Memories of a childhood fishing trip helped Joe Flamm earn the Top Chef title.
Call him the comeback kid. Six weeks before Top Chef’s season 15 finale, Joe Flamm, executive chef at Spiaggia in Chicago, was eliminated from the show (a lackluster cauliflower risotto did him in). But he got his second chance after triumphing on Last Chance Kitchen (the web series where eliminated chefs compete for a in the season finale), and went on to take the overall title.
Flamm learned to cook with his family on Chicago’s Southwest side. His mother, then a sergeant in the Chicago Police Department, worked a 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift, which meant it fell on the Flamm and his siblings to get dinner on the table. For a while, his older sister cooked, but “she was a terrible cook and didn’t really care about food,” Flamm says, laughing. “My uncle told me: ‘if you want to eat good, learn how to cook.’ So I did.”
Flamm attended Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago, then honed his culinary talent at Art Smith’s Table 52 and Stephanie Izard’s Girl and the Goat before landing at Tony Mantuano’s Spiaggia. But his winning recipes didn’t just wow with their execution—like the contestant, they’ve got a lot of heart, too.
Take the fried trout dish from Episode 13. For the challenge, each chef had to first catch their fish. Once Flamm had landed his trout and was sprinting to the cooking area, he flashed back to a memory of fishing as a teenager.
“I was 15 years old, on a canoe trip with friends. One guy caught a northern pike. We pulled it out of the water, coated it in crushed Ritz crackers, and cooked it over a campfire with lots of butter. I remember it so vividly. It was the most delicious bite of fish I’d ever had in my life,” Flamm says. “That’s what I wanted the judges to experience.”
Even as the competition clock was ticking, that prompted another memory. Early on, Flamm had worked for an old-school French restaurant, making buerre blanc in 40-pound batches for five hours at a time. “If you broke the buerre blanc, you were fired,” he says. “I got really good at it.” He hadn’t made the sauce in nine years, but he made one now, channeling his taste memory of those buttery Ritz crackers through it, and asking himself, “If we’d been chefs on that trip when we were 15—if I’d been Daniel Boulud—what would we have pulled from those woods? We’d have picked mushrooms and green garlic.” His resulting dish, is simple but virtuosic, black garlic giving the buerre blanc dimension and oomph against the delicate, pan-crisped fresh trout and buttery mushrooms.
Flamm’s final dish of the season played on an ingredient that he’s loved since childhood: brown sugar. He calls it his torta di nonna (though he’s quick to clarify, “it’s not my grandmother’s recipe”). The late pastry chef Todd Kunkleman made the brown sugar cake on his first day at Girl and the Goat, “and I just fell in love with it right away, and I’ve wanted it forever since then,” Flamm says. Flamm knew he would need a dessert, and practiced the recipe before leaving Chicago for Top Chef. “The flavor profile is like a really nice pair of pants. You can dress it up, you can dress it down. I knew it would come in handy.”
That’s an understatement. In the final episode, shot at the mkgallery Classic in Aspen, Flamm cinched his win with that cake, topped with whipped ricotta and a sauce of fresh blueberries. Even with his ahead-of-time practice, it was close call—at 11,000 feet above sea level, the cake failed twice—and Flamm was down to the last of his brown sugar when it finally came together. “Luckily, we came out on the last one,” Flamm says. But just like with Flamm himself, sometimes, the last time is the charm.