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Katie Weinner has cooked up quite a career since graduating from UM. A recent “cheftestant” on the twelfth season of Bravo’s cooking competition television show, Top Chef, the Rosemont, Minn., native currently lives in Salt Lake City, working as the chef/owner of local pop-up restaurant SLC Pop. Wielding degrees in English, psychology, and education, the 2001 UM graduate spends whatever time she isn’t in the kitchen out on the slopes, pursuing her number one passion: snowboarding.
What was it like to be a “cheftestant” on Top Chef? Can you take me through the process of being chosen for the show?
For me, it was pretty random. I was skiing one day, and I happened to check my e-mail, and there was a message there that said, “Hey Katie, we just saw your website. Your food is beautiful, we’d love for you to be on Top Chef, so call us right away.” And I remember thinking, “Oh, it’s a joke. There’s no way the people on Top Chef would be asking me to be on this pretty incredible show.” I remember wanting to call them right away, but I was still up on the mountain and didn’t have a signal, so I drove home and called them. Then it was this massive process of filling out the big forms, and then you fly out for your interview, and if you get chosen, you sit around for a couple of months, and finally you get a call saying, “You’re going to Boston, pack your bags!” And you just go. It’s very fast. You have no idea what to expect, and there aren’t a lot of descriptions or instructions. It’s very mysterious, almost like the CIA.
Can you explain Top Chef for those unfamiliar with it?
Chefs from all over the country are chosen based on their personality, cooking styles, and diversity, and they all end up in one location and start battling it out week-by-week. You do two challenges per day—a quickfire round and an elimination challenge—and the goal is to just survive. Week-by-week, you get different challenges, different quickfires, and you’re kind of tested on every ability you could possibly have, every ingredient you might possibly know, and all of the challenges have themes based on where Top Chef is being filmed. So since we were in Boston, we did a lot of historically themed challenges.
You mentioned there were a few other chefs with UM ties. Can you tell me about that?
We’re all sitting around one night, and someone mentioned Missoula, and I said, “I went to school in Missoula!” And Doug Adams [another contestant] from Portland also went to school in Missoula at one point, and Gregory Gourdet, who ended up being runner-up, was at UM for just one semester. So we were sitting around, total strangers, and we all had this common thread of being at the University at one point or another. And it’s just so funny, because we’re all very different and all from different parts of the country, but of course we all love Missoula. Because how could you not? Missoula’s one of those places that seems to attract certain people and certain personalities. It’s such a neat place.
What drew you to UM and Missoula?
It’s funny, my brother went to Bozeman because he loves skiing and fishing. I was a year younger than him, and he visited Bozeman and talked about how much he loved it, so I said, “Okay, I’m going to Bozeman, too.” And he said, “You can’t go to Bozeman, I’m going there!” And I’m like “Okay, what’ s the next school?” So I looked at the next school over and it was Missoula. I had never seen it, knew nothing about it, and I picked it on a whim. I only applied to the University of Montana, nowhere else, and I had never been there. I just took a chance. I did love to snowboard, so that was a huge, huge factor in my decision as well.
What was your first impression of Missoula out of high school?
Amazing. I mean, you’ve got to imagine someone who loves snowboarding more than anything, but who has never really seen mountains. I went to Europe and Tahoe for some breaks, but just to be surrounded in that valley by mountains…it just felt so at home, for being so far away from home. Missoula is such a great place. It felt right, being surrounded by the mountains, feeling that protection.
How did your time at UM influence what you do now?
You know, I always figured I would go into college, pick my major, and just put my head down and get my education so that I could reward myself by moving to Tahoe and snowboarding. But I definitely think Missoula was the place where I started building my love of food. I used to work a little bit at Food for Thought, and I had my favorite little coffee house and my favorite Great Harvest scone. And when I moved to Tahoe after college, I think that love of food influenced me to go into the food business even more. Missoula is so liberal that I never felt like I had to get a nine-to-five job after college, because that’s just not the way Missoula rolls. So I think UM gave me a good base, knowing that I could get an education but that I didn’t necessarily have to use my degree to do what I love.
Favorite restaurants in Missoula?
I loved Food for Thought—I thought that place was so good. I loved the Old Post and Bernice’s Bakery. And hands down, to this day, the gumbo and po’ boys in the back of that bar downtown [Charlie B’s—the Dino Café]. That was the best Cajun food I’ve ever had in my life, and I’ve never had anything comparable to it since.
Favorite place to snowboard around Missoula?
I love Snowbowl. Snowbowl is awesome! And we actually went to Lost Trail all the time and Lookout Pass, too. Wherever there was snow, we would search it out and snowboard.
Can you describe your current day job?
Right now, I am the chef/owner of SLC Pop. It originally started out as a pop-up restaurant business, where we would do one-night restaurants at different locations. So for example, we’d go into a coffee shop that closes at three and bring in all of our dishes, all of our staff, all of our food, and we’d set up the place. We’d invite fifteen diners who would buy tickets online, and they’d have no idea what was on the menu. So we’d have a five- or six-course meal that’s really modern, really eclectic, and we’d tell stories before each course. It’s basically this interactive, storytelling dinner party. I also have been teaching culinary school at a college, so that’s where my teaching degree came back into play, and I can definitely say that I’m a natural teacher. I can cook and talk very easily, and that helped me build the business with SLC Pop because it’s so focused on talking and interacting and cooking.
Favorite thing to cook?
I love doing Sri Lankan curries. We do a lot of cashew Sri Lankan curries. Or beets, we work a lot with beets. I love taking that unknown or super basic food or fruit and then transforming it into something incredible. Like doing beets six different ways—beet ice cream and beet powders. Taking what people know about food and going so far outside of the box that people are giddy when they eat our food, because it just takes them to a whole different perspective about what dining can be. Food and dining in general can be such great experiences and can make people so happy. If I can create food that evokes those emotions, it makes me feel like I’m doing a pretty good job.
Have you been back to Missoula since college?
No, I haven’t, but talking about that gumbo and Bernice’s, man, I want to go back! Missoula, I will return!
Born and raised in Montana, Ashlynn Andersen is a senior at UM majoring in English Literature and Creative Writing. She is the current intern for The Montanan and University Relations, and lives in Missoula.