Damarr Brown, the chef de cuisine at Virtue, the Southern American restaurant in Hyde Park, had always sworn he would never go on a TV cooking competition. Even after Top Chef reached out and urged him to apply, he was skeptical. But then he talked to his boss, chef and restaurateur (and James Beard Awards semifinalist) Erick Williams, who told him that thousands of chefs would love the opportunity and that he had to do it. So he reconsidered. And then last fall, he found himself in Houston, on the Top Chef set, wearing chef’s whites with the Top Chef logo, holding a knife, and staring at Padma Lakshmi as she announced, “Your time starts now.”
“That was definitely a surreal experience for sure,” Brown says.
Top Chef: Houston premieres tomorrow night at 7 p.m. on Bravo, and Brown will be watching. He knows who won the $250,000 prize — which, of course, he’s not allowed to discuss — but he still won’t know exactly what’s going to happen. He’ll be watching himself do things he forgot he did and hear himself say things he forgot he said. “It’s a vulnerable space to be in,” he says. “But for the most part, I’m really excited.”
Over the course of the several weeks of filming, the contestants put their own spin on Houston cuisine, not just Tex-Mex and barbecue, but also Nigerian food, since the city is home to the country’s largest Nigerian population. The chefs went fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, cooked at an Asian night market, and were challenged by Lakshmi to make two dishes that looked identical but tasted completely different.
The contestant pool includes several chefs who cooked in the kitchens of Michelin-starred restaurants, James Beard Award nominees, and an eight-year veteran of Noma in Copenhagen, considered the best restaurant in the world. Brown — who grew up cooking with his mother and has been working in professional kitchens for 12 years, including at mk and Roister — was not among them. “I came on this competition to show that my collard greens deserve to be in the same room as someone else’s cassoulet,” he says in the premiere episode.
For the most part, Brown says, he really enjoyed his experience on Top Chef. The contestants all stayed in the same hotel and, since they were all cut off from their loved ones and caught up in the same strange situation, they bonded quickly. They spent a lot of time hanging out in the hallway listening to music, sometimes having impromptu dance parties. “There was a lot of really silly stuff,” Brown says. “We were like a bunch of big kids.” There was no cooking, aside from one potluck, but there was takeout from restaurants around Houston. Brown especially liked the city’s Vietnamese and Viet-Cajun food. “I’m sure I came back a little heavier,” he jokes. “Maybe I’ll make it at home.”
There were also a lot of late night discussions about restaurant life, the state of the industry, and cooking techniques. Brown says his fellow contestants were very generous about sharing information, and that they all felt a sense of optimism about kitchens becoming more equitable spaces with more accountability.
Before Brown went on the show, Joe Flamm, the winner of Top Chef in 2018 and now the chef-owner of Rose Mary in Fulton Market, called and offered some advice and do’s and don’ts. He told Brown to be prepared for his life to change. But since Brown returned to Virtue, not much has changed. The restaurant has been short-staffed, and he’s been working long hours.
“I think my nickname is ‘Superstar’ now,” he says. “Chef Williams, every time he sees me, says ‘Hey, Superstar.’ And I’m back in the dish room washing dishes now, with my arm down the drain. Yeah, it’s good fun.”