Dishing ‘Top Chef’ with Sarah Grueneberg

By Sophia Coleman

After a chaotic season of barbecuing, heat exhaustion and intense food battles on “Top Chef: Texas,” local chef Sarah Grueneberg was named runner-up to Texas native Paul Qui, who took the title.

Though the loss was tough for Grueneberg, the executive chef at Spiaggia, 980 N. Michigan Ave., she said she could not have asked for a more inspiring experience. Because she was born and raised in Texas, she saw her time on the show as an opportunity to mix her love for Italian cuisine with the style of food she grew up with.

The Chronicle spoke with Grueneberg to see what it was like competing on “Top Chef,” why she can’t put away a lot of bourbon and how it felt to cook for Oprah Winfrey and the Obamas.

The Chronicle: When did you first realize you wanted to become a chef?

Sarah Grueneberg: When I was about 12, I really fell in love with cooking. It was around the same time Food Network started, so I was watching chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Bobby Flay. I saw that people were making a living off it, and I thought, “Hey, you could actually cook, and it could be your job.”

The Chronicle: How did growing up in Texas influence your cooking style?

SG: I was cooking what I knew and what I grew up having. I started my roots working at Brennan’s, which is very Texas cuisine-oriented. It’s been fun now to mix the Texas memories and Italian traditions.

The Chronicle: When did you move to Chicago, and what inspired you to

move here?

SG: I was 24. I was a sous chef at Brennan’s at [the age] of 22. I was the youngest female sous chef that they had ever had, which was pretty big since they’ve been in business since 1967. I felt like I wanted to see what else I can do. Brennan’s was great, but at the same time I was worried I might get stuck and find myself in a relationship and not be able to move. So I felt it was

perfect timing.

The Chronicle: What are your favorite dishes to cook?

SG: I don’t have a specific dish, but I can tell you that I love to make fresh pasta. That’s kind of a blank canvas where it can be any kind of dish. After being on “Top Chef,” I’ve been incorporating different flavors that I was learning.

The Chronicle: What inspired you to try out for “Top Chef”?

SG: [Spiaggia Chef/Partner] Tony Montuano and I were sitting at the Spiaggia bar. We were talking about his experience on “Top Chef,” and he asked when I was going to go on. I was like, “I don’t know!” I was excited and nervous, so I sent in an application.

The Chronicle: What did you learn from being on “Top Chef” that you took back to Spiaggia?

SG: It allowed me to be more playful with Italian food and not be as traditional. Right now I’m focusing on that four-course menu that I did on the finale of “Top Chef.” [One course was] a trout dish and [another was] a tagliatelle recipe.

The Chronicle: How did you feel when Paul Qui’s name was called?

SG: At first I was a mess. It’s really hard to lose in front of your family. But now I don’t feel like I lost. Paul is an amazing chef.There’s nothing wrong with being runner-up to him. At the same time, what makes it great is that the judges said it was the best food they had tasted at a finale. I am able to say, “Congratulations, Sarah,” and give myself a pat on the back. .

The Chronicle: How did you keep the results secret before the final episode aired?

SG: It was very hard. I tried not to drink a lot of bourbon. Whenever it came up, I would try to change the subject. During the finale, Jamie [Canete, her fiancé], his mom, my mom and my best friend were there, so I had a few people to talk to about it with.

The Chronicle: You cooked for Oprah Winfrey during her farewell show. How was that?

SG: Oh my God, that was amazing. They called and said, “Oprah wants to come in to eat!” They called at 3 p.m., so we had to hustle up and get a private room ready and get a team together. When I went in to say hello, she literally bowed to me over the potato gnocchi dish.

The Chronicle: You also cooked for the Obamas. That must have been amazing, too. What was that like?

SG: The Obamas came in the Saturday after he had won the election. Tony said, “Sarah, Scallops is here,” because that is Barack’s favorite thing. I had just taken the chef de cuisine job about two months before, so this was that first huge event and I thought, “Oh my God, this is crazy!” It was very cool.