Top Chef: Seattle alum Jeffrey Jew was one of many men and women that helped further the exposure of LGBT personalities on reality television. He also did this in a really, really handsome way (just look at him).
The hit culinary competition has excelled for many years in highlighting stories from our LGBT brethren, and Jeffrey was no exception. He spoke out about his sexuality early in the competition which was met with nothing but positivity from his fellow castmates. The fact that Kristen Kish, an openly gay women, won their season was just icing on the already fabulous cake.
Jeffrey’s career since his days on Top Chef has blossomed in the real world. The Washington D.C. native now resides in St. Petersburg, Florida with his partner Jim where he oversees two fabulous restaurants there.
He chatted with me about his culinary beginnings, time on reality television, what it’s like to be a gay man in the foodie world and his biggest goals moving forward. Check it out.
How did you get your start in the culinary world?
Like a lot of chefs, I was fortunate enough to be exposed to the restaurant world at an early age. My parents liked to eat out regularly, and there was a neighborhood Italian restaurant we loved to frequent. I started as a server as soon as I got a workers’ permit in high school. Before I knew it, I was working the pizza station, the dish machine, the cash register, and the sauté station! Something about the hustle of the business appeals to my industrious side in addition to my love of food. People, energy—and yes, a bit of drama—are invigorating.
Who were your biggest inspirations, both personally and professionally?
Personally, my biggest inspirations were my dad and grandfather. They are great cooks and they taught me unique things about their style of cooking. When I was a kid, my dad would take me to the markets, and we would cook over the weekends. He made this killer rice dish that I couldn’t get enough of. I spent time in Arizona during the summers when I was young, and I got to cook with my grandfather. He emigrated from China, and one of his first jobs when he arrived, was at a restaurant. He would take me to the Asian markets and show me a different way to cook. I remember this beef dish with tomatoes, tomato chow yuk, that was amazing. I have yet to find it at any restaurant.
Professionally, I’ve taken inspiration from so many. If I had to pick a few it would be Martin Yan, PBS & The Discovery Channel, and Angela Hartnett. Martin, because as a kid I would watch him chop everything with that cleaver. When I got older The Great Chef series on PBS and Discovery were my go-to shows to watch after school. I took notes on every episode. If only I would have kept those notebooks. And Angela, Angela was so fun and intense to work for. In the short period of time I worked for Angela I learned so much about people and time management as well as what it means to be a Chef. Angela’s food was unbelievable, but if something wasn’t right or if we made mistakes, she would take the time after service to show us the correct way and how to get there. It was a game changer for me.
Many of us know you from your time on Top Chef: Seattle. Was that your first time auditioning and how did it feel when you made it into the cast?
Top Chef was my first time auditioning for anything! When I made it into the cast of the show, I was beaming for about two minutes before the reality set in of having to put myself out there in the world. It was a chance to show people who I am, what food means to me, and how I see ingredients
Do you feel your elimination was premature? It’s been several years but was there anything you would do differently?
Yes, I do, but I also realize that the judges have an impossible job, and I empathize with that burden. A premature elimination stings more because I really wanted to show them and the world my food, and I didn’t get that chance. If I had to change anything about my time on Top Chef, it would be to not overthink it and share more of myself.
You spoke about your sexuality during your initial episode. How did it feel to be a voice for all the other gay chefs out there?
Being closeted on the show was a non-starter for me, although some friends had advised that it might be dangerous to be out on the show. While in culinary school, a few younger students came out to me in confidence, and at the time I remember wishing the restaurant industry recognized how vital the LGBTQ community is to its success. With visibility, sometimes comes positive change.
Kristen Kish, who has come out in the years since, won your season. Were you ecstatic when Padma Lakshmi said, “You are Top Chef” to her?
I knew in my gut that she would win—what talent she had! Kristen really has that “it” factor. A lot of her has been made about her coming out post-show. My take is that each person’s coming out story is their own to write; I do think it’s important to contextualize how differently men and women are treated in the industry, so I think a rush to judgment is unfair. My partner Jim and I have been to Arlo Grey in Austin to see Kristen and it was out of this world. I can’t wait to see what she does next!
Do you think the LGBTQ community is still heavily underrepresented in the culinary world?
There’s always a tension a lot of our community experiences between doing our jobs and feeling like we could get fired for whom we love. It’s crazy that it’s still legal to fire someone for being gay in most states! Until that stops, it’s hard to argue that that our community isn’t being marginalized, including in the culinary world.
What have you been up to since your days on Top Chef?
Jim and I moved to St. Petersburg, Florida not long after filming, and we were able to connect with some amazing people as well as rejoin some longtime friends. It took me a while to find my place, but I finally found a great company and team.
I am the Executive Chef of 2B Hospitality overseeing BellaBrava, a new world trattoria, and Stillwaters Tavern, a modern American tavern. I was hired in 2014 to update the menu at BellaBrava while designing, planning and doing R&D for the opening of Stillwaters Tavern. Stillwaters opened in the summer of 2015 to great acclaim, and both restaurants are among the top restaurants in the Tampa Bay area.
Finally, what would be your biggest goal professionally moving forward?
Really putting my stamp on how people eat, changing people’s perspective on what food really is, and making it all sustainable. We’ve got a lot of work to do.
Learn more about Jeffrey here.