Seattle chef Thierry Rautureau inspires so many cheerful descriptions — “jovial,” “affable,” “puckish” — they sometimes overshadow the equally genuine cooking chops that make him a national star, as well as the generosity that has him appearing at endless fund-raisers. He’s in full form on all those counts for his second season on Top Chef Masters (he also competed two years ago), where he’s trying to win $100,000 for Food Lifeline, a non-profit dedicated to ending hunger in Western Washington.
The show’s premiere Wednesday shows Rautureau in splendid Seattle style, chumming it up and apparently having a fabulous time, but also merrily snagging all the available salmon out from under his competitors during a market challenge. Here’s an edited, condensed version of our recent conversation about the show. You can see the show each week with Rautureau by your side as well as on the screen; it’ll be aired at 10 p.m. Wednesdays at Luc (advance reservations recommended, complimentary snacks).
Q: Tell us why you would be on Top Chef Masters a second time.
A: “I really had a lot of fun the first time around, I just had a lot on my mind. I was opening Luc, I wasn’t quite in the full…swing of the moment when I was doing it. The second time around I was like ‘Absolutely, I want to go play.’ It was a lot of work, but a lot of fun. If you’re a cook, you kind of like that pain of being put into the fire. It’s what we do every day, and I think that’s why we’re in the business. We like the challenge of being challenged.”
Q: You run a French-inspired fine-dining restaurant and a French-inspired bistro. How do you plan for a show that has you doing buffets in Vegas?
A: “The great thing about Top Chef Masters is, you can’t prepare. They don’t give you advance notice of any kind…They do edit the show, which is another story, but they don’t come the day before and tell us ‘Tomorrow, this is what we’re going to do.’ There is no stop the clock and let’s do it again…
“If I lived in France I couldn’t compete in this, it would be too narrow. The challenges are kind of global, you can go from India to China to France to Italy. Thank God I live in Seattle, where the globalization of cooking is a big part of every day life… You know what I’m making now? I’m making a watermelon cocktail with blood orange Dry Soda and watermelon ice and a little bit of Moroccan spices.
Q: You were competing to win $100,000 for the charity of your choice. What was yours?
A: “Food Lifeline, baby! If I ever want to save the world, my dream would be to get a couple million dollars and give them to Food Lifeline to feed people. That would be my biggest achievement on this planet… It’s actually appalling to be a part of a society that would let (such widespread hunger) happen. I cannot fathom that. You should have shelter, you should have food, the basics of life. This is America, we’re not in a remote part of the world. We’re in Seattle, Washington, we’re in Puget Sound. There is no excuse for that.”
Q: On the first show, you look awfully happy to see some of your competitors come in the room. Did you know them already?
A: “You don’t know who you’re going to be competing with, and then you walk in, and go ‘Oh my God, yes!’ when you see who’s there. It’s always fun… I know Chris Cosentino, I know Takashi (Yaghashi)…it’s exciting to be working with them and competing with them, but at the same time, your brain starts going ‘Who’s going to be the tough cookie here? Who do I watch for?”
Q: What’s the secret to success on the show?
A: “What kills you every time is the overthinking.”
Q: How did your restaurants do with you out of town? Did your staffers know what you were doing?
A: “Well, I have a good team…we’re also always in communication these days, almost 24-7. You still can do a lot of things from far away…I have two very good chefs in both restaurants and we talk, and I have two very good managers and we talk and email.
“They didn’t know anything about (the show). You can’t talk about it, there’s a big non-disclosable on this. At first it sounded like ‘How am I going to do that?’ Then it’s easy. You just say, ‘I’m going out of town, I have a gig in Vegas, I’ll be back in 2 weeks, 3 weeks, whatever, I’ve got this business thing to do.’ You just keep it simple.”
Q: Did your wife know what you were really doing?
A: “Well, obviously my wife would know. (It wouldn’t work to say) ‘Honey, I’m going to Vegas for 3 weeks. I’ll be back!”
File photo of Thierry Rautureau at Luc. Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times