Chad White, Spokane’s Top Chef
“It’s really hard to be a Mexican chef and not be able to eat avocado,” says Chad White, just a few minutes after our first meeting. “Each time I’ve gotten sick, it was pretty dramatic.”
“But you still cook with them?” I ask.
“Absolutely, I do, I just make other people taste it,” he says.
Very soon, you may get a chance to be one of those people.
Bravo’s Top Chef Season 13 had been airing for three weeks when contestant White arrived back in Spokane. Although he’s been living and cooking in San Diego, California, since 2002, he considers Spokane home. >>
As Chad prepared to move, members of the press began to speculate about what the timing of his departure meant, with many predicting that he won the competition, and others suggesting that he was eliminated right away. “I’m just thinking about what’s best for me and my life,” Chad says. He pulled into Spokane a mere six weeks after deciding to return. He had a going away party in San Diego, an emotional evening attended by 500 members of the culinary scene, including every employee of the restaurant he had just closed. “For a moment I was like ‘should I really leave this behind?’” he says. “Then I thought, ‘that’s your legacy, dude. Go.’”
When I asked him how he started cooking, he told me: “Well, it was the only job I qualified for when I joined the Navy.” Chad left Spokane after joining up on 9/11, at 19. He chose the Navy because the line for the Marines was too long.
After six weeks of culinary school in Texas (which he describes as “three weeks in the kitchen, three weeks doing paperwork”), he began cooking on ships. “I hated it. I really did. It wasn’t cooking like I was used to,” he says. “My grandmother was a cook, she was a gardener, she was a painter, an artist. So everything that she did was with love, and it was colorful, and it was delicious, and it was beautiful, and there were a lot of memories attached to it. I couldn’t attach myself to anything that we were eating.”
Three weeks in, Chad remembers a shipboard call with his mother in Spokane. He wanted to quit. She reiterated the consequences of going AWOL, and reminded him of whom he was. “She said ‘Chad, you’ve been an artist all your life, you’ve drawn, you’ve painted, you’ve worked with your grandma in the kitchen here and there, why don’t you make it your own? You’re going to have to follow rules your entire life but if you can, find a way to make it enjoyable. That 10-inch white plate that you put food on? It’s a canvas. Paint on it with food.’ After that, a light bulb came on for me,” he says.
His mother sent him encouragement in the form of books by food superstars like Bobby Flay. She played into his love for bold colors and flavors and stirred his imagination about what a chef could be. It was just what Chad needed. “People started to recognize that my food tasted better. I started to gain the ranks, and before I knew it, I was in the wardroom cooking for officers.”
After about four years in the Navy, Chad had the opportunity to do an externship at the renowned Hotel Del Coronado. At first, they had him working with garnishes and table decorations like carved watermelons and potato roses, but as serendipity would have it, a line cook from the fine dining kitchen had called in sick. “The chef gave me a chance,” says Chad. “He says ‘Hey listen, somebody called in sick, I need somebody to jump on the line, I don’t have time to really teach you too much. This is where your salt is, this is your pepper, here’s the oil, you know, sauté this, this is the color that I want on it. When this person calls for this, you cook that, you put it on a tray so it dries the oil out, you hand it to them, they plate it. That’s your job for the night.’ And I did it, and I did it well.”
Chad went on to become a Chef de Partie at the Hotel Del before taking a job as a Sous Chef at the Doubletree Golf Resort (assuming the position of Executive Chef soon after). After two years in that position, he was ready to be back in the restaurant world again.
Over the next few years, Chad held executive chef positions at several restaurants, started and ran an elite boutique catering company, and launched five different restaurants, from a pizza company in a mall food court in La Jolla, to a gastrobar in Tijuana, serving “fun, niche-y Mexican food.” Of the five, those two are still open, just in case you’re planning a road trip.
In the midst of his demanding career, Chad received the opportunity to go on Top Chef. At first he was hesitant. The representative who contacted him convinced him. “She said: ‘This is going to be great for you and you would be great on the show and people would love you,’” he says. “She said all the right things.”
White was told that this season would be a little different, that they would only be casting Sous Chefs and above. “It was exactly true. When I showed up on day one it was James Beard award-winning chef, Food and Wine best new chef, this person worked for Per Se, this person worked for EMP (Eleven Madison Park) in New York, this person worked for Jean-Georges Vongerichten for six years, this person worked for Emeril Lagasse for 10 years, and I’m just like: ‘why am I here? These guys are gonna own me.’
“From your couch it’s easy to say ‘Can you believe that guy just burned bread?’ You don’t know what kind of pressure you’re under. You don’t know how much money you have to spend for 500 people in 15 minutes in a Whole Foods where everything is extremely expensive. I’ve seen Michelin star chefs fail. So it’s really just about how well you can cook under pressure. You think that you’re ready. You’re not ready.
“Then you get in your own head and you start making mistakes that you would scream at your dishwasher for making. It’s terrifying. I remember the first episode when I had to supreme oranges and my hands were shaking. I can supreme oranges better than most people. But when you’re looking at a clock ticking and you have these 17 other chefs who are badasses that simple thing of peeling an orange and getting the segments out of it becomes like you’re trying to do a foie gras torchon in front of 300 people who are all experts at making foie gras torchon.
“You’re being judged by America, you’re being judged by the other chefs in the room, you’re being judged by Padma and Tom, I mean, those two individuals, during that period, were the most frightening people I have ever seen in my life. I’ve seen this show, I’ve seen them rip people apart and all I’m thinking in my head is ‘what are they going to say about me next?’ I think that’s another reason why I was very hesitant to go on to Top Chef, because if I go on and make a fool of myself I feel like everything I’ve done in the past just kind of gets washed away.”
Although he was eliminated during the eighth episode, Chad has a lot of positive feelings about the show. “Top Chef overall was a great experience. It challenged me, it pushed me harder than I’ve ever pushed myself before, it allowed me to see where my weaknesses and strengths were,” he says. “If somebody asked if I would do it again? Yeah, yeah I would.”
Now that he’s back in Spokane, Chad is eager to help create community and education around food. “From a culinary standpoint you have so much opportunity to touch so many lives,” he says. “So why not here? If you ask anybody in the community in San Diego they’ll tell you ‘Chad is a community builder, he loves to be involved, he loves working with children and working with local farms.’ I’ve given so much to San Diego, it’s time to give back to my hometown.”
Chad is hoping to open several restaurants in the next few years. During our interview, he tossed out five or six ideas including one that seems to have his heart, already named Native Post and Provisions. Although the concept has gone through several iterations, the last time we spoke, he was leaning toward only offering a tasting menu. “I know that is uncharted territory for Spokane, but at the same time, I feel that there are people here who are willing to do it.”
These days, Chad is enjoying spending time with his family, savoring the luxury of cooking ramen for his mom spontaneously. “I love this city. I’ve been away too long, I want to support it, and it’ll probably support me back so, why not?”
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