Top Chef – Elizabeth, NJ
Jersey Chef David Viana follows in Tom Colicchio’s footsteps
Standing on the bluegrass at Churchill Downs in the first episode of “Top Chef – Kentucky,” David Viana introduces himself as the Chef/Partner of Heirloom Kitchen in New Jersey. Host Padma Lakshmi asks him, “Where in New Jersey?”
“Born and raised in Elizabeth, New Jersey,” says David smiling.
Tom Colicchio, the James Beard Award-winning chef, restaurateur, and Top Chef lead judge, points out, “You’re from my hometown.”
“Yes I am,” Viana replies with a sheepish grin.
Cut to an into-the-camera confessional: Chef David recounts mentioning in an interview once that he wanted to become the best chef ever to come out of Elizabeth, New Jersey. In the next cut, Viana revises his goal to become the second best chef from Elizabeth. “Those are pretty big shoes to fill,” he notes.
Back at the racetrack, Colicchio emphasizes, “That’s not going to give you a leg up here, though.”
The 38-year-old Viana is doing his best to follow in Colicchio’s footsteps, from his hometown and culinary perspective, to his strong run on Top Chef this season.
Like Colicchio, whose family tree includes twelve Italian immigrants, Viana is a Jersey-born chef who grew up in a predominantly immigrant neighborhood of Elizabeth. Viana’s parents arrived in New Jersey from Portugal in the 1970s, a few years before David was born. His dad is from the Portuguese island of Madeira, off the northwest coast of Africa. His mom, whose parents hailed from Northern Portugal, was born in Angola, a former Portuguese colony. Viana grew up bilingual speaking Portuguese at home in the predominantly Portuguese North End neighborhood – a stone’s throw from Newark Airport.
Elizabeth, New Jersey was the Colonial port where both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr attended prep school and where George Washington boarded the ferry to his 1789 presidential inauguration in Manhattan. Today, the City of Elizabeth, county seat of Union County, is New Jersey’s fourth largest city and one of the state’s most ethnically diverse communities, boasting residents born in some 70 countries. The city’s multinational population makes Elizabeth one of the best places in New Jersey to find wide ranging global cuisines. Elizabeth is home to excellent Colombian, Peruvian, and Central American food, a fantastic Latin American take on the traditional Jersey diner, longstanding Italian favorites like Santillo’s and Spirito’s, iconic spots like Tommy’s Italian Sausage and Hot Dogs, and Portuguese institutions like Valença.
Viana points with pride to the culinary diversity of his hometown, which contributed to his early global perspective on food. “One of the benefits of living in Elizabeth,” Viana says, “is knowing all the best spots – being able to go to Santillo’s for handcrafted pizza, or a corner bodega for true Colombian pan de bono (cheese bread) and coffee.” Every few months he still visits Valença Restaurant, the Portuguese steakhouse known for grilling “steak on a stone.”
After graduating from nearby Clark High School in 1998, Viana studied criminal justice at Seton Hall University and worked briefly as a parole officer before enrolling at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education. After culinary school, he developed his technique in the kitchens of prominent Jersey chefs David Drake, Anthony Bucco, and Michael White, among others, and completed stints at Daniel Humm’s Eleven Madison Park (New York City) and the Michelin-starred Vila Joya on Portugal’s Algarve coast.
The six months Viana spent in Dieter Koschina’s kitchen at Vila Joya more than a decade ago opened his eyes to world-class cuisine and hospitality. “It really broadened my horizons and made a huge impression,” Viana says. “That is when I realized this is my calling, this is what I want to do.” Since then, he has constantly pushed to evolve in his craft. “Every day I try to get a little closer.”
Back in Jersey after his European tour, Viana found a mentor in Rahway at Restaurant David Drake, which he still considers one of the “most beautiful restaurants” he’s ever worked in. (The restaurant closed in 2009.) According to Viana, Drake drove him insane peppering the young chef with questions: “What do you think? Is this the best way to do this? How would you prepare this?” Viana credits his year cooking alongside Drake for his transformation from “a blunt object” performing tasks in the kitchen to a more cerebral chef, thinking about what he was doing, and how he could do it better. Constant self-evaluation has been part of his discipline in the kitchen ever since.
David’s technique, craft and drive to improve led to strong reviews in 2015 when he was Executive Chef of The Kitchen at Grove Station in Jersey City, and then at Barrio Costero in Asbury Park. In 2016, Viana became Executive Chef and Partner, with Neilly Robinson, of Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge, NJ, a culinary store and cooking school where he displays his considerable skills serving dinner four days a week (Fri. – Sun). Viana was named a semifinalist for a James Beard Award – Best Chef Mid-Atlantic in 2018.
I saw David’s technique up close last February at Heirloom Kitchen’s chef’s counter. While there’s not a bad seat in the restaurant – every diner has a view of the open kitchen at the center – the chef’s counter seating is at the same kitchen island where Viana and his small team do all the cooking. The burners are just beyond the top of your place setting. I hesitated before sitting, not sure we were allowed to be so close to the action. You feel the heat shimmering off the pans; you see in real time the quantities of butter that go into the entrees. I could have touched the mise en place (I didn’t).
