Filipino fans of the Emmy Award-winning reality show Top Chef got a jolt in 2008 in a dessert Quickfire challenge, when one chef whipped up a halo-halo on the fly. Dale Talde combined shaved ice with the flavors of avocado, kiwi and nuts, and impressed challenge guest judge Johnny Iuzzini.
Talde candidly admitted, “That was the only dessert I know,” but what a dessert it was, as it defined Talde’s career in both Top Chef and the restaurant world as an innovative Filipino chef.
Fast forward to 2020. Talde, now owner of Goosefeather in New York and author of the cookbook Asian American (available on Amazon), is heading back to the show that helped push his career to stratospheric heights. This time, he’ll be on the other side of the table, sitting in as part of the rotating judges’ panel on the upcoming Season 18.
I was fortunate enough to sit down with Talde a few weeks ago to interview him on our Sini Gang podcast (available on Spotify), together with my cohosts, chef Ed Bugia and food blogger Richie Zamora. Despite his fiery reputation on the show, he was very outgoing and candid with us, sharing about his life during and after Top Chef.
The cold call
One of the things that really kept me curious about the whole Top Chef experience was how the contestants were chosen. “It was a cold call, a casting call,” he explains. Upon receiving the invitation, he then went to the interview. He was actually late. “As I was coming in, the casting director and team were walking out and I asked if they had time for one more. They said, ‘Sure,’ sat me down. We had a 30-minute conversation.”
His personality blew them away and after a screen test the next day, he was informed that he would be a contestant on Season 4.
Watching on TV, it’s easy for a lot of chefs to claim that they would love the Top Chef experience, but Talde is quick to caution people about the challenges of joining a reality show.
“The anxiety of that show is very real.” He explains that this is the reason why so many chefs make elementary mistakes during the competition. “Imagine going to work every day and you either get fired or promoted.”
On top of that, there’s the isolation. “You’re completely secluded (for five-and-a-half weeks). If you have to make a phone call, it has to be recorded. You can’t use a computer. You don’t have your wallet or cell phone.”
The mental strain is par for the course, as most reality shows do want to record the contestants’ raw emotions and subsequent fights, which make for good television. “I think that’s why the show works. We are all chefs and we are all super-opinionated. It’s like fireworks. On the show, you might say something to someone that you might not say in real life.”
In real life, however, most contestants form strong connections and friendships with each other. “Even if on the show, we kind of got into it; we’re all really great friends because at the end of the day, we’ve built a bond that only a few people understand.”
One of the silver linings in such a tough competition environment, though, is it spurs creativity, and with an innovative mind like Dale’s it’s a recipe for some great dishes. We got to ask him about two of his more iconic dishes on the show.
On creating that now famous halo-halo, he did not have any of the traditional Filipino ingredients apart from coconut in the pantry, so he had to innovate. “I saw the avocado, the yuzu. I saw kiwi and it has seeds, so some texture.”
Then, he drops a little piece of knowledge that surprised all of us: “Lemongrass and lime leaves together, they remind me of Froot Loops.” He insists that putting those two together with coconut milk produces the same smell as the bestselling cereal. Then he proceeded to add some chili as well. “I wanted the flavor profile to be bold and not too sweet. It can’t be sweet on sweet on sweet. It has to have different layers of flavor. Filipino flavors have that: contrasting flavors.”
When he returned as a contestant on Top Chef All Stars, he again weaponized his innovative mind to stand out. During a challenge where they had to cook inside a department store, he wowed the judges by making a grilled cheese sandwich… with a flat iron. He assures us that it was a real iron, it really works, and you can try it at home.
“I remember the night before, I had an idea of what I was doing. I pulled an iron out, I pretended that I was ironing my chef coat but I got two pieces of bread and cheese and made a grilled cheese sandwich.”
His practice led him to being on top of the challenge and it’s now something he does even at his events. “Flavor the water before you put it in the iron. Perfume it with garlic and herbs like rosemary or thyme. That steam will give you flavor.”
The judge to watch for
Talde’s reputation for being innovative should be fair warning to the Season 18 contestants, as he takes his place as one of the rotating judges. They are going to have to make their own bold moves if they are to impress judge Dale.
One thing is for sure: he’s not going to mince words when it comes to judging the contestants’ food. He’s been there, done that and excelled. He won’t take any weak excuses.
You can catch Sharwin’s videos on his YouTube channel “chefsharwintee.” Follow Sharwin’s food adventures on Instagram @chefsharwin and for questions, reactions, recipe and column suggestions, you can contact him at www.sharwintee.com.