“Top Chef” runner-up Adrienne Cheatham is putting on her SundayBest in Harlem this weekend.
That’s a pop-up dinner series, to be clear — not the chef’s churchgoing attire.
The Le Bernadin and Red Rooster alum, who impressed the judges with her elevated Southern cuisine in the Bravo show’s final, neck-to-neck showdown Thursday night, may have lost the coveted “Top Chef” title and the $125,000 prize to competitor Joe Flamm, but she’s determined to put her best foot forward with a new project.
Since filming ended in June, the longtime Harlem resident has been planning a pop-up concept to showcase her food — sophisticated soul fare reinvented with global ingredients — much closer to home. SundayBest, kicking off this weekend, will serve five- to seven-course dinners in intimate Harlem settings once or twice a month, Cheatham says. Meals prepared for 12 to 20 diners will likely be priced at less than $100 a head, and ticket details will announced via Cheatham’s Instagram account.
On the menu, guests can expect to see at least one of the elaborate dishes the chef served as part of her last challenge: spoonbread (a cornmeal-based, savory pudding) topped with sea urchin, swimming in buttermilk dashi broth and hidden beneath a tuile wafer.
The refinement of the cuisine won’t, however, define the ambience: “I want it to be amazing food in an atmosphere that you feel comfortable, welcome and at home in,” says Cheatham, 36, who will be running the kitchen as a one-woman operation. SundayBest won’t take itself “too seriously,” she adds. “I don’t expect people to get dressed up, but I expect me to be putting my best foot forward. That’s what the term ‘Sunday Best’ means.”
The term also refers to a mindset common among black communities in the segregated South, explains Cheatham, whose father is black and grew up in Mississippi: “Every time you left the house as a black person, your grandmother told you put on your best clothes because you don’t want people to think that you’re less than . . . because people are going to be looking at you and you always have to be presenting yourself in the best manner you can.”
While the “Top Chef” contestant aspired to be the show’s first female winner of color, she also hoped to validate the merits of Southern cooking.
“If I had won, it would have shown that it belongs on the table right along every other cuisine,” she says.
But Cheatham’s pop-up, which gives her the latitude to travel and spend time with her soon-to-be-husband while feeding her neighbors, could still achieve that.
We spoke to her at length about having confidence in your own food, what was going through her head during the last nail-biter of a challenge and what her signature gold sneakers mean to her:
You came a long way over the course of the season, starting with polished technique, but flavors that weren’t quite bold enough, and ending on an incredibly strong note. What do you see as the turning point for you to — as you put it yourself — “get your s–t together”?
It’s really having confidence in the food that you’re doing. It’s not like I was executing that cuisine on a regular basis, so it was kind of untested. I was kind of unsure of it. So in the beginning, it’s kind of like muscle memory: You go back to what you know, and what I mainly worked in for most of my career was a lot of subtle flavors and a lot of nuance, which, when you’re working for a group of chefs who want to be punched in the face with flavor, that doesn’t necessarily come across well.
I think it was the governor’s mansion challenge where I started cooking what my style of food is, and then I started to get more confident.
Your mom’s visit during the “Sunday Supper” episode helped, too, right?
My mom was like, ‘You’ve cooked in everybody else’s kitchen, now you finally have a chance to cook your food and you’re not doing it. That’s pretty much what you come here for.’
Mom always helps, trust me.
The final show was a nail-biter, but you kept everything so calm and controlled. What was going through your head while you were in the kitchen at the Aspen Mountain Club that day?
No matter how much you want to freak out in a kitchen, I think it’s always best to just keep it together. I’ve worked for chefs my entire career who yell and scream and throw things, but then you’ll have one chef in the kitchen, be it the sous chef or the executive, who keep their calm when everything is going to s—t. It lets you know that everything will be ok.
I’ve definitely freaked out in my career, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized the best thing to do is to keep your cool because you still have control of the situation, but if you lose control of yourself, then you’re done.
That’s kind of how Ripert was in the kitchen — he’d keep his cool, no matter how bad things were getting.
At the end of the episode you expressed confidence in the four-course meal you’d prepared and said you would have preferred to win, but had no regrets. Do you still feel that way?
I was of full sh– when I said that, I don’t know what I was thinking. Of course I would do things over. I would do a lot over. As a matter of fact, can I get a do-over? You don’t really have time to think everything through and plan it. You’re just going and going from the previous challenge into the next one. If I had time to really think about it, I probably could have planned it out a little better. But c’est la vie.
Those gold sneakers you wore a lot this season — were those your lucky charm?
I love my gold Chucks, but at first, when I was on the bottom wearing them, I was like, ‘Oh my god, these are bad luck. That’s what I get for not wearing black clogs, Danskos, like I always wear in the kitchen. So I switched to my Adidas. And then it’s not like I was necessarily doing much better, so I was like, at least I can wear the shoes I want.
“Top Chef” filming wrapped up in June. Besides the pop-up, what have you been up to?
On a personal note, I got engaged, [started] planning a wedding. My fiance and I bought a place [near Mount Morris Park] so we recently moved — recently as in this past week.
And that restaurant you talked about opening in New York City on the show — is that still in development, too?
With everything going on right now, I’d rather not be tied to one solid brick-and-mortar location, so I’m doing the pop-up series so I can have a little more flexibility to travel and do more events. It’s easier to not be tied to an opening of a restaurant right now. I’ll still be doing it in the future.