CWC Chef Caitlin Steininger Competes on Season 16 of Bravo’s Top Chef

TOP CHEF — Season:16 — Pictured: Caitlin Steininger

Photograph: Smallz & Raskind/Bravo Media

Why did you want to compete on Top Chef?
This show first started when I was in culinary school [at Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago], so I have been a fan since the beginning. It is the only food competition show that I ever wanted to do, and I have thoughtfully never tried out until I thought I could truly compete and win the competition. After CWC had been open for a year, the application was posted, and my sous chef knew how much I wanted to do this. He sent it to me in the middle of the night as soon as it was live, and I wrote my first résumé ever and sent it in.

What was your reaction once you heard you were chosen?
It was nuts. It’s one of those things where you’re so excited, but you can’t tell anyone, so you’re smiling extra hard and wondering if people know what’s happening. Everything is such a secret, and it was amazing—but then you’re like, Holy schnikes, I have to figure out so many details to make it so I can leave.

What did you do to prepare for the show?
In all honesty, you try out and then you don’t know if you’ve gotten it, so you have to kind of keep on going [as usual]. Then you find out, and you pretty much leave [right away]. It’s one of those things where you have to be perpetually training yourself. I worked extra hard with Miami Meat Market to make sure I knew my cuts and all that stuff. My last meal I had before I left for the show was at Please to become inspired. [I was] just consciously, ferociously reading and making sure I knew my shit, for lack of a better word.

What skills do you use in your kitchen that were most useful to you during the challenges?
One of the biggest things is being on a budget. Every challenge includes a budget. I think being a chef-owner, I am well tuned in regards to food cost, how to stretch things, make things last—all of that good stuff. I’ve been perpetually practicing all that stuff.

Was it special for you that the show filmed so close to home in Kentucky?
It did feel like it was an answered prayer. I knew I was going to try out for the show no matter where it was going to be, but I was grateful and shocked that it was in a region that was home to me with ingredients that I knew.

Did the location influence any of the cuisine that you cooked during your time on the show?
Kentucky is the biggest influence on the show, and I think the show has done a phenomenal job of showcasing all of the amazing things that Kentucky has. Not only the bourbon, but the chefs that are coming from there, the things that are being created, the scenery—everything is just amazing and beautiful and so thoughtfully curated for the show.

Going into it, did you have a specific strategy in mind, and did that change once you actually got there?
No—I mean, as much as it is a game, it is very much an individual competition, too. It is more important to me to be a good and nice human being than it is to beat people. Which, I mean, people could perceive as weakness, but I can sleep at night.

Watching the show is one thing, but I have to imagine the pressure is way more intense when you’re actually there feeling the time crunch of the challenges. Did you find that to be the case, and what was it like cooking under such intense pressure?
When you watch a show, people say It is so much harder than you think. Everybody says that…and it certainly holds true in Top Chef, as well. It is overwhelming and amazing, and you’re equal parts scared shitless and in awe that you are a part of such an amazing operation.

When you’re not competing, what’s the relationship like between the chefs behind the scenes?
I don’t know how I got so lucky, but every person on the show, truly, they are equally as nice, great, brilliant human beings. There were so many times I was just watching in awe of how amazing all of these people were. It is like the best summer camp ever, because no one can understand what you’re going through except for the people you’re with, you know? No one would believe you. So you become family very fast, and like any family, everyone kind of assumes different roles.

As a viewer, the team challenges are intense, because you see the social and competitive aspects collide, and people’s true colors come out. Did you find the group challenges more difficult than the solo challenges, or did you prefer working on a team?
As chefs, we’re always seeking inspiration—whether it’s reading or eating or cooking with other people. For the most part everybody plays well because when you are inspired and working with somebody you respect, you become a better chef. And when you cook by yourself, you’re only as good as everything you have learned and trained for to begin with. There are obviously pros and cons to every team challenge and solo challenge, but I genuinely will say that everybody played nicely.

