Exclusive: Jamie Lynch dishes about his controversial ‘Top Chef’ decision

Following Thursday night’s shocker of an episode of “Top Chef,” several fans took to Twitter to hail Jamie Lynch as “a class act” and a “stand up dude,” with one fan calling the Charlotte-based chef’s decision to give up his immunity “the most noble thing I’ve ever seen in the #TopChef.”

Of course, there were also others (and this simply comes with the territory when you’re a reality-TV personality in the Twitter age) who weren’t quite as nice.

But Lynch – executive chef/partner of 5Church Group, which owns and operates 5Church restaurant in uptown Charlotte and namesakes in Charleston and Atlanta – told the Observer on Friday afternoon that he’s at peace with the sacrificial decision that led to his elimination.

And if he had to do it over, he said, he’d make the same one.

In our interview with Lynch on Friday afternoon, he unpacked for us what was going on in his head as everything was going down on the set, as well as how he feels about things having had a few months to reflect. Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. OK, so lots of people – including myself – were sitting there watching this all unfold with our jaws on the floor. And, look, from an integrity standpoint, it is very noble what you did. No question. But I’d again make the argument that you played by the rules and you won your immunity fair and square. That there were lots of dominoes that fell before you got to that point that contributed to you having a disadvantage, and not all of them were your fault. Anyway, talk me through what was going on in your head at the time.

Well, I’d won immunity (last week) ... and used it. If I had not had immunity during that challenge, I probably would have gone home then, ’cause I didn’t finish the challenge – by not having a plate. So that was going through my head. Also, the response that I got from the judges on my dish (Thursday night) was pretty negative, even though the response that I got from the guests was completely positive. I mean, I felt that my dish was solid. I don’t think it was my best work at all. I definitely wouldn’t have chosen those ingredients, if I didn’t have immunity. But I felt like what I did with them was satisfactory. I didn’t make any egregious mistakes, and other chefs did. I mean, Casey served rotten scallops raw, for God’s sake. So all that stuff was going through my head. ... And like I said on the show, if it hadn’t been for my dish, my team wouldn’t have been on the bottom, so I felt it was only fair to be judged with them. I wanted to put it in the judges’ hands; because they s--- on my dish so hard at the table, I wanted them to make the call. If they really thought it was that bad, it was up to them. The other thing, too, is I didn’t want to win the show by having immunity all the time. I wanted to earn it. I wanted to be able to walk away and be like, “Yes! Won this thing. I didn’t play all the tricks and stuff to get there.”

Q. It’s probably a little bit of a blur at this point, but thinking back to it, after you gave up immunity but before they made their decision, did you have some sort of hunch about how the decision was going to go?

I had no idea. No idea. I was completely surprised. Like I said, I felt that other chefs made egregious errors in their dishes, things that anybody could go home for. And there was nothing wrong with my dish, other than the fact that they didn’t like it. So I felt fairly confident that somebody else would go home, while I would still be doing the right thing by me, so I could feel good about moving forward. But it didn’t come out that way.

Q. And now, having had all this time to think about it, and also having now seen the episode, would you still have made the same decision if you could do it again?

I would do it again, for sure. Yeah, definitely. I mean, it’s just how I operate.

Q. Where do you think that comes from, that level of ... I don’t know, what would you call it? Integrity? Gallantry? You referred to it as pride, but it’s definitely sort of an extreme example of “taking one for the team.” So where does that come from – your willingness not just to own up to your mistakes, but to take it a step further and fall on the sword – ?

I think it probably starts with my folks, to be honest with you. It’s just how I was raised. Nothing was handed to us. We had to work for everything, so I think that’s where that ethic comes from. And then the kitchens that I’ve worked in. I’ve worked in some of the best kitchens in New York and San Francisco. The chef isn’t the one cooking your food, it’s the team that gets it done – and if you’ve got a weak team, you’ve got a weak machine. So I felt like that was the right move. My team was on the bottom because of my dish, and I wasn’t gonna throw them under the bus because of it. I wanted the judges to make the call.

Q. In response to my recap Thursday night, 5Church owner Patrick Whalen tweeted at me: “jamie once crashed 5c kitchen cause he refused 2 sell food that wasn’t right. Dude is a chef thru and thru.” What’s he talking about there?

Shortly after we opened 5Church five years ago, we were really busy and the talk of the town. Us opening 5Church was like an “eff you” to the Charlotte restaurant scene; it was all corporate steakhouses and stuff like that, and we wanted to do something different. We wanted to do it to the best of our ability. And we knew that we were – or, we felt that we were – the best. So I refused to sell food if it wasn’t exactly the way it was supposed to be. Because of that, we would get super busy and I would send dishes back, and we’d be running these crazy ticket times and Pat was flipping out. He’s like, “We gotta (get these orders out)!” I’m like, “I’m not serving this food! It’s not ready!” And so we crashed the kitchen a few times, just to put out the best possible product we could do. We caught some flak for ticket times, but what we found was that if you put out an exceptional dish in an exceptional room with exceptional service, people will overlook some flaws to get that experience.

Q. Speaking of flaws, how did you feel when these judges would point out faults in your dishes in a really snarky or mean way?

Looking back now, I chuckle about it, ’cause in the moment, you take it personally and you get pissed off. But these challenges ... they’re designed to be a challenge. You’re working in adverse situations and trying to put out a quality of food that you would in your restaurant. It’s just not doable. So getting laid into by a judge for putting out a dish that you know is not a good representation of what you’re capable of is tough. Then to hear it back on TV, it makes you feel like you’re a joke.

Q. But then the praise probably makes you feel great.

Hey man, winning quickfires and winning immunity is where it’s at. That’s a good feeling. It took awhile for me to get one. The winning is always a plus.

Q. I suspect this is probably a tough subject, but the stuff about your past that you brought up last night, are you comfortable talking about that all?

No, I feel like everything that needed to be said was captured on the show. I think they did a good job of covering it.

(Editor’s note: On Thursday night’s episode, Lynch said: “While I was cooking in New York, I developed a strong addiction to heroin. Struggling with addiction and trying to work in a kitchen, it’s not pretty. If addiction doesn’t ruin you or kill you and you can pull yourself through it, it can make you one of the strongest people out there.”)

Q. In what ways do you think you grew as a chef – and as a person – through your experience on the show?

As chefs, we work in tough environments all the time. But I think that this is a whole different type of stress and ... just a difficult situation. So one takeaway, I think, is that I’m able to handle things a little more calmly. Before the show, people knew – I’m a wild man, and kind of a hothead. But apparently I can be pretty calm, too. ... And my food grew a lot. I learned a lot from working with the other guys, techniques and just about different products and stuff like that.

Q. Would you do it again? If “Top Chef” asked you to come back, would you go back?

It’s hard to say, man. I probably would, to be honest with you. When we opened 5Church ... I just wanted to have my restaurant, I wanted it to be well-regarded, and I wanted to put out great food. I didn’t care about any of that stuff. And honestly, I don’t really care about being on TV. But the experience – not everybody gets to do that. There’s only a small group of people who get a chance to do it. So I probably would, just for the experience of it.

Q. Well, I would think you’d be a good bet to be at least considered to be invited given the fact that you made a little history Thursday night.

Yeah, well, I can tell you: If they do invite me back, I’m certainly not giving up immunity. That’s for sure. I’m keeping that stuff.

Q. And last question: So you’d teased before the season that you’d be getting a new tattoo by the end of it. Has that happened?

Yes. It’s in the process.

Q. What are you getting?

I’m not saying. It’s a surprise. The season’s not over yet! I’m hoping I get to show Padma at the reunion.

(Editor’s note: Lynch will duke it out in the “Last Chance Kitchen” again next Thursday at 9 p.m. on Bravo.)

Janes: 704-358-5897;

Twitter: @theodenjanes