotta do. Everything is on a timeline and, especially when you’re dealing with small children, it’s really hard to get them on that page. Kids, they want to move slowly in the morning, sometimes they want to eat, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they want to get dressed, sometimes they don’t. And the brushing of the teeth! That will take 20 minutes instead of two.
I’m sure most parents reading this will relate. You finally made it to Top Chef and almost won the entire competition, making it all the way to the finals. How did it feel to be eliminated? What was that like in the moment?
You’re never really prepared to go when you get eliminated, but I never expected to make it so far. In a million years, I would’ve never expected any of this to happen — especially after getting turned down four times and then turning them down. You never see it coming, but in the end I’m totally fine with the outcome. Maybe one day they’ll ask me back.