Life at the Top

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Bravo’s king of the cooks is enjoying celebrity status

Hosea Rosenberg is still reeling from the “surreal experience” of being thrust into the che1spotlight. As the winner of Top Chef season five, he’s trying to regain some sense of normalcy, but with the overwhelming success of the show and his newfound celebrity status, that could be hard to achieve.

The Taos, New Mexico, native became smitten with cooking while working in the restaurant industry to put himself through college. He went on to work for several restaurants and eventually became the executive chef at Jax Fish House in Boulder, Colorado. Rosenberg applied for the cooking competition show and can now count himself among the few who hold the title of Top Chef. It was fitting that he emerged victorious on the season finale that was filmed here because he has always appreciated the New Orleans culinary scene.

Fans of Top Chef will have the opportunity to meet Rosenberg and other contestants when the group travels to New Orleans for the Wine and Food Experience on May 19–23. New Orleans Living got to chat with this down-to-earth, affable chef and discuss his Top Chef adventure and his love of our city.

You were studying engineering physics at the University of Colorado when you decided to become a chef. What inspired you? I began working at different restaurants around town to put myself through college, but after graduating, I found that I was more passionate about cooking, so I decided to follow that path.

Who do you consider your mentors to be?
I was fortunate to work with Kevin Taylor, who’s an incredibly talented chef. Not only did he teach me the basic cooking techniques, but he also instilled how important it is to strive for perfection. Also, Dave Query, the owner of Jax Fish House, who is also a chef, has taught me a tremendous amount. He actually spent some time in New Orleans when he was a young chef, and part of our culture at Jax represents that New Orleans flavor.

What prompted you to try out for Top Chef?
It’s weird. I had a number of people telling me that I should do the show before I really ever watched it. I was a little hesitant at first, but I’ve done quite a few competitions and always done well, so I thought what a great way to challenge myself.

Was the experience what you expected it would be?
No! It was totally different. It was unlike anything I’ve ever done and probably the most stressful thing I’ve done. There is really no way to prepare for something like that. Having cameras around you all day, every day and no privacy is pretty incredible. It was pretty surreal.

I get stressed out just watching you guys on the show! How did you handle the pressure?
For me the cooking part was not the biggest challenge, but rather not having freedom, not having the ability to get out of the house for a while; that’s more challenging than the challenges themselves. Cooking is a stressful job; nothing is ever perfect, something breaks, someone does not show up, so we’re used to dealing with that type of pressure all the time. The true pressure comes from having cameras around and watching your every move. You know that if you make a mistake or slip up it’s being recorded and could be broadcast to the world. I felt like I belonged to somebody else for a couple months. Losing control was one of the hardest things.

After you were named Top Chef, how long did you have to wait before you could tell anyone? How do you keep such a huge secret?
I definitely had to go a few weeks not telling anyone, but it was not as hard as you might imagine. I felt such a sense of pride accomplishing it, that it was kind of fun to just have it to myself for a little while.

I’m sure some of your friends tried to slip you a few shots of tequila hoping you would get loose-lipped!
Oh, yeah! They tried hard, really hard to get it out of me, but we’re bound to a contract, and I knew that had I said anything it would have ruined everything, and it wouldn’t be worth it—even under the tequila pressure!

The finale was held in New Orleans. Was that your first visit here?
It was my first time to New Orleans, but like I said on the show, I always wanted to go, especially after reading about the city, but just never got there. I have a bunch of dear friends who grew up there, and I had been dying to get there, and now that I have been, I can’t wait to get back.

What was your impression of the city?
I fell in love with New Orleans right away! The people there are amazing, especially the people who persevered through everything after Katrina. Hats off to them! There’s also much history, so much culture, just so much to learn about the city. We were really fortunate to have one of the guys who worked on the show driving us around while we were filming, showing us parts of the city, telling us stories, giving us all sorts of history, and that was truly endearing. I’m really looking forward to getting back there now that I’ll have a little more time to cruise around and to talk with people. I’m a big fan of jazz, so that’s another reason I really want to get down there is to hear some of the great music.

Well, if you’re into great food and jazz, then this is your town.
Yes, that and having a good time!

Did you have time to get to a few restaurants while you were here?
Our schedule was pretty tight, but we got to go to Commander’s and cook in the kitchen, which was a huge honor. There are a number of restaurants I want to check out, like Susan Spicer’s place. I want to see John Besh’s restaurants; I want to go to some of the little hole-in-the-walls. I want to eat three times a day at all of the best places I can find.

At least three times a day!
Well, three full meals, and snacks in between!

Chef Emeril is virtually worshipped in New Orleans! What was it like having him critique your food?
It was great! He loved what I did; he loved my gumbo, and I can’t imagine a better feeling than having Emeril say that something so traditional as gumbo was right on. He’s not the kind of guy who’s going to say that unless he means it, so it was a huge honor.

We’re excited to have you back in New Orleans this May as part of the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience. Are you looking forward to it?
Absolutely! It’s such an honor to be invited. When I heard that John Besh was personally looking forward to hosting us, it was very exciting. He’s a hero of mine. Not only do I feel that he’s done so much for the city, but he gives chefs everywhere a really good name for all the things he does. I’m truly honored to see him, to eat with him and to cook with him.

Living in such a food mecca, locals can be hard to please.
Well, I always try to make people happy with my food. That’s my biggest goal at my restaurant. I love putting a smile on someone’s face. And I did pretty well there during the finale when we had to make local cuisine. I got a lot of good feedback from the locals and some of your chefs, so I feel that I have momentum on my side.

What is the most rewarding aspect of being a chef?
It’s that moment when you connect with somebody, where you create a memory for a customer that could be a normal day or a special occasion, but something about the food really makes the moment. I love creating those moments for people.

How has Top Chef changed your life?
I can’t even describe it! It’s been crazy! I’ve been getting a tremendous number of e-mails and phone calls, and I’m just trying to keep up. I’ve been traveling more than I’ve been home, so I’m trying to keep my anchor tied to the restaurant while being able to take advantage of some of these other opportunities. I’ve gotten so much attention from really good people, and that’s been the best part about it. So many strangers have come up to me and given me hugs and high-fives and congratulations on doing a great job. That by far as been the most rewarding part of winning.

So what’s next for Hosea Rosenberg?
I’m still trying to weed through it all, but for the time being I’m still the chef at Jax. I’ve been doing lots of traveling, trying to get out there and do and see as many things as I can while the opportunities are still there. In the long term, I do want to have my own place, but I’m not in a super rush yet because I’m trying to ride the wave of Top Chef for a while longer, then I’ll settle down and put some plans together.