Why Casey Thompson agreed to Tournament of Champions, and what it’s like, from Guy Fieri to the kitchen

03 / 2024 | by: Blurred Reality

Almost 17 years have passed since Casey Thompson competed on Top Chef: Miami, and was named fan-favorite, and seven years since her last competition experience on Top Chef: Charleston.

 

When Casey’s friend and Tournament of Champions winner Brooke Williamson asked if she wanted to be on the Food Network competition, Casey had a confident and clear answer: “Oh, hell no!”

 

 

She did eventually agree, of course, convinced by Guy Fieri—though she “wasn’t sure” about him, either, at least before meeting him.

 

 

Casey eventually lost to Antonia Lofaso in TOC V’s round one. But Casey doesn’t regret that decision, and when I talked with her a few days ago, she discussed what initially changed her mind and how the experience affected her, including in her current work as executive chef of restaurants for Sonoma’s Best Hospitality Group and Folktable Restaurant.

 

 

She also shared a lot about of behind-the-scenes of the TOC experience from a chef’s perspective, from watching the judging to trying to plan a dish in the few minutes it takes to stock the fridge with the randomizer’s chosen ingredients.

 

 

Andy Dehnart: Tell me how you found your way to Tournament of Champions. Did they approach you? Did you have friends who were on the show and said you should do this?

 

 

Casey Thompson: Actually, it was the latter. I basically swore off competition cooking, but really it wasn’t because I didn’t like it.

 

 

I did actually enjoy it. I made a lot of friends doing it and I really learned a lot. As soon as a challenge is over, and the cameras have stopped and we get a second to walk around, we’ll go look at each other’s food. We’ll ask, “How did you do that? What did you put in this? What was the technique there?”

 

 

I loved it. I found that that was a real way of being a chef and getting to know other cuisines and other people.

 

 

Once I did my third trip around the sun with Top Chef, I said, “I need to focus on what will be the rest of my career, right? I can’t just do competition cooking forever”—which I did not know was going to actually become a thing for a lot of people!

 

 

I thought, “I really need to get back into the restaurant and really get serious about being that.” That’s where we all started, no matter where we ended up. So I really did put my head down and got back into opening restaurants.

 

 

Not everybody did that. Not everybody can say that that was their path, but that’s where I’ve been.

 

 

I would always see [other TV-competition chefs] at food and wine events or whatever, and I would say, “You guys are nuts. I don’t know how you’re still doing this,” because I am so far away from that.

 

 

Brooke Williamson talked me back into doing it. Every time I would see her, she would say, “Are you sure? Are you sure you don’t want to do it?” She’s on every show that there is and has every connection that there is, and kept saying, “I wish you would do it. I wish you would do it.” We do get asked by producers, “Give us friends.”

 

 

I was like, “Oh, hell no!” And she’s like, “Sensed a little maybe!” I’m like, “No, ma’am.”

 

 

And then she went back and told them, “I think you should reach out to Casey Thompson.” So they did, and as soon as I got on the phone, I told them, “Oh, hell no,” too.

 

 

They talked me into it because it’s a different kind of show—and I think you can see that from just watching Tournament of Champions.

 

 

It’s not Top Chef. You don’t get sequestered. You control your own destiny, and just you have to deal with a randomizer.

 

 

We did have an interview with Guy before you go on the show; he gets a chance to say what’s important to him, and he’s all about making good TV—and he really wants people that have some sort of personality, and also the ability to cook.

 

 

He’s like, “Look, I’m not here to ruin anyone’s career. That’s certainly not what I’m trying to do,” and I think that was the saving grace. [On other shows,] you could mess up so bad and just not know if you had a job the next day, which is terrifying.

 

 

Was the “Oh, hell no!” response to just TV competition, period? Was it to the Tournament of Champions format? Because obviously, it’s tough, as we’ve seen for four seasons. Or was it just all a combination of all of those things?

It’s everything. I’ve said no to Chopped. I’ve said no to Beat Bobby Flay. I just wasn’t interested in any of that.