Viana describes his menus at Heirloom as seasonal “farm-to-table.” Our dishes that night included grilled octopus with tomatillo and lobster mole, a skate wing with mandarin dashi and fennel miso puree, and a decadent pork belly served with bacon marmalade, peanuts, and a Vietnamese caramel sauce. Viana has a talent for unexpected sweet and savory flavor combinations that complement each other without becoming overpowering, or strange. The contrasting bitter black-charred squash skin and the sweet drizzle of honey in a side dish of roast Kabocha squash was another example. Lobster gnocchi “arrabiata” with cherry peppers and Calabrian chilies recalled the assertive flavors of an Italian-American red sauce joint – maybe Spiritio’s in Elizabeth? – presented in an elevated dish.
The star of the meal for us was a perfectly seared duck breast plated over a coffee “smear,” served with wheat berries, parsnip, dates and granola – a blast of texture to go with the bitter and sweet notes. I’m sure it tasted even better since I had been watching, and smelling, the poultry sizzle slowly, in plenty of butter, for the entire meal. Viana, like his mentors, is a detail-oriented chef, carefully composing his plates right in front of diners’ watchful eyes.
Up close, you can also ask questions, which Viana encourages. During the course of our meal, we learned a little about his childhood in Elizabeth, where he “started cooking because he could follow recipes.” He mentioned some of his favorite Jersey chefs and restaurants, like Scott Anderson’s Elements in Princeton and Ehren Ryan’s Common Lot in Millburn. Viana also told us the prominent rooster tattoo on his left forearm honors the Portuguese decorations common in his family’s house growing up. He recalled visiting an Italian-American friends’ house for his first sleepover as a kid and asking why his house didn’t have any roosters.
Top Chef – Kentucky
Viana’s winning, approachable personality is no doubt one of the reasons he made the cut for Top Chef. While he was absent from Heirloom’s kitchen last summer, the restaurant told guests, vaguely, that Viana was doing a stage in Europe. Truth is, he was filming in sweltering Kentucky. (Makes you wonder how “Christmassy” the Holiday dinner episode actually felt.) Viana couldn’t make public his contestant status until a few weeks before the current season debuted on Bravo in December.
Among the fifteen contestants, Chef David’s character emerged through the first nine episodes as a strong, humble chef, with very little ego. He’s also a little scrappy and goofy (note the crooked black baseball cap), and quite often a gushing fan boy of the celebrity guest judges.
Chef David was strong out of the gate this season, quickly proving himself a force to be reckoned with on the show. Tom Colicchio loved David’s “umami bomb” potato soup in the first episode. Chef David proceeded to earn immunity in the next episode with a perfectly seared ribeye steak with a Moroccan corn chermoula (relish) and a harissa red wine reduction that tickled the fancy of judge Gail Simmons. In the third episode, Viana sheepishly announced his chef “man crush” on guest judge Chef Richard Blais, then delivered a “quickfire” leek carbonara dish that Blais praised and gave David immunity from elimination once again.
The two-episode, three-team “Restaurant Wars” came earlier than usual this season. David failed to win immunity because his Brussels sprout and apple raviolini with harissa sauce (again?) amuse bouche was deemed “too dry” by past winner Chef Nina Compton. David’s “power team” restaurant, with Chefs Nini, Justin, and Kelsey, unexpectedly faltered, with Nini front of the house and Justin at the pass. When food went to the wrong tables, David struggled to keep his cool. He delivered a perfectly cooked “Creole Spiced Duck with Cabbage,” but Tom Colicchio couldn’t find the Creole spices. (I wish David had saved his exquisite duck for a later episode.) The judges liked David’s red snapper collaboration with Justin, however. Nini’s sorbet flopped, sealing her elimination, together with Pablo. According to David, “Our food was among the best in the competition, but we fell short in Restaurant Wars. Nini is usually so diligent and professional. Justin could have spent more time on the pass.”
Chef David didn’t feature prominently in the sixth episode, aside from lamenting and shouldering some of the blame for Nini’s premature departure. (Nini visited Heirloom Kitchen in January for a collaborative dinner with David.) Tom and Padma again praised his dish – a cocktail-inspired shrimp tartare. In the subsequent “Carne!” episode, Chef David bested Chef Brandon in a steak tartare face off. (Not so difficult since Brandon slimed up his meat with xanthan gum.)
“Tom Colicchio is a standard-bearer for our industry, creating conversation and tone. I’m just a little guy in Old Bridge, New Jersey.”— Chef David Viana
Chef David faltered on the back stretch, finding himself on shaky ground for the first time in the eighth episode when the chefs had to prepare dishes for a houseboat party on Kentucky’s Lake Cumberland. His team overcame a power outage and a sick chef, but the guests voted for jello shots and party favors over food quality (it’s Top Chef, not “Top Party” for God’s sake!), leading to a risky elimination for Chef David and his teammates. Viana served a warm seafood dumpling with a spiced coconut broth that the judges felt missed the mark in the sweltering sun on deck. Fortunately for David, Chef Brian’s uncrispy “porchetta” was worse.
