The new season of Bravo’s sizzling Top Chef has a lot of things going for it, but none more appetizing than Jennifer and Zoi, the San Francisco lesbian couple competing against each other. So how hot do things get in the kitchen and beyond? Let’s count the ways: The gals are bunkmates with their culinary sisters, they don’t monitor their feelings for each other (much), and so far, competing against the testosterone set hasn’t bumped them off the popular reality show. And while TopChef's winning chef -- who is selected from the 14 remaining wannabes currently stewing in Chicago -- nabs $100,000 in seed money to help open a restaurant, it’s not all dueling whisks for Jennifer and Zoi. The Advocate uncovers the secrets behind the couple’s recipe for success, love near the gas burner, and a surprising appreciation of oxtail.
What were your thoughts when you both discovered you would be doing Top Chef together?
Jennifer: It was one of those emotional feelings where you feel your blood go up 20 degrees.
Zoi: Our first thought was, Holy shit! We’ve worked together before, but we truly didn’t think they were going to pick both of us. In the back of our minds, we thought, No way are we going to be on. This has never been done before! But then we became really excited to go on together. On the flip side was being in the public eye as a couple. I am a private person, believe it or not. I’m not in the dining room -- I am in the kitchen. So this was definitely a change for me in that I was really putting myself out there. To add on to that, we are on the show together and we obviously want each other to do really well. And we also both want to win.
Jennifer: We were trying to process the whole idea of the possibilities of the contestants thinking it was unfair that we were a couple. But we decided to go with the flow and know that we are strong enough people -- we’ve been together more than four years -- and that we could handle whatever came our way.
So was there any trepidation? I mean, you’re partners, you’re close, so you both must know a little about the other’s style -- how much one of you uses a sprinkle of this, a dash of that?
Jennifer: Well, there was definitely a situation when I looked over once and thought, Oh no, she’s not doing what I am doing, is she? I feared her as a competitor. If I looked at the whole group, she wouldn’t be the first one I would want to go up against.
Jennifer: She’s really talented and creative. It wouldn’t feel that good to get your ass kicked by your partner, you know?
Zoi: I think we respect old-school techniques and old-school thinking about food and cooking and how that affects the community. It’s funny, because we thought, You know, I kind of know what you are going to be doing. But during one of the challenges, we were standing next to each other and it was like, Wow, you’re doing that and I am doing this? And they were very different things. We are similar, but in this kind of environment, when you are being asked to perform literally in the moment, it goes beyond being similar in style. It’s about what’s in your heart and what you want.
Did you have a pact -- that no matter what happens, it was like, "Hey, I love you and it’s all good, honey?"
Jennifer: Yeah. We were determined to get down to the final three and just, like, kill, you know?
There’s a good thing about that. If you do get to the final three -- if either one of you wins -- you still get to take home the "bacon" to the same home, you know?
All of the contestants have to live in the same house, so how was that for you two as a couple?
Jennifer: Hard. Because you don’t want to get into a bunk. You want to get in bed with your partner.
Zoi: We talked about that before we went on the show. We didn’t know if they were going to give us our own room or not. We basically looked at it as if we were going to work at the same restaurant. Not to say that we were hiding the fact that we were a couple and that we weren’t going to touch each other, but that there would be a certain amount of professionalism; certain things you do, and don’t. We were very, very, very aware of other people. We didn’t want the fact that we were in a relationship to be used against us. We didn’t want that to be a factor. We wanted the fact that we were both talented chefs to be a factor. I think we were more affectionate around the girls than the guys. You know, girls are girls and they were like, "If you guys want to sleep in the same bed, it’s OK." We were very conscious of the fact that we had each other there and that nobody else had someone like that. The last thing we wanted to do was rub it in their face.
Most interesting thing you’re learning by working in the big kitchen against each other?
Jennifer: We were going back and forth about whether we should open a business together or not. It’s a known fact that couples who open businesses together end up failing as couples. It’s always been a scary option. You know, why mix it into pleasure? So that’s one of the things, and after this experience, it’s like well, we did this, we can do anything.
Zoi: I think that you start to ask yourself questions that you never asked yourself before. Part of that is that feeling of opportunity -- like, "Hey, maybe somebody from Hawaii will want me to work for them" or … You’re suddenly a little more open to possibility. You feel more connected to more parts of the world. That changes how you look at life. All of a sudden the world feels a bit smaller -- tangible. The things that you want become more clear. It’s better, but it’s harder.
The best "Zoi" dish you love to eat?
Jennifer: She has this amazing Mediterranean background -- her father is Greek, so I’d have to say oxtail.
And what makes Jennifer a top chef?
Zoi: She’s the type of person who is from the heart. I think she’s a natural; very creative.
Did you have a sense that "This is cool -- maybe we can be role models for others in the LGBT community"?
Zoi: Well, I definitely didn’t go on the show with a pink triangle on my shoulder and like, "Yeah, I’m the spokesmodel for young lesbian chefs." I mean, gimme a break. There are plenty of gay and lesbian people working in the restaurant industry, and there always has been. I am not arrogant enough to think that suddenly I’m the first one everybody is seeing. I was definitely aware of the fact of that there may be young people watching and maybe saying, "Wow, these girls were on the show." But being gay, it’s not something that I need to wave a flag about. You know, it’s a part of my life. It doesn’t make me who I am. I was also conscious of the fact that people may look at us and say, "Oh, wow, you guys are representing successful lesbian couples." And that’s fantastic and flattering, and we’re both happy about that, but there are many, many, many of us out there. We're just one couple. We’re normal people that happen to be gay, happen to be chefs, and happen to be on the show. It’s really that simple.