 

 

I’d seen a lot of my friends go on, and you might think that they would come out and have some sort of success with it, and nothing really happened. I just didn’t see the benefit of it, at all.

 

 

Tournament of Champions is different. It’s truly an arena of some of the best competitors out there. There are many, many good chefs out there—thousands of good chefs, really good ones—but this is who’s competing now and who’s at the top of their game.

 

 

Did you prepare? Watching old episodes, getting random ingredients thrown at you in your kitchen and trying something?

I maybe wish that I had. I just relied on my past, because I have done competition cooking. I was, like: Done it. This is like riding a bike. It’s not like riding a bike at all.

 

 

I watched a couple shows, and maybe that was to my detriment that I didn’t study it enough. But quite honestly, watching these types of shows gives me anxiety, and I literally—I haven’t even watched my show.

 

 

I haven’t told anybody that yet. But it’s the truth. I haven’t watched it because it literally makes me feel crazy, and I don’t like that. It’s a sense of control—or loss of it—and I just don’t like it. So I wished I had.

 

 

I didn’t have to do the qualifying round. Even the qualifiers cooked in that kitchen and had an advantage just coming into the show. And I was just like: Go on in.

 

 

Me going against Antonia? Antonia had done four seasons and had advanced pretty far in each season. If you take the amount of times she’s cooked in that kitchen alone, season one, season two, season three, season four, it could be close to 20 times. And I had cooked there zero.

 

 

That was rough. It was not easy. I promise you that. When the randomizer stops and your brain is like, Oh, it’s time for you to perform now, I blacked out.

 

 

When I snapped to, there was food in front of me, and I was just like, I don’t even know. It was such a blur. It happened so fast.

 

 

I was going to ask you about that specific moment: I know they stop down for a few minutes to stock the fridge with the [randomizer] ingredients. Does that give you any time to plan? Or, I guess, black out and just take a little moment outside your body?

I think you can see it on everybody’s face at that moment. It’s only about three minutes. And in that time, [Guy Fieri] is talking to you. He’s just like, wow, guys, this is going to be a doozy or whatever. And you’re just like, uh-huh. Like conversation right now is not ideal.

 

 

The crowd is, you know, go Casey, go Antonia, like whatever. And you’re just like, what is happening? And the whole time you’re supposed to be thinking of a dish, but really you’re thinking, like, Where were the sauces again?

 

 

That’s how I felt in that moment. I could not believe how efficient the production team was at flipping the kitchen or getting the ingredients in there—no time is wasted. So it’s not like you go on a lunch break. You don’t take a bathroom break.

 

 

It stops. Reset camera. Okay, cool. He starts talking to you. I can’t hear your words. I don’t even know what language you’re speaking. And then it’s like he does that 3, 2, 1, go thing that he does all the time.

 

 

Yeah, I’m amazed just by how they fast they clean the kitchen and get the judges out there to taste—it’s unlike other shows, which let food sit around for a long time.

That’s it. I talked to a producer who was on Bravo doing Top Chef. And she was like, So tell me, Do they stop the camera? How do they know [what food is going to come up on the randomizer]? Do they change it?

 

 

No, what you see is really what you see. They’re so efficient because they know what’s on the randomizer. If there are eight things on the randomizer, they know they’re ready with those eight things.

 

 

As soon as it’s chosen, there’s a space in the fridge, waiting on one of those things. And all they do is just go, and they’re ready.

 

 

Everything’s hot: hot grill, hot fryer, boiling water. They have it ready.

 

 

Did you get any time to tour the kitchen or check out where things were?

There’s a day when everybody goes in and they actually film it. You can see right now on Food Network’s page on Instagram. When you’re supposed to be having free time to walk through the kitchen and figure out all this stuff, they’re interviewing people.

 

 

How do you feel Casey? And you’re just like, Oh, I’m on right now! Okay. Great. But not studying clearly what’s going on back here. And then there’s 30-something of us in there, digging through what nuts are in the pantry. It’s pretty intense.

