Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Chef Casey Thompson Talks Tournament Of Champions, Life In Sonoma County And The Perfect Bite

Casey Thompson is a chef and restaurateur from Dallas, Texas, now living in Sonoma, California. She is the executive chef at Folktable, her Michelin Guide awarded farm-to-table restaurant in Sonoma established in 2020. 

Casey’s restaurant Forktable prides itself on its fresh ingredients and resourcing of local farmed goods. The crops of the season dictate the menu, and Casey and her team are sure to make a fresh and colorful meal, no matter the season. 

Casey began her professional cooking career as a prep cook and worked her way up to sous chef at Rosewood Mansion in Dallas, Texas. She later went on to become executive chef at Shinsei. To spice up her career and challenge her cooking abilities, Casey starred as a contestant on the third season of Top Chef: Miami where she finished as runner-up and was voted as a Fan Favorite. She also competed on season 8 of Top Chef: All-Stars and was a guest judge in episode 7 of Top Chef Junior.

This year after eight years since her last competitive television experience, Casey appeared on Guy Fieri’s Tournament of Champions where she went head-to-head with over 30 of the world’s greatest chefs. We got the chance to talk to Casey Thompson about the behind-the-scenes experience of televised culinary competitions, her favorite wineries, and the best bite of food she’s ever had.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is folktable_erikacolephoto_casey_06-2-1-940x1024.jpg
Photo Credit: Erika Cole Photo

I just watched your episode of Tournament of Champions (TOC). What was your favorite experience this season?

That was my first TOC experience overall. I was new to it all. I had seen previous shows and sort of had to learn the setup of it just by watching. I had been out of the whole competition experience for about eight years. All of it was my favorite because it was all new to me. I never knew what was coming next. It was all just brand new.

It looks really hard and I have no idea how you guys do it. Part of me wants to ask, is it real? How do you come up with a dish that fast?

Well, to be honest, I have done Top Chef and I have also been on Food Fighters, which isn’t even on television anymore. I did three seasons of Top Chef. There’s a lot of competition.  In the eight years I have been away from television, I just started focusing on restaurants. I opened a restaurant in San Francisco, and since then I’ve done a consulting project in San Diego, and now I’m currently in Sonoma. All of that has happened since I quit competing. I just immersed myself into the restaurants without television. To dip my toe back in on the Tournament of Champions was quite challenging. 

I had reservations going into it and had a lot of questions to the producers and even to Guy, because we talk before you get to go on his show. He’s an open book. He says, ‘Look, I just want a really good show. I want you guys to do your thing. That’s all I can ask.’ So, you go into it with that sort of mindset of ‘I’m going to do my best. I’m going to show what I can do.’

Nothing prepares you for that randomizer. We actually watch each other on a green screen in a trailer off camera. It’s terrifying. You can see chefs that you’ve cooked with, competed with, or worked with throughout the years. You can see their headspace of what they’re trying to do, where they’re going with it. We’re seasoned, but we can see when there’s a struggle and in the room of all of us chefs somebody will say something like, ‘Oh my God, it’s not working out,’ or ‘they’re running out of time’ or whatever it is. It’s just a lot of pressure.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is folktable_erikacolephoto_casey_16-683x1024.jpg
Photo Credit: Erika Cole Photo

What advice would you give to someone who is going to go on a competition show, specifically Top Chef? People have told me that you have to be cooking all the time and it’s really just a “think on your feet” kind of situation. Would you say the same thing or would you give different advice?

No, I definitely would. I think it’s the same, especially now. The stakes are quite literally higher. You’re going against chefs that really want to be on it. When I was on season three we were just all cooks in kitchens. As far as television competition, it hadn’t really taken off the way it has now. We just went in green and said we’ll take on each challenge as best as we can. 

Now you have chefs that are sharpening their skills by practicing, by having people time them, having the fastest knife skills or training in pastry before they go on because they know it’s coming. I do know that there are chefs that practice for Tournament of Champions. I know Mei Lin spent a lot of time training to be the best in those circumstances, like the randomizer and the time restraints. I don’t know that everyone does that. 

I think the best advice I have for Top Chef is just practice, be at the top of your game. For Tournament of Champions you should practice a little bit of random ingredients and cook them in a time restraint. Your brain just has to be ready for ‘what can I do with this?’ All of us have a different plan. I had discussions with chefs. If you go in and you have a dish that you can apply anything to, and that’s what your head is wrapped around, try it.

Take the concept of spaghetti and meatballs. You go and you see the ingredients. It’s not beef noodles and tomato sauce, but it’s fish. Let’s just say zucchini and barbecue sauce. My point is, now you’re making fish meatballs and you’re making noodles out of zucchini and some sort of sauce with a barbecue flavor. Some people go in with that mindset of ‘This is what I’m going to do and apply it to a dish.’ Then some people try to literally memorize the ingredients because we are given them. It’s just so vast. There’s no way your brain can absorb it like that. 

So, you’re told what’s in the randomizer, you just have no idea what combination you’re going to get?

Yes. There’s no algorithm to know. It’s thousands and thousands of combinations of things that could be. But we are told ‘this is what’s in the kitchen.’ We’re told that these are the proteins that you might see or vegetables that you might come across. I think the best attack is to just know what they all are. Number one, if you don’t know what two of them are, you better study those and how to prepare them. 

Know how to use a piece of equipment, because this year on Tournament of Champions, they had Wayfair sponsor and they wanted us to use their equipment. You better know how to use all that stuff. But no matter what, you don’t get to know what the brand is beforehand. So, when you show up, you might not know how to work that particular piece of equipment. It’s kind of a little bit of luck. It’s a little bit of knowledge and then a little bit of putting your spin on it. It’s pretty wild.

You live in one of my favorite places on Earth, Sonoma County. What is your perfect day in Sonoma and where would you go? What would you do?

We’re so very lucky on this side. First of all, I would wake up at Sea Ranch because that’s one of my favorite places on Earth. Take a walk on that coast and just get centered there. Then I would end up having lunch, probably in Healdsburg at Barndiva. I just love that back patio. I love their lunch and their cocktails and the whole vibe. 

Then I would probably end up doing a wine tasting at the cutest winery on Earth called Beltane Ranch. If you haven’t been there, you must go. It’s this old house, and this family owns it now, and they run it. It’s been there for hundreds and hundreds of years, and it has this wraparound porch. Their wines are really down to earth, and they have a lot of farm animals. They’ll take you on a tour of the property and you get to pet lamb and all kinds of stuff. It’s just a dream. You finish by having cheeses in a field surrounded by flowers. It’s such a beautiful place. 

Then I would end up back in town around the plaza, kind of having made the cinema loop. I would end up back here, maybe take a stroll around the plaza, and then probably end up having dinner at Valley. That’s a dream day.

Do you have any other favorite wineries?

There’s actually a couple around here, I live close to the square. We love Auteur that’s right here off the plaza. We do love Beltane. There’s another one that’s right off the square, Sixteen 600. They’re super down to earth. They talk about farming and they talk about how his dad’s dad was vineyard manager. I love those stories. We’re just very fortunate here.

Folktable is known as a high-end restaurant, but you keep your prices reasonable. Working farm-to-table is typically expensive. What do you guys do to keep it reasonably priced for a Michelin level restaurant?

I understand how expensive things are, and I know where we live it’s bananas. At Folktable we do have our own farms. I have to shop at other farms too. I can’t get everything from our farm. It just doesn’t work that way. I try to utilize our farm as much as I possibly can. If carrots are all we have right now, then we’re going to have carrot soup, carrot salad. 

We grow our own herbs. Things like that are so expensive. People bring in herbs and hopefully you use every bit of them, but they tend to die quickly. It’s hard to keep herbs alive. We are fortunate enough to have edible flowers.

If I can write a menu that is mostly things that the farm can get me, I can offer a lower price. There’s just no middleman. The farms are just on the other side of our parking lot. I call the farmer and say, ‘Hey, we need some carrots’ and he walks them over in a bin. Top line, it saves us money as a restaurant, but farming as a whole is not a viable business. It’s really expensive. 

To be able to offer lower prices if we have our own eggs, our own chickens, I just have to feature as much as I can. I call it turning carrots into diamonds. I try to convey that to my chef. What can we do to make this carrot look the best and taste the best it possibly can? I don’t do a lot of things that don’t fit our price point like foie gras and caviar.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is folktable_erikacolephoto_casey_14-683x1024.jpg
Photo Credit: Erika Cole Photo

What’s your favorite dish on the menu for spring, or is it always changing?

It’s always changing. One of the favorite things that we do every year, and I will do it this year is the stone fruit salad. It was featured in a San Francisco magazine last year. I loved the way they did it. They broke this dish down by drawing a line to each ingredient and then saying what it was. So, you’re looking at a salad, you go, ‘oh, that’s really pretty. But I have no idea what any of this is.’ They literally went ingredient by ingredient and described the whole salad. It was so cool. 

It’s our stone fruit salad that we make every year. We have our own stone fruit vineyard that grows everything from cherries to apricots to different varieties of plums, peaches, etc. The salad features this bright green, smooth chutney on the bottom, and it has a spice. We put a little serrano in there so it has some heat, and then we griddle halloumi. We put that warm cheese on the bottom of the salad, and then toss all of these beautifully cut stone fruits of all different colors with this light little lemon vinaigrette that goes on top of the cheese. Then we garnish it with mint and basil and thinly sliced tomatillo wheels that are tart and crunchy. It’s just delightful. It’s one of my favorite things we do. It’s like spring has sprung. 

We also do this pea salad that’s pretty magical. It’s got a bunch of literal cover crops from our vineyards that are behind the restaurant. We go and pick fava leaves and pea shoots and flowers, and everything goes into the salad. Spring is my favorite because we’re coming out of the winter, we’re done with butternut squash and everything is popping.

What’s your favorite place that being a chef has taken you to? Are there any places you’ve been that have influenced your cooking? 

My favorite place to have traveled and experienced more than I ever could have imagined as a chef, everything from eating frogs to bugs and all kinds of things, was Thailand. I love Thai food, the way the flavors are all over the place. You know, bright, spicy. The gamut is covered. I think that food is phenomenal. We literally ate from the land, which was kind of cool. 

Frogs were in this little creek, and that’s what they had. They dehydrated them and turned them into chips. Then they would give you a beer and some frog chips, and it’s just brilliant. That’s what you have and that’s what you serve. I thought that was amazing. That type of cooking is something a chef should be humbled to experience at some point in their life and their career. 

I’m southern. A big part of me are my Texas roots. My grandmother was very influential in growing her own food, her peaches, her tomatoes, her okra. My grandpa fished for catfish. That’s just what they had and what they utilized. It was really cool to see somebody feed a large family from nothing. They didn’t have a lot. I think that’s what the Southerners are really good at.

One of the most influential places where I learned more about my history and using southern ingredients was in South Carolina. I just really felt it there. I love the Lowcountry utilization of the shrimp and the things they had. Husk is a restaurant that Sean Brock does so well. I get really jazzed when I get around chefs like that who are using ingredients that I know, that I grew up with and appreciate. 

There’s a restaurant in Austin, Texas called Olamaie. It is a restaurant that has influenced me as a chef. You can go to Texas, or you can go to a southern place and they’re like, ‘this is southern food’ and people eat it and they’re like, ‘um, I don’t really like this. it’s heavy, it’s gravy, it’s whatever.’ These restaurants take ingredients and utilize them so beautifully that you’re moved. 

I was actually in Olamaie and Daniel Boulud was dining a few tables over. If you can move him with southern food in these beautiful ways, there’s a reason why those restaurants exist. That’s true southern love. It’s taking what they have and turning it into something beautiful. It doesn’t all have to be chicken fried steak.

What’s your perfect bite? 

One of the perfect bites still sticks with me today. It was really so random. I took my parents and my other half and some friends with us, and we just booked a table. We went to Bottega when Michael Chiarello was still alive and he was the chef. We sat down and the restaurant was glowing and we were just happy to be there. 

We had this glass of wine in front of us that they had chosen for us because there was going to be this flight coming, and we were given each a little spoon with a little bit of sauce. There was the most perfect round gnocchi inside of it. This was just one bite, one chance to make a statement. It was paired with this wine. It was the most perfect tomato sauce, the most perfectly done gnocchi and there was this little tiny crunch garnish on it. 

The chef came over and he was so welcoming and so lovely to everyone. He told us about this bite, the sauce, the wine, and why he loves it. It was the moment. Everyone around the table and everyone was just in awe. It was the most simple Italian thing that you could ever think of, and it was just perfect. I feel like if you can showcase something so simple and it just be the right moment, and it’s perfectly done. That’s the perfect bite. It’s just so orchestrated.

It was just one bite. It was one little spoon. You know, I’ve had majorly amazing dishes, one of them being the tendons that you can get at Mister Jiu’s in San Francisco. It’s just beef tendons in this ridiculous sauce. I actually cried when I tried the dish, but it wasn’t one bite. It was a whole dish and I probably ate the whole thing. But this one bite, I’ll never forget it.

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Amy Harris
Amy Harris is a writer and photographer who has been traveling for 20 years and flown over 2 million miles to visit over 80 countries on 6 continents. She is a freelance photographer for Invision by Associated Press, AP Images and Rex/Shutterstock. Her work can be seen in various publications and websites including: Rolling Stone, AP Images, National Geographic Books, Fodor’s Travel Guides, Forbes.com, Lonely Planet Travel Guides, JetStar magazine, and Delta Sky Magazine.

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