I thought it was a little odd the night before our Monday morning interview when Sam Talbot — he of Top Chef Season 2 and Surf Lodge fame — requested switching venues from his Manhattan restaurant Imperial No. 9 in the Mondrian Soho hotel to a favorite breakfast haunt, Noho Star, instead. But by mid-afternoon, everything had been made clear.
Approximately three hours after our meeting (coffee for me, scrambled eggs with peas and basil for him), Talbot had given his notice at Imperial, citing differences with management, which is reportedly going for a more club-oriented concept.
While Talbot’s high-profile lifestyle makes it easy to assume he’s a fan of the club, the 33-year-old chef — who says he “left behind partying” in his 20s and had his first beer in four months the other night — is actually more at home, well…at home.
You get a lot of flack in the media for your good looks and dating habits. It’s easy stuff for introverted chefs to be jealous of. What else is enviable about you? Is there something new that we can say: “Oh God, that guy!” about?
Oh God, that guy. [Laughs.] Hmmm, I don’t know. I surf. I snowboard. I go up to my place in the Catskills and I’m an animal lover. I just like to be at home and cook.
Well, having a place in the Catskills and being surrounded by animals is certainly enviable. Speaking of cooking, are there any foods that you hate or refuse to cook with?
I don’t really care for salmon. I will cook with it. I’ll fabricate it. But I don’t eat it. It doesn’t agree with me for whatever reason.
Most people outside of New York know you from Top Chef. How do you feel about the most recent seasons? Do you still follow along?
Noooo. I haven’t watched in a long time. To be honest with you, I’m surprised that it’s still going. I mean, more power to them.
Has the show jumped the shark?
Like, are they played out? Yeah, I don’t know. Like I said, more power to them. But does it still have the same cool factor as before? I don’t know. I don’t know.
It probably feels like a long time ago, that life.
Oh yeah, I was a pup back then — there’s a big difference between then and being 34. At 27, I was trying to write my name all over this city.
So. You’ve left Imperial No. 9. Talk to me.
Talbot responded later via e-mail: From the start I always envisioned Imperial No. 9 as a sustainable seafood restaurant married with seasonally local ingredients. We were in the process of refining and tweaking the concept when a decision was made to take things in a different direction. To me, Imperial and Surf Lodge really reflect the type of food I want to put in front of diners: fresh and big flavors that are unpretentious and won’t weigh you down. Unfortunately, towards the end we didn’t see eye to eye, so it was best for me to take my style of cooking elsewhere.
I noticed you Tweeted last week that you are selling your Vespa. The Craigslist post had it at under 1,000 miles. What gives? Mistaken for Rocco one too many times?
No. I bought an electric bike. Keeping both seemed like having too many things and just wasteful. So I sold it and now I have the bike. That’s how I take my dogs running.
You have a cookbook out, your first, called The Sweet Life that puts the spotlight on your diabetes and how it has shaped your cooking. Have you bonded with other diabetic chefs as a result?
Not really. I know of other diabetic chefs. But pretty much it’s just me. I work with the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and we’re trying to spread a positive message. In the past, whenever the word diabetes was mentioned there was always this sense of gloom and darkness. And I’m here to say life doesn’t have to be like that. You can enjoy yourself. Don’t let it stop you.
What has been the most difficult type of cuisine to make diabetes friendly?
These days, there really isn’t any dish that you can’t recreate to lower its glycemic impact. In the past, if you wanted to make an Asian stir-fry with noodles, it would have been impossible. But now there are so many alternatives to regular pasta. You can choose shirataki noodles, for example, or gluten-free version. So even Italian or Southern foods, which were typically off-limits, can all be made in a mindful way.
You wear an insulin pump, correct? Is it heavy? Annoying?
[Talbot pulls up his shirt to reveal where the pump is inserted, tracing the tube with his hand back to a small rectangular unit the size of a pack of cigarettes shoved in his pocket.]
I pictured it being bigger.
No. It’s pretty small, not heavy at all. It doesn’t really get in the way of anything. Though I take it off if I’m going to be underwater for extended periods. Actually, most of the time I kind of feel like I’m RoboCop. That’s what you can tell people to be envious of: I’m half man, half machine.
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