 

 

It sounds like it. I don’t know if it’s possible to compare, but do you think that your biggest competition was the randomizer? The time? Antonia? Or just the unfamiliarity of the kitchen? Which thing really pushed you the most?

I think it was being green back in that environment. That was really to my detriment. I don’t think my dish was that far off; it really, truly wasn’t.

 

 

What I didn’t do—where Antonia was dead set—was utilizing that randomizer. I had visions of utilizing the randomizer, then you factor in time and not really knowing where anything was. All that time lost is time that I didn’t have to utilize the randomizer.

 

 

In my brain, I knew that was important, but also trying to find everything, utilize the clock—and I didn’t even know where the clock was.

 

 

I heard them ask Antonia on the other side: So what are you doing? One of the [randomizer elements] was pickled, and she had already pickled five things. I had a plan for pickling one. I knew when I heard that: I’m already in trouble.

 

 

They also changed the structure of the judging this year, [giving more weight] to utilization of the randomizer. You know what you’re up against. It’s not a secret.

 

 

You overheard Antonia talking a little bit—did you have any sense during it that she was cooking the same thing that you were? Or did you find all that out later?

No, I can’t really hear. You do have somebody talking…

 

 

Justin or Simon?

Yes, so when you’re talking to them, you can’t focus on what the hell is going on over there.

 

 

We both did a meatball. You start with an idea of where you need to go, and then how do I get there fastest with the biggest bang for your buck?

 

 

That’s two chefs understanding the task. But what’s so interesting about the show is how does each get there?

 

 

When you finish cooking and go to the trailer that they have for watching [judging], how was that experience? It looks, from what we see, nerve-wracking.

I will say it’s brilliant television. On Top Chef, you certainly don’t get to hear their comments until the show airs, which is also nerve-wracking, but on a whole different level.

 

 

I remember thinking: This is the worst part of it. What if somebody spits it out? Your brain is just going 90 to nothing. I don’t know how much they actually say that gets aired.

 

 

I’ve talked to [TOC executive producer] Brian Lando, and he said that most of what the judges say ends up on the TV show because it’s so quick. Was that your experience—getting in the trailer to being back out there is pretty fast?

Oh, yeah. I remember getting done, being walked right into that trailer. And I was sweating. You’re just like pouring sweat now. And they’re just filming, filming, filming. And TV comes on. And then that’s it. I mean, it’s so fast.

 

 

They’re like, bottled water? You’re like, I guess, sure. Can I use the bathroom? They’re like, no, I’m sorry.

 

 

Then after it’s done, they literally come and get you, take you back out, and you go right back into being in front of Guy again. It’s that fast. Then they flip the kitchen and they do about three in a day. It’s crazy.

 

 

I think that helps explain when you walked into the hall, after the scores were announced, and a producer asks you if you’d be back for TOC 6. You said, “Let me just breathe first.”

Now that you’ve had—what, five months?—would you go back for season six next fall?

Once you’re done, they’re just like, Okay, thanks for comingHere’s your clothes back. Here’s your stuff. There’s the door. You’re like, oh, okay, bye. It’s that fast.

 

 

They film it like in a week, which is crazy. Top Chef was like three months. So that was all new to me. These guys are all used to it. They knew exactly where to be. We’re all back at the hotel in 10 minutes.

 

 

Now that it is aired, and now that I fully have an understanding of how it went, how I handled it—I’ve watched bits and pieces, we still haven’t watched the whole thing—now I think I could do it again.

 

 

I know now; I think the biggest hurdle was not knowing. It’s like bungee jumping for the first time or skydiving—you’ve just got to have the cojones to do it. Now that I’ve done it, my feet are wet, and it feels better. I would probably do it.

 

 

They do actually give a surprising amount of screen time to exactly what we’ve been talking about—that you’re new to the kitchen. Simon even says you’re one of the few people who’s not cooked in this kitchen before.

