Adrienne Cheatham Talks Making Mimosas With Selena Gomez - Exclusive Interview

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Adrienne Cheatham has carved out a name for herself in the culinary world after learning from some of the very best. The "Top Chef" finalist has worked for some of the biggest chefs in the fine dining world, from Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin to Marcus Samuelsson at Red Rooster. These days, she's running her own popup dinner series, flexing her creative culinary muscles for celebs, chefs, and the local community alike.

We caught up with Cheatham on the heels of her most recent project, cooking along with Selena Gomez on the latest season of "Selena + Chef." During her appearance on the HBO Max series, she successfully offered her expertise to Gomez and her two kitchen sidekick pals, guiding them through an elaborate brunch menu that Cheatham is sure we can all put together at home. She shared tips for that and more in an exclusive interview with Tasting Table. Cheatham also looked back on her past mentors and how they shaped her cooking skills and style.

Adrienne Cheatham on Selena + Chef and brunch tips

How was your experience cooking with Selena Gomez?

It was a lot of fun! I had a lot of fun, and I was pleasantly surprised. There were things that I assumed she hadn't done that she knew how to do, like to skin a filet of salmon. Now ... how good she is at those things is debatable but she's done these things before. So it's not like she's poaching fish for the first time. She understands the concepts behind it. So it was like you're still teaching, but it was still instructing somebody where it's not their first time cooking.

I was going to say though, watching her episode, you were very good at commanding all three of them around the kitchen and delegating these ongoing tasks, because your dish had a lot of steps to it.

Yeah. I was like, "Oh, we'll do something easy. We'll just do grits with salmon croquettes and then the granita." But then I was like, "There's a lot of little things we have to do here." You don't realize how many ...

And then you got mimosas going ...

Yeah. And the granita, everything and some things require people working in tandem. So in a restaurant kitchen, you have people doing things at the same time, but on the show, Selena has her two friends. So I was like, "Great. I can put them to work. Let's do it."

For any of us at home who might want to tackle that dish, do you have any tips or tricks for us?

So I would say do everything ahead of time. You don't have to do it all right before you plan to eat. You can make the salmon croquette mixture and form the patties the day before. And then that way, you're just putting them in the sauté pan to brown them up and warm them, but you're not doing everything at the same time. You can even cook your grits a day or two before, and then you just put them in a pot and whisk them, because they'll turn into one mass so you have to break them up, add a little more water so that they're looser consistency. But you can do all of that stuff like one to two days ahead. So when your friends are coming over or you're having this brunch, it's less of a lift day of.

The poached egg hack Adrienne Cheatham taught Selena Gomez

You taught Selena a very handy trick for making poached eggs easier while you were on the show. Can you share that with us?

Okay. So this is something I learned years ago working in restaurants and it was a game changer and I like shouting it from the mountaintops every chance I get. So poaching eggs is very intimidating to a lot of people because it seems like it can be hard or the eggs won't come out well. So the trick is to soak your eggs. You want to get a little dish and fill it with 50% water and 50% white vinegar. So you want to dilute the vinegar a little bit. But you just crack your eggs into the dish, and it should be a wide shallow dish, and you just crack your eggs right into it.

I usually use a Tupperware container. If I'm just doing two eggs, if it's just me, I'll use one of those takeout deli pint containers and I'll put a quarter cup of vinegar, a quarter cup of water, crack two eggs, and you let them sit for about up to 10 minutes. You don't have to worry about them picking up the vinegar flavor if you don't go past that 10-minute mark. But the vinegar just helps set that outer layer of protein on the egg white so it keeps your egg from flying all over the place once it gets into the water.

What Adrienne Cheatham learned from Eric Ripert

Something else we learned in the episode is that you became a master at cooking fish during your time working at Le Bernardin. What was the best cooking lesson that you ever got from Eric Ripert?

Oh my God. There are so many, it's really hard to narrow it down. I think one of the most important things that I learned, especially when it comes to cooking fish, I mean, there were so many cooking lessons in general, but specifically when it comes to fish is if you cook it until it's cooked all the way through, it will be dry and overcooked by the time it hits your plate. It's the same thing as meat where it pulls onto that residual heat when you take it out of the oven or out of the pan. That's why they say to rest your steak because the temperature will actually go up by five to seven degrees depending on the piece of protein you're cooking.

So it's the same thing with fish. If you cook it until it's completely cooked through, it's going to be dry and gross when you take it out of the pan. So you should cook your fish to medium rare, medium, and they call it carryover cooking. The internal heat will still go up by a few degrees to finish cooking it all the way, but it will still be juicy and delicious.

Why Adrienne Cheatham is obsessed with sardines

What's your favorite fish to cook for yourself?

It depends on my mood, but I love grilling fresh sardines. And I love cooking anything with the skin on to get that crispy skin. But I love grilled fresh sardines with just a little lemon and olive oil.

This might warrant the same response, but I also was going to ask you what's the most unusual or underrated fish that you think people need to be cooking more of?

Sardines! Sardines are really underrated because people are familiar with the flavor from canned sardines and it gets much stronger in the can. When you have fresh sardines, it's heaven. It's like you get all that healthy fat, you get a little bit of that flavor, but they're so clean, they have just such a different flavor from canned or tin sardines.

So what's the best thing to do with the fresh sardine?

