Any Top Chef fans out there besides us? Doubtful… where there is one, there are many, many more.
We were lucky enough to speak with one of our personal favorite cheftestants from season three, Chef Howie Kleinberg.
Chef Howie talked past (where his love of food came from), present (his low and slow barbecue ways), his cooking jams, the unreal experience on Top Chef and some regrets along the way.
Bulldog Barbecue & Burger
What is your background, how did this all start for you? When did you realize that this was what you wanted to do?
(Howie Kleinberg—HK) I was always surrounded by food. I grew up eating in restaurants and seeing upscale events that my mom put together, that my aunt did in New York and I had a couple of quick cooking jobs here and there.
It was always something in the back of my mind that I felt I had an affinity for and I was always a good eater and really enjoyed food. I was planning on being a football coach, I was pursuing a career in teaching and I needed a job and my mom had a friend who at the time was in a position to get me a job at the Intercontinental Hotel as an entry-level cook and it seemed like something that would work for me. It was a part-time thing; you know, to pay some bills.
And before I knew it, I was cutting class and picking up extra shifts at the hotel…and I just got the bug.
What were you doing before you opened up Bulldog BBQ?
(HK) I was the executive chef of a restaurant called Food Gang before I left to go do Top Chef. After coming back from Top Chef we parted ways and then I was looking for a project.
My family has a home in the Carolinas, so after the Top Chef experience, the barbecue idea kept on coming up because we would eat this good barbecue in North Carolina in the summer and then we would come back to Miami and there wasn’t really much to speak of.
What’s the concept behind Bulldog BBQ?
(HK) Barbeque done right. I take a chef’s approach, I’m a classically trained chef, so we start off with good quality ingredients— we use all certified Angus beef, we don’t start off with secondary cuts of meat and try to cover them up with lots of smoke and sauce.
We let the meat be the star and sauce and the smoke take a back seat.
(HK) When I was on Top Chef I was competitive with the other chefs that were on the show and one of the girls said to me, “You know you’re a bulldog.” At the time, I’m sure she meant it as a negative, but for me, it was something that I didn’t have an issue with. And when we were looking for names to do a barbecue joint, the name Bulldog Barbecue got thrown out there and we thought it sounded great, it worked and it definitely fit my personality, my approach to food and how I run businesses.
As a side note, I also ended up becoming the owner of a bulldog who is the love my life. Her name is Lulu but funnily enough, I didn’t go out to look for a bulldog.
It so happened that someone I knew through a friend had a bulldog that they couldn’t keep. So, I went out to see this dog and I didn’t really think it was going to be the right situation but I saw it for two seconds and I fell in love. I ended up looking into the breed and finding out how they are and their attributes.
I said, “You know what? I am a bulldog”. The more I learned, the more I can relate to the breed.
What is your favorite thing to make from the menu?
(HK) I really like cooking the barbecue because I think that there is an art involved.
Cooking is all about technique and I had to teach myself barbeque because I had never worked in a barbeque joint. It’s all about not rushing things and going low and slow. We want to let it take 12 or 16 hours to cook, whatever it takes to get it done right.
When you work in restaurants it’s all about fast-pace and getting things out and this forces you to take a step back and really look at it from a different perspective.
If it is someone’s first time in your restaurant what must they try?
(HK) When I write a menu I want to make it so that you have some tough decisions to make and you just feel like you have to come back another time because there are too many good options.
As far as starters, our two most popular are our wings and the white chili. We’ve won awards for the wings on a number of occasions.
As far as barbecue items go, I would definitely recommend the platter, so you can try a little bit of everything. Our brisket is what we are really known for, but our ribs and our pulled pork are right up there.
We are known for our mac n cheese and our burnt end beans as far as our sides.
Two of our most popular burgers are the hot mess and my favorite one is probably the morning glory which has a hash brown, fried egg, bacon and cheddar cheese.
How do you feel about what’s going on in Miami food-wise?
(HK) I think what is going on is great because we’ve kind of been behind the curb as far as where major cities are, like Chicago, New York and LA. I’m from Miami and I always felt we were a couple of steps behind and now I feel like we are finally catching up. The diners in Miami are more adventurous and willing to go out and let chefs do their thing and be creative.
Top Chef Experience
What advice would you give someone that is starting off in Top Chef?
(HK) My number one piece of advice is have fun and don’t take anything too seriously. Obviously you want to compete hard and you want to do your best to win. But for me, I didn’t enjoy the experience as much because I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform well and I feel I missed out on “living in the moment” and enjoying it.
What was life like after the show?
