Top Chef's Stephanie Cmar On Immunity, Future Plans

By Scott Kearnan  |  January 10, 2014
Credit: Michael Diskin

Let's cut to the chase. No, she wasn't surprised. And yes, she was upset - at first. But No. 9 Park sous chef Stephanie Cmar, one of our recent 30 Under 30 honorees, says she doesn't hold a grudge against fellow Top Chef: New Orleans competitor Nicholas Elmi. On Wednesday's episode, Elmi dragged down his teammates Cmar and Shirley Chung in the elimination challenge. But because he had immunity, the judges were forced to send one of the women home. In an ironic twist, Cmar, who had cooked the challenge's single best dish, was the unlucky 13th contestant to leave. (Here's a fuller recap.)

We grabbed her for a quick follow-up chat about her elimination episode, the entire Top Chef experience, how she would have handled the immunity issue — and who she hopes will ultimately win. 

Zagat: Now that you've had time to digest everything - what are your ultimate feelings about your elimination? 

I feel really positive about everything. I did everything that I set out to do, and I knew that regardless of how that episode was portrayed - whether it touched on Nick and his immunity or not - I had done a good job. It was a really terrible day. But the experience was totally worth it.

Z: Tough question ahead. If the roles were reversed, and you had immunity - would you have resigned?

People will call bullshit, but yes, I would have resigned. I don’t want to seem like a lousy competitor, but for me the point of the competition was to show myself, my family and the world that I did a good job. I think that would have overwhelmed getting to the next episode. That being said, I don’t blame Nick at all for what he did.

Z: You've talked about how you came out of this season a stronger person than you were going in. Tell me more about that.

Well, it wasn’t that I didn’t have any self-confidence. The way you see me talking is just the way I am in daily life! But when I went I was so consumed with the fact that I didn’t know if I could do it. When I got kicked off in the first episode [of Season 10], it was like, “Well, that’s going to be the end of my career!” I felt like I was putting myself out there. Knowing that I didn’t want to go home again just sort of pushed me on.

Z: It's hard enough to be a chef, but there are no cameras in the kitchen at No. 9 Park. Did the TV experience feel easier, this second time around?

Well, I hope there are no cameras at No. 9! [Laughs] The whole TV thing didn’t phase me very much. This is going to sound obnoxious, but I love the cameras. They were just part of my day. The first go-round, I was maybe a little shell-shocked. But I don’t know if it was the year I had to think about things, but now I love the cameras. However, no, I do not want them in the kitchen of No. 9, thanks.

Z: How has Top Chef changed how recognizable you are around town? At our 30 Under 30 party there were a lot of fans excited to meet you. 

This is going to sound terrible, but to be honest, no one knew who I was before - and why would you? That has definitely changed so considerably. We did a Twitter Q&A the other day. I didn’t even know how to tweet before the show, and now I had to kind of get into it. I think I’ve almost figured it out! But really, there are all these people who are so supportive and stop me. It’s been really fun. I always tell them: Trust me, I'm as excited to meet you as you are to meet me!

Z: Since the show and that attention, do you feel like the pressure is on to up your game and impress people more?

Is it bad if I say no? [Laughs] I don’t feel that way. The only person I have to impress is my chef, Barbara [Lynch], and myself. I want to think that I do a good job. I don’t think about impressing people. Cooking is very black and white: something tastes good to a person, or it doesn’t.

Z: You tweeted back at a disappointed fan that, "Third time's a charm!" So - if you could, would you do the show yet again?

That’s a loaded question! I feel like they were really generous in giving me a second chance; I think a third would be pushing it. One day I joke about retiring from competitive cooking, the next day I’m like, “you know it doesn’t sound like the worst thing to do.” I had a lot of fun! But one of the biggest reasons I even went back is that my mother told me to. She put her foot down and off I went to New Orleans. So I hate to say it, but it would probably be up to my mother if I ever did it again.

Z: Beyond TV stuff, have you come any closer to realizing your ultimate aspirations as a chef? 

I think I’m finally starting to get there. I don’t know if it will be a pizza place, a sub shop or a donut shop, but I do know that I want to step away from fine dining for a while. I don't see myself opening up a place like No. 9. It’s not my style of cooking. I’m still trying to figure things out, but I’m definitely interested in that idea of quick, counter-service work. The sort of mom and pop places I haven’t worked since I was a teenager. That said, I truly enjoy what I do and I take it very seriously.

Z: Have you talked to Nicholas since? Is everything cool between you? 

We have talked. But it’s hard to say if there’s anything that should be said now. When I watched the show the other night, I felt a different way about him for a minute. But then I remembered: he was my roommate, a best friend there and we leaned on each other a lot. In the end, it didn’t come down to friendship. But I don’t hold anything against him . . . As for my boyfriend? He was a little upset for a while. And he doesn’t have a temper, so that was surprising!

Z: Now the million-dollar question: who are you rooting for to win Top Chef: New Orleans?

That's a good question! I would say that I'm definitely rooting for the women: Nina or Shirley. Those two cook so differently that I feel it's almost impossible to say which one would go farther. But I'd love to see either of them win.