Bar Pastoral chef Chrissy Camba appears on "Top Chef: Seattle." (Matthias Clamer/Bravo )
The 10th season of "Top Chef" takes place in Seattle and features two cheftestants with matching spoon tattoos, a dad-to-be who may miss the birth of his first child and a Belgian knight with an affinity for yelling "Booya!"
It also features 31-year-old Chrissy Camba, a Lincoln Square resident who grew up in Hoffman Estates. (For those foggy on the 'burbs, that's "the city adjacent to Schaumburg, which holds the Ikea," she said.) As the first step on her intended path to becoming a neurosurgeon, Camba earned a biology degree at Loyola University before finding her true calling in cooking. Since then, she's worked at Chicago restaurants such as HB, Bin 36, Duchamp and Vincent before being hired as the executive chef of Bar Pastoral, due to open Monday in East Lakeview.
Prior to the show's Wednesday premiere, we talked to Camba about her cooking style, her love for Ben & Jerry's ice cream and the uncanny timing of her TV debut and restaurant opening happening in the same week.
>>When to watch: "Top Chef" Seattle" starts tonight at 9 p.m. on Bravo.
How'd you make the switch from pre-med to cooking?
Hopefully my mom never reads this paper, but I never went to class. Everything was boring and I wasn't interested in it anymore. And my friends and roommates … would have study groups and while they were studying, I would be in the kitchen cooking. I remember I had made falafel from scratch, and pasta and all this other fun stuff. The only interesting part of college were the actual labs, actually doing stuff. So I went to all of those. I have no idea when it happened that I was like, "I don't want to do this, I want to cook." I think it was just sliding doors. Everyone was applying for med school and I was like, I don't want to apply. I started baking cakes and doing fun things with them … like I did the Guggenheim [Museum in] New York, a 3-D cake, for fun. And then a friend knew a friend who worked at a restaurant and got me a stage. And from there, I got offered a job and I was just like, OK—I'm cooking!
It makes sense to me that you loved lab because science labs are a lot like kitchens.
Right, yes! Absolutely. Except with kitchens you can eat the stuff you make, so it's even better!
What appealed to you about cooking professionally?
Because it wasn't like work for me; it was learning all these new techniques. Everyone else goes to culinary school and I didn't, so it was just like, an independent study, sort of, and trying very, very hard to get up to par with everyone else. And it was very enjoyable. And at that point, all I wanted to do was have fun at wherever I'm working.
How would you describe your cooking style?
My cooking style is pretty much my personality. ... I think its fun and whimsical and [inspired by] stuff that I've experienced in my life. ... It's very seasonal; it's local. I know those words are overused and everyone's using [local] farmers. It's simple ... because the farmers work so hard to make that perfect product. I want to do as little as possible to mess it up.
Did food play a big role in your life growing up?
Oh my gosh, yes. I don't know if you know any other Filipinos, but everything is around the kitchen table. And its kind of like grazing, like we don't have specific times when we're going to eat together. It's usually like someone will start eating a little bit, and someone else will come up and then they'll talk. It kind of is the place where me and my family always talk and where everything is centered around. Even if I go visit my mom, and my mom is at home by herself with my grandma, my lola. And so they have the house we grew up in in the suburbs. Whenever I go up there, it's seriously like they're having a party for someone. But it's just the two of them. And my friend, whenever he would come up with me, he would be like, "Were they expecting us?" and I was like, "No. They just have this much food all the time."
Were there specific foods your mom would make that you loved?
My grandma cooks; my mom does not cook at all. She would make chicken adobo and jasmine rice and, you know, I remember going on family vacations ... your family would bring like snacks and stuff. My family would bring adobo and rice in a Tupperware. And that was our meal on our road trips. It was so good. I think that's why I like eating cold rice today.
With the show debuting at the same time as Bar Pastoral, are you feeling very much in the spotlight right now?
Not yet. I know it'll happen once everything starts ... but as of right now, I'm pretty focused on trying to get organized [to open the restaurant]. It's a lot of pressure. You're on "Top Chef," you're opening this restaurant, people are going to expect super-top food from me. So that's cool, all the media stuff, but I want people to come in and be like, "Oh, that's why she's on the show."