Really? Those challenges always look so dramatic from the viewer’s perspective.
Well, listen—I haven’t watched the show where I’m in it, and also there’s no music in the background or amazing shots when we’re competing in real life. I know that all of us have a frog in our throat at the thought of watching it, but we’re all excited nonetheless.

Have you kept in touch with the other chefs?
Actually, we have a group [text] thread, and we talk almost daily still. It’s fun because—well, especially with all the stuff that’s coming out—it is very fun because we’re all sharing the articles that we’re either featured in or someone else is, and [we’re] like a good family ragging each other for what our faces look like on bourbon barrels, and all the other ridiculous things that are occurring that we never thought would ever happen.

Generally speaking, when you think back to the challenges, is there anything that you wish you had done differently?
Of course! The thing with the challenges is when you think you’re gonna nail it, it doesn’t occur, and when you are scared more than anything, then they love it. Whatever you think is gonna happen, never really happens the way you want it to. But of course, there are tons of woulda, coulda, shoulda situations.

Was there anything you learned from competing on the show that you’ll bring back to your kitchen?
I am the most grateful for all the other chefs. I know that sounds like there should be a Sarah McLachlan song playing in the background as I say that, but truly, as someone who owns their own business and is cooking on the line and raising a family, it is very easy to keep my head down and just continue to try and better myself. Without this opportunity, I never would have gotten to meet these people or had the opportunity to travel as much as I have gotten to. My tribe of friends is really thick, and we are loyal and continue to cook with each other.

Prior to the season 16 announcements, you obviously had to keep everything top secret to your friends and customers. What did they think you were doing during filming, and what was their reaction when they learned where you had been?
Oh god, we told them I was in Italy. I had to be thoughtful: I had to leave the country in our lie, because if I was somewhere in the United States, for me to not see our children for eight weeks total, that would have been a terrible parenting move. Eight years ago, Kelly [Trush] and I were flown to Italy to be private chefs for somebody, so we both had the same kind of talk track of what our lie would be, and we had lies that were true 10 years ago.

The thing is, our family, we do not lie or anything like that, so that was the hardest part, definitely. Kelly would just tell these stories that would spin out of control, so she had to start writing them down so that when people came up to me and would be like Oh, I heard about that chicken anecdote, you know, I would know what the hell she was talking about. But when I came home, people would come back and speak to me in Italian and want to hear about my travels.

When I came home, I changed the menu completely, and everybody thought it would be pasta-forward and low and slow. I got to be home for two weeks in the middle of everything, and I changed the menu during that [time], and it was our summer menu. The entire menu was inspired by the people I met on the show, but I couldn’t tell anybody why I was so well-versed in Vietnamese ingredients all of the sudden or why did I know about, like, Alabama white sauce—all these ingredients that I had never played with before. It was all inspired by the people I got to be with.

Once the trailer came out, what was everyone’s reaction?
Can I be honest? I haven’t watched it. That’s probably terrible to admit. The pickle is that my two oldest kids knew and understood what I was doing and kept the lie…. [Once] everything went back to normal, it wasn’t as much fun as they thought it was going to be. But when the trailer came out, it was legit. They could tell their friends—I was cool all of the sudden. That was the best part of this whole trailer situation.

Have people been coming into the restaurant and getting really excited about it?
The most interesting thing, compared to the other contestants, we are the closest to Louisville. There have been many people who actually attended the challenges [in person] who have come to the restaurant. It’s so fun because it makes it more real. Also, all I want to do is talk about how great all these people are, so I can be like, yes, they are really that funny in real life!

Will you be hosting a watch party for the premiere?
We will be. We are working right now to open our second restaurant, Station Family + BBQ, which is only a mile away from our current restaurant [in Wyoming], but it’s going to be amazing and open more often [than CWC The Restaurant]. And we are working on having our soft opening be that night, [December 6], for the premiere.

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