(HK) Life after the show is interesting and a little bit surreal. People recognize you after you come off from the show. I was in New York doing some things and people would come up to me. It’s cool, I’m not going to say it isn’t a cool feeling being recognized but it takes a little bit of getting used to.
The biggest thing is that people think they really know who you are. You’ll meet someone new and they’ll say, “I know the type of person you are. I saw you on TV and you were like this and that.” And it’s like that isn’t necessarily exactly who I am.
Its television so it’s like an edited version. Everybody is who you see on TV, they don’t misportray people but some stuff doesn’t make it. So, just because you saw me be a jerk to someone on TV in the kitchen with 100 thousand dollars at stake with all sorts of things going on in the background doesn’t mean I’m necessarily that person on a day to day basis.
Do you still maintain contact with some of your fellow chefs?
(HK) Mostly through Facebook; I don’t want to say I was the outcast of the group but I didn’t make as much effort as some of the other chefs to be social.
I felt that in the beginning I made a little bit of an effort but I felt I didn’t really fit in with the group so I thought, it’s easy for me to keep to myself and the competition. But that’s part of what some of my regrets were because I think I missed out on an opportunity to be closer to people and to let people get to know me a little bit better.
Would you have done anything different if you had the opportunity to do it all over again?
(HK) It’s very humbling to watch yourself on TV in situations like that. Of course there are a million things you say to yourself, “I wish I would have done this differently, I wish I wouldn’t have said that, I wish I wouldn’t have come off that way.”
If you could pick the city, which would you have picked?
(HK) It would have been a great to be in Napa or somewhere I had never been before and get exposed to different restaurants, chefs and scenery. But in the grand scheme of things I might have complained about it once or twice but when you get selected to go be on Top Chef, the city is secondary.
Who were your favorite judges?
(HK) My favorite judges were Ted [Allen] and Gail [Simmons]. And my least favorite judge is Padma – I don’t know if you want that but I’ll give it to you anyways.
(HK) We had our judges we liked and they had their contestants they liked. I always felt that there was rudeness not just at me but at people in general. It’s kind of the way she carried herself. She was the stereotypical model, people tending to her, following her around and straightening her out, like something you would see out of a movie.
It’s nothing against her personally but she is a diva and we’re a bunch of cooks running around busting our humps and she comes in to taste the food and if she gets something in her mouth she doesn’t like then she makes a sny comment. And it’s kind of like, “What’s your culinary background?”
You know if Tom Colicchio wants to come and say something about my food he has the right to say whatever he wants. I don’t know if I could say the same about Padma. She’s a good looking girl, she’s the hostess of the show, but I don’t really know what her culinary chops are.
But having said all of that, it’s hard not to take some of this stuff personally but you look back with a laugh, and you know what, she’s doing her thing and it’s all good at the end of the day and you have to take it for what it’s worth.
Is there anything you can’t stand to eat?
(HK) I’m not a big fan of liver. I like foie gras but I don’t want calf’s liver or chicken liver, things like that.
Beer or wine?
(HK) I prefer beer.
The best meal of your life?
(HK) The best meal of my life was Le Bernardin in New York about ten years ago.
If you had the opportunity to cook for anyone who would it be (dead, alive, or fictional)?
(HK) David Chang.
Last book you read?
What’s your biggest pet peeve?
(HK) People who talk too much and work too little.
What do you think of the word foodie?
(HK) I mean it’s cool. The word is okay, it’s the people that I sometimes have an issue with because you know anyone can classify themselves as a foodie these days. Everybody can write a blog about food and boom you are a foodie, an expert, reviewing restaurants and chefs.
If you’re really a foodie and you’re interested in food then support local chefs and local businesses, local produce, local farmers. Some people want to act like they are foodies when they really aren’t, they’re kind of frontin’ and they just want to act like they know food and say, “I know this chef and I’ve been to this restaurant.” I think there are people on Yelp that think they are foodies, they are on Yelp to knock restaurants.
A real foodie opens their eyes, reads cookbooks and knows what is going on in their neighborhood and supports.
What would be the perfect soundtrack for cooking?
(HK) A lot of hip hop and a lot of hard rock. For me it comes down to energy, if I have to bang out a lot of food I need to hear something high paced like Rage Against the Machine or something like Pantera.
You know you want to be inspired. Inspired to hurry up and move your ass or inspired to slow down and make sure that everything looks perfect.
It not only adds to the dining experience when the soundtrack matches what you’re eating but it also gets the chef in the right mindset to hear the music that goes with the food you are cooking.