(Spoiler alert: Stop reading if you don’t want to know how far Chef David has progressed on the show.)
When I interviewed him before the houseboat episode aired, Viana was coy about the outcome. “I might have won,” he said. According to David, Top Chef, by design, keeps the contestants uncomfortable and off balance in different kitchens and with different ingredients. While “it’s nothing you can prepare for,” Viana did strategize a bit. He told me that his goal going in was not to leave before Restaurant Wars. He had intended to make his signature duck – his “ace in the hole” – for Restaurant Wars and he stuck to his plan.
In the “Music City” episode, the Top 8 chefs traveled to Nashville. Country singer Hunter Hayes felt Chef David’s goat cheese vinaigrette overwhelmed his perfectly cooked omelette in the Quickfire challenge. The Elimination challenge called for a dish inspired by a musical memory. Viana chose the album “Morning View,” by Incubus, which reminds him of his time on the Portuguese coast at Vila Joya. He made pork and and clams – a modern take on a Portuguese staple. Unfortunately, his sauce was too salty, the clams didn’t cooperate, and Tom couldn’t distinguish most of Chef David’s clam salad elements. Eddie, Kelsey, and David faced elimination. In a very close decision, Colicchio sent Chef David off to Last Chance Kitchen. Unless he fights his way back to the finale through three head-to-head battles, David Viana will place eighth out of 15 contestants this season. True to his word, Tom Colicchio did not give Chef David any advantage because of their Elizabeth, NJ connection.
“Talented chefs from all over the country . . . can testify to how bad ass this chef from New Jersey is.”— Chef David Viana
Viana admires Colicchio’s culinary perspective and impact. “Tom is a standard-bearer for our industry, creating conversation and tone,” Viana told me. “His food is pristine. At his restaurant Craft, long before others, he was pushing back against overly fancy cooking at the time. Tom made three ingredients on a plate look astonishing.” According to Viana, Colicchio’s emphasis on simply prepared food “puts all the pressure on the execution, preparing it flawlessly.” Simple “is much harder to accomplish,” but what Viana strives for in his cooking and in his kitchen.
Viana also notes Tom Colicchio’s outspoken advocacy for equity in the kitchen, by pioneering no-tip restaurants to reduce the wage gap among restaurant workers. “I’m just a little guy in Old Bridge, NJ,” Viana says. At Heirloom Kitchen, however, Viana works very hard to give traditional line cooks a better quality of life, by giving everyone guaranteed vacation time, for example. He aspires to “emphasize mental health in the kitchen” if given the platform.
It’s good to see a Jersey chef competing on the Emmy-winning series again. Over its sixteen seasons, many Top Chef contestants have come from Philly and New York restaurants, but only a handful have both personal and professional roots in Jersey. Kevin Sbraga, from Willingboro in Burlington County, formerly Executive Chef of Rat’s Restaurant at the Ground for Sculpture in Hamilton, won it all in 2010 on Season 7, “Top Chef – DC”. Sbraga, who subsequently opened (and closed) three restaurants in Philly, scored an upset win over Angelo Sosa and Ed Cotton in Singapore, the show’s first international finale. Ariane Duarte, Chef/Owner of Verona’s Ariane Kitchen and Bar, placed 9th in the show’s 5th season – “Top Chef – New York.” Other Top Chef alums with Jersey connections include Dale Talde, a Fort Lee resident and partner in Jersey City’s Talde (6th place, “Top Chef – Chicago,” Season 4) and West Caldwell’s Cliff Crooks, now the Culinary Director of the hospitality group that runs BLT Steak, who was notably disqualified for attempting to shave the head of his sleeping housemate Marcel in Season 2.
Viana cites Eddie and Michelle as his most serious competitors on the show, so don’t be surprised if those two make it to this season’s finale in Macau, China. “Not only is Eddie quite memorable, he’s got serious chops,” says Viana. “Michelle has a very quiet confidence and a scary skill-set, especially her pasta-making abilities.” (I’d love to see Eric Adjepong, a first generation Ghanaian-American from the Bronx, make the finale.) You can watch the remaining episodes Thursdays at 8p on Bravo.
While he probably finished out of the money, competing on the show has already raised Viana’s national culinary profile. Chef David was one of five contestants cooking at the James Beard House for a Top Chef reunion dinner last week. Viana is currently entertaining opportunities to expand the Heirloom Kitchen cooking school and restaurant concept, possibly in Asbury Park or Philadelphia. According to Viana, the best part of being on the show was “being part of a network of talented chefs from all over the country; chefs who now can testify to how bad ass this chef from New Jersey is.” Lead judge and bad ass Jersey chef Tom Colicchio, of course, will ultimately determine who becomes the next Top Chef from Jersey.