I think with fresh sardines, one of my favorite ways, if you have little sardines, is to just lightly dust them with a tiny bit of flour and fry them whole. Or if they're bigger sardines, to put a little salt, pepper and oil and char them on a hot, hot grill. And I live in New York, I don't have an outdoor grill, so I use a grill pan, just get it wicked hot, and then I just put on my sardines. I just lay them across three minutes on one side, flip it, two minutes on the other side and you're done.

Sounds divine.

So that's what I love about fish is you can get every single thing that you're having completely ready. And then you cook your fish five to seven minutes and you're done.

You mentioned taking it off the heat source before it's totally finished cooking, but beyond that, what are the biggest mistakes that you see people making with fish? It can be such a delicate protein.

That's really the number one thing that I see is people always tend to overcook their fish, even in restaurants a lot of times. I think that sometimes people, they do too much to it. Fish doesn't need a lot, especially if you have fresh fish. If your fish is not very fresh, then yeah, you might need some seasoning to offset the stronger flavor. But when you have good fish, just a simple salt, pepper, lemon, olive oil is a staple and it can go with anything. So if you're having a jicama salad, or if you're having cucumber tomato and feta salad, literally salt, pepper, olive oil, lemon on your fish will go with everything. And it can be just super simple.

Adrienne Cheatham reveals how Marcus Samuelsson influenced her cooking

You've also worked quite extensively with Marcus Samuelsson. He's certainly a master of soul food, but with such a unique globalized approach to it, that is so distinctly him. What impact did that experience have on your cooking approach and cooking style?

The coolest thing about working for Marcus — and there were a lot of cool things — but Le Bernardin used a lot of global ingredients from different cultures and so did Marcus at Red Rooster. And I really love to see that when these chefs travel, they experience the cultures that they're going to visit. That was one of the coolest things ... I started to see how Le Bernardin focused on French, but then with chef Ripert traveling to different countries in Asia or South America ... you would see the crossover between French cuisine and how it could play with other cultures' ingredients. But with Marcus, that's where I started to see that even though he's Swedish, he is known for mainly African American soul food. I really started to see how soul food can interpret different cultures' ingredients, which was like, "Wait, we can do that with this food too. Oh sh*t."

Yeah. There's not just one set of rules to it.

Yeah. It's not just French, Italian, Japanese. There are other cultures that can expand and grow and develop their cuisine also.

Adrienne Cheatham shares the inspiration for her cookbook

Another big moment for you this year was the publishing of your cookbook "Sunday Best." Some of the work that you've done with "Sunday Best" has been in conjunction with work that you've done with Samuelsson. Where and how did you draw inspiration for the recipes that you decided to put in that cookbook as a reflection of you?

Well, it's so funny. When I was working for Eric Ripert, I worked on the "Avec Eric" cookbook. And then when I was working for Marcus Samuelsson, I worked on "The Red Rooster Cookbook." And so for "The Red Rooster Cookbook," I was more heavily involved. With the "Avec Eric" cookbook, I was just editing and testing recipes and then copy editing. So for that, I wasn't as involved. With "The Red Rooster Cookbook," I was styling the food, I was doing all of this stuff.

And I started to think about, "What if I did my own cookbook? What kind of food would it be?" And I initially thought that I would do food from the [Sunday Best] pop-up series, but that can be a lot more involved. It's got a lot more steps. It's less home cook-friendly. And especially when Covid hit ... I was talking to my sister and she's married and has two kids, and they cook at home all the time. She loves cookbooks, and because she cooks at home so much, she needs some new ideas and some inspiration. And she was like, "Look, I love the [Yotam] Ottolenghi cookbooks because they have really cool ingredients and flavor, but everything is easy to find, all of the ingredients. And you don't have to flip to 12 different pages when you're doing one recipe." 

So the more I talked to my sister and other people who use cookbooks on a regular basis, and even my editor, I was just like, "Well, instead of focusing on the dishes from the pop-up series, let's focus on what came before that." And that was the food my mom cooked and she grew up on the north side of Chicago and then married a black man from Mississippi. And so it was like all of us were exploring different cultures together at the time.

How Adrienne Cheatham navigated her career post-Top Chef

Something else that's obviously had a major impact on your career is "Top Chef." Obviously, your life's changed a lot since "Top Chef," just the case for all the finalists. But it seems like for so long "Top Chef" has been seen sort of as a pipeline that pushes finalists towards the fast track to opening a restaurant. And you chose to take a very different route. Why is that?

So I love restaurant life and that was all I knew for most of my life because my mom worked in restaurants and I was raised in a non-smoking section of the restaurants she managed. So I love restaurants, but after I left Red Rooster and I was taking some time off, I wanted to give myself greater flexibility. And I have a hard time. I'm either all in or all out. So if I have a restaurant, I don't know how to balance personal time. That's something I'm working on. But I have the pop-up series, I have one private client that I cook for sometimes. And between the pop-up, the cookbook, working, doing a little more television stuff lately, it keeps me very busy. That's why I'm in France right now cooking.

So you never know where life will take you. And I couldn't get investors to open a restaurant in the beginning. Even when "Top Chef" first aired, I had been pitching people to open a restaurant before "Top Chef" aired, and I couldn't get investors. People were like, "Wow, you have an incredible resume. I would love to do this. Let's revisit it." Or, "Why