It’s interesting they acknowledge that it’s not just cooking, it’s all these other things that go into the experience.

Well, that’s nice. I’m glad he said that. Because it really truly was that. In just the lead-up, in talking to the producers, you have chances to ask questions. They give you materials. They say: Look, this is your equipment; this is the proteins that you might see. It’s just that the algorithm of all the things, there’s no way—no way—to practice it all.

 

 

I do think a little bit of practice wouldn’t hurt a little bit of timing, a little bit of here’s your mystery ingredients go.

 

 

Yeah, like those people who went through the qualifiers probably had an advantage over you, despite you being seeded immediately based on your experience.

Even Brooke said—when she lost, this first round—she was like, “Oh my God, that was embarrassing.” I’m like, “It was not embarrassing. You won the damn thing!”

 

 

But Kevin [Lee, who beat Brooke] was just on fire, and she said, after the cook, “I’m not discounting the fact at all that he has more experience in this competition than I do. He’s already been cooking, so he’s warmed up.” I think that says a lot.

 

 

Obviously, this is one day—20 minutes of your life—but did you find that it, in any way, played back into your work as a chef? Or did it bring that fire of competition back into your life?

That is something I asked my other half: What if this doesn’t end up well?

 

 

And he’s like, “This does not determine who you are as a chef. You have to remember that. You’re running a restaurant day to day. Say you just freeze; it doesn’t matter. You’re competing against other chefs that also are doing the same thing, and every one of you has the same fear.”

 

 

Even if you shit the bed, I still go to work the next day. I don’t think my boss is going to be like, Oh, okay, well, you’re going to have to hit the road.

 

 

There’s an element of that, and I’ve always tried to remain humble and just be kind about whatever my situation is. If I make an ass of myself, say you’re sorry but just be humble about it. I don’t think it determines my ability. We win awards at this restaurant; that does not have anything to do with my competition television. I got those on my own.

 

 

What we do hope—and I know you know this—as a chef, we all know what a show will do for our careers and for our businesses. And that’s why we do it. It’s not just to go hang out with chefs and have fun cooking. We’re all doing it for a reason.

 

 

It was kind of fun to get back into that, because Top Chef was hugely successful for me.

 

 

Have you noticed that already since your episode aired? Like, do people come to the restaurant asking to see you and like, it’s happening already?

Yeah, it’s great. We’ve been through our first weekend since it aired. We took some photos in the restaurant, and it brought in business—lots of, We just finished watching Tournament of Champions. My Instagram is back at a good place.

 

 

We understand Guy has a huge following. There are two camps for Guy—they either love him or they can’t stand him, right? And I wasn’t sure. I had done some charity [events] with him, but, when he comes to a charity [event], it’s just like, come in, do the thing, and then he’s out.

 

 

I think he’s very genuine. He’s very down to earth. He’s very funny. He wants you to be the same. He just wants you to show well on television.

 

 

He’s like: You do your thing, okay? I’m going to bring you on here, you do your thing, and we all hope for the best outcome.

 

 

That’s great he wants to provide a platform for you without—like too many reality producers—sacrificing people just to make a moment of TV and destroying their lives in the process.

Yep. He won’t do it. He literally said, I’m not here to ruin your career.

 

 

Anything that I didn’t ask you about about either about your Tournament of Champions experience or your current work?

I think it’s important for everyone to know that I really did enjoy it. I think they’re not sure. (laughs)

 

 

I did enjoy it. It was a great—although scary—jumping-off place for me to get back into it. And I didn’t realize how man

 

 

y people wanted to see me back again.

 

 

I think that’s so wonderful. It goes to show that the work that I did do on Top Chef is paying off. I look at it like one big bundle of hard work. It’s been 20 years since I did Top Chef.

 

 

Any of these little things I do just brings more people in, and they have a place to come experience the food. People say I’ve never had your food, but I want to one day. That’s the nicest thing you could say to a chef.

delicious crusty fish hamburger with pickles tomate special hamrburger sauce and fluffy toasted bread

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