Jamie Lynch, the executive chef of 5Church, swears two things came as a surprise to him: First, a casting director for Bravo’s popular competition show “Top Chef” asked him to audition after she came by the new 5Church location in Charleston.
“She hit me up on Facebook, like Facebook messenger. I thought it was a joke. . . . I’m a chef chef, not a competition chef. It’s not in my wheelhouse.”
Then came the second surprise: After the restaurant’s owners convinced him to try out and he got accepted, he arrived on the set in Charleston for the first challenge and there were only eight chefs, not the usual 16.
“I’m like, ‘there’s 16 cutting boards but eight chefs. What’s going on?’ ”
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What was going on was one of the Bravo show’s frequent twists: At the end of the competition, in walked eight more chefs, all veterans of previous seasons. For Charlotte viewers, that’s when it gets even more interesting.
Sam Talbot, the fan favorite from Season 2 who grew up in Charlotte before heading to New York, is one of the returning chefs.
Yep, for our city, watching “Top Chef: Charleston” will be a little different from past years. This year, we’ll have more skin in the game – Lynch’s famous neck-to-ankle tattoos vs. Talbot’s hometown-boy good looks.
“I got mad love for him,” Lynch said of Talbot, who’s getting ready to open a new restaurant in Brooklyn called Pretty Southern. “But who will come out on top?”
That’s also the last hint you’ll get from Lynch about what happens in season 14, which premieres at 10 p.m. Thursday on Bravo.
In honor of 5Church, here are five things to know:
1. Yes, it’s a risk. “I could be the laughing stock of North Carolina,” Lynch admits thinking before he agreed to do it. But he decided to go on with a short list of goals: “I wanted to represent Charlotte. And I didn’t want to be the first one (knocked) out -- nobody wants to be that guy.”
2. Co-host Tom Colicchio is scary. “You can’t read that guy,” says Lynch. He also was intimidating for another reason: When Lynch was a young cook at Le Cirque in New York, his boss, Andrew Carmellini, sent him to eat at Gramercy Tavern, where Colicchio was getting raves.
“It was mind-blowing,” he says. “(Blank) 20 years later, he’s tasting my food and picking it apart?”
3. You can’t read Lynch either – or can you? Lynch, who has a reputation as tough and intense, has been smiling a lot, even before the “Top Chef” news officially broke over the summer. Does that mean he’s done well, or is he practicing his game face?
“I’m just a happy-go-lucky guy,” he insists. Cue the laughter in every restaurant kitchen in Charlotte.
4. Some of what happens will surprise him, too. Competition shows are typically heavily edited to ramp up the suspense, and “Top Chef” is no exception. Lynch isn’t sure how he’ll be presented in the show.
“It’s like when you hear your voice on a recording -- ‘Is that what I sound like?’ You never know who you’re going to be.”
5. Do the tats tell a tale? Yes, Lynch has a lot of skin art. In one preview online, you can hear co-host Padma Lakshmi ask, “So are you tattooed everywhere?” We can answer that, Padma: He still has an opening on his left calf. But he made us an intriguing promise.
“By the time the show is finished airing, there will be no visible space left.” So will he get a tattoo proclaiming him Top Chef – or will it show his knives packed up to go?
He’ll only say this: “I think Charlotte will be proud. There’s ‘wow’ moments.”
Want to play along?
▪ “Top Chef: Charleston” will air at 10 p.m. Thursdays on Bravo through March 2.
▪ 5Church will have viewing parties at its restaurants every week during the 10 p.m. show as long Lynch is still in the running. On Dec. 1, you also can come to the Charlotte location at 9 p.m. (reservations recommended for dinner).
▪ Follow along with us: Watch for continuing coverage on the episodes as long as Charlotte chef Jamie Lynch stays in the game, at www.charlotteobserver.com/food-drink. If you have a question you want us to ask Lynch, send them to Kathleen Purvis on Twitter, @kathleenpurvis, or on Facebook.
Sam Talbot: Still moving at ‘Top Chef’ speed
It was a typical Sam Talbot conversation: When I called to check in on his new season on “Top Chef: Charleston” and his new restaurant, Pretty Southern, opening soon in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, he sounded out of breath.
“Sorry, I’m choking. I’m drinking coffee and skateboarding.”
Well, of course he is. The last time I had talked to Talbot, who came to national attention after the second season of “Top Chef,” when he made it to the finale but not the final win, it was 2012 and he was a young man moving up in the New York restaurant world, with a new book, “The Sweet Life,” on living with Type 1 diabetes. He was diagnosed when he was 12 and growing up in Charlotte.
Where’s he been lately? For the last couple of years, he’s been in Maine, working as a restaurant consultant, getting a business plan together for Pretty Southern and writing a new book, due out next spring, on clean-food habits for home cooks.
He didn’t know Jamie Lynch when they both arrived on the set for “Top Chef: Charleston,” but they knew a lot of the same people, both in New York and Charlotte.
“Jamie instantly became a homie, and not like a fake homie. It was, ‘OK, I can break bread with this guy.’” That’s important: “Top Chef” contestants have to live together and compete for weeks during the show.
Talbot still has friends in Charlotte and gets back here occasionally. But his life is focused on his new restaurant, opening in late December, which makes traditional Southern food but with a focus on allergy-friendly twists and environmental practices. Instead of working with partners, as he did in several high-profile jobs, this time he’s completely in charge, right down to the floor tiles and the location, so close close to his apartment that he can skateboard to work.
“That’s pretty cool. Everything I do, I’m able to do it wholeheartedly.”