ICE Alum David Viana to Compete on "Top Chef"
Season 16 debuts on Dec. 6, featuring the executive chef and partner of Heirloom Kitchen in New Jersey.
We ask David Viana (Culinary, ’04) about his journey from the Institute of Culinary Education to his position as executive chef and partner at Heirloom Kitchen in New Jersey. The “Top Chef” contestant changed careers at age 22 and says he’s still in love with being a restaurant chef after 16 years in the industry.
When did you decide you wanted to go to culinary school?
I graduated college and started working in a probation job in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and I wasn’t there very long. I had worked in restaurants throughout college, and I found myself daydreaming about applying to culinary school and searching online in my free time. One day I reached out to ICE and decided to make a career change.
What sticks out from your culinary arts education?
There are a lot of great things I learned in culinary school, but I think the most important thing is the sense of professionalism and taking the profession seriously. In the culinary industry as a whole – maybe even more so 20 years ago – there are a lot of pitfalls, a lot of places where you can get caught up in the scene or something that isn’t necessarily about food or hospitality. You can definitely find yourself off course, and I think ICE does a great job of imparting a sense of professionalism, a sense that this is more than just a job, it’s a calling, that you have to educate yourself throughout the rest of your career. It’s not something that ends the moment you walk out the door. You have to continue to work on it permanently. That’s what I find exciting about what we do.
How did you end up at Heirloom Kitchen?
Like a lot of great things, it was a fortunate accident. There was a cooking school in New Jersey with a retail boutique and the owner had dined at one of the restaurants where I was a chef. When I was looking for a new venture, she invited me to be a teacher for the school, and as much as I love teaching, I was still much more in love with being a chef. I love creating menus and even being on the line, service, expediting – all the facets of a restaurant and how crazy and absurd it can be sometimes – I’m far too in love with it to just walk away, so I politely declined. A few weeks later, she came back with another idea of having a culinary school and a separate restaurant that would operate only on the weekends.
We’ve grown into a Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday service. We have a chef’s counter where people are in our kitchen facing us as we cook, and then we have a back counter with traditional seating. Everything is farm-to-table. Whether it’s churning our own butter or a bread program where we change up our bread service, we make everything in house: you name it, we do it from scratch in our kitchen.
Have you been able to experiment with that format?
The creative process is fun. I find inspiration in all kinds of things from eating at other restaurants to learning from other chefs. The whole learning thing is pushing yourself to try things that you’ve never done before. That’s kind of what we do at Heirloom. We change one or two menu items every week. We have five appetizers, five entrées and three desserts that we change. Once something comes off, it never comes back on. We push ourselves to continually create great dishes and create an experience with the way we’re set up that’s really unlike anything in New Jersey.
How did your involvement with “Top Chef” come about?
We filmed season 16 of “Top Chef,” and I’ve been in the industry about 16 years since graduating from ICE, so I feel like I’ve grown up watching the show since the very beginning of my culinary journey. I’ve watched in awe and enviously wanted to be on it, and someone who works at the casting company ate at Heirloom Kitchen and sent the show my information. I got a call one day, asking if I’d be interested in auditioning, so of course I jumped at it.
Of all the cooking shows, “Top Chef” is my only appointment, guilty-pleasure watch. I don’t watch much TV, but “Top Chef” has been a staple that I watch every week. There was definitely a time when I thought it was too difficult. There was a season or two with the Voltaggio brothers or Richard Blais, when I thought the people on there were way too good, but over time I decided I wanted to be on it and I wanted to compete.
Did you get to make anything you’ve never made before on the show?
I did. I didn’t know much about Kentucky [where the season was filmed], so there were some fun takes on staples of Kentucky cuisine that I had to go outside of my wheelhouse to do. It was really fun to explore different cultures and create from that new information.
What’s your advice for future “Top Chef” competitors?
I would say that it’s a lot harder than it even looks. It’s going to test your confidence; it’s going to test a lot of who you are and not just what you can do as a chef. Stay true to yourself, believe in yourself wholeheartedly and never second-guess yourself. If you’re on the show, you’re definitely talented enough to compete. It’s a matter of if you have the fortitude and the guts to continually persevere in hard circumstances. When people doubt and criticize, take that feedback and learn from it and work from it. Never let it set you back because it can definitely shake your confidence.
What’s your advice for culinary students still finding their inspiration?
It’s a long journey and a very difficult profession. Learn from every experience, good and bad. Don’t skip steps. Never put a timetable on yourself. Everyone’s journey is different and some people take a lot longer to get where they want to go. Like a great recipe, you can learn from every step and there are no shortcuts. Take the ingredients that you have and make the most out of them every step of the way. There’s something you can learn from every experience and it’s all going to make you a better chef when you do finally get that opportunity. Like everything else in cooking: Have patience.