Yesterday afternoon we finally tracked down Chris "CJ" Jacobson to discuss this week's somewhat controversial Top Chef episode. Did he throw Tre under a bus? Was it all a calculated move to nominate Tre for executive chef? Why didn't he just make the bread pudding for chrissakes!? After he berated us for not checking in over the last few weeks (we were busy, what can we say), we got CJ all riled up in a nuts-and-bolts chat about what really happened at Restaurant April, and what's next for the tall one-baller chef in LA and on the show.
Let's get right to it. Everyone thinks you picked Tre for executive chef as strategy or sabotage, but you looked surprised when he was cut.
I was completely surprised. I did come here to win, and I thought we won that challenge. I really thought we did better than them. If I had any strategy, it was to win as a team. I was surprised that Tre got cut. I still think he was the best chef in the competition. If you have any integrity, you're not going to sabotage anyone.
Yeah, fans picked Tre to win or at least be in the bottom four.
I think what happened that night is it could've come down to me or him. I picked him as an executive chef because I haven't been an executive chef before. I wanted to win, that was the most important thing. Early in the game, as a group we talked about that. "Let's just cook, be chefs, no games." And that's what happened in this episode. Tre did have the final say, and I was there to help facilitate things, but it wasn't enough.
So you felt like you were a goner?
When we lost, I was like, "Here we go." But all I could say is this who I am, what I did, and I thought if I go down, I'm going to fall on my sword. You can only judge yourself when times are tough, you know? I knew it was going to be either me or Tre. I wouldn't have been shocked if it was him, because the bottom line is that it all goes to the executive chef. We thought as a cast, that whatever the producers want to do, they can do, so I thought if they wanted to take me instead of Tre, they could. But it's really 99% about the food and how you adhere to the challenge. This is one of those things that really define what the show's all about.
Did you feel guilty?
I felt terrible. Tre and I were roommates and friends, and I thought, "Crap." I know it's not my fault. I'm here to win the competition. But I was sad to see him go.
Do you think he took it personally?
He's not going to blame me. He's not the kind of guy who would blame anyone else for anything. He said himself, "It's going down to the executive chef."
He left you out of his exit interview and even said Howie or Casey could win.
You've quickly gone from "cool guy with one nut and good sense of humor" to "douchebag," "sell-out" and "traitor" on the message boards.
It's easy to point the finger when you're sitting on your laptop. That's flattering, that I have that dynamic of character. I don't see how I can possibly look good after the last episode. I'm here to win, and I'm doing all I can do to win. What am I supposed to say, "Oh, fuck that, take me?"
In the kitchen, did the team taste all the dishes before it went to the customers?
We tasted the food, but after it went out. Not before. The bread pudding? I don't think it came out as good as Tre wanted it to. Casey agreed with me about it. We weren't satisfied with the way it looked. It was dry. Maybe something did happen that we didn't execute well. We operated together very smoothly, and maybe that made us more confident. Tom was right that the other team got down and dirty and got their heads in the pans, and that's what you had to do.
Wait, why not taste things before they go out?
We tasted the sauce [for the bread pudding], and it was good. I don’t know why, that's one of the things. Normally, yes, you'd taste everything before it goes out. That's the one thing that we didn't do. But who does that come down to in the end then, me or Tre?
You've worked in a kitchen, right?
Yes, I staged all over town. I worked at Axe in Venice where I was prep and pastry chef, but it was the first job I ever got and pre-culinary school. Then I went to Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena [ed. note---California School of Culinary Arts] and got an associates degree. During school, I worked at Wolfgang Puck Catering for special events. At Campanile, I worked the line and was promoted three times. I was there a year and a half but quit because I got cancer.
That's actually a lot of time in a kitchen. Not half your life, but still.
Listen, I probably have the least amount of experience of everyone on the show, and I'm kicking everyone's asses. So whatever. My experience doing all these different types of jobs gives me a little more resilience. I'm more bendy.
You and Hung both said that Tre was your biggest competition. And now?
Everyone has their strong points, the field is pretty tight. Hung is probably the best. Casey and Brian are coming around, and Dale is surprising me also. Everyone's getting a better idea of what their doing.
Ok, enough about the show. What are you working on now?
I just started a new catering company called Redwood Cuisine.
Catchy. Why Redwood?
I'm native to CA, just like the redwoods, I'm tall like the redwoods?
Have you ever thought about opening a restaurant?
Definitely. If I could open a dream restaurant it would be like Father's Office, more of a bar-driven place with bistro-type fare. I definitely wouldn't do fine dining. I like what Rustic Canyon is doing, too. Casual but serious food.
What would you call it?
When I was in culinary school I thought that I liked the name River. I have other ideas too, but I'm not telling yet.
So this sounds serious. Is this the next step?
I want to see what happens with the show. It's already presented some opportunities to me, and hopefully it will continue to. Right now I'm just focusing.
· Top Chef Recap Part I: Who's Game is It now? [~ELA~]
· Top Chef: LA Contestant CJ Safely Moves Into Week 3 [~ELA~]
· Top Chef: Hanging With Hung [~ELA~]
· More Interviews With CJ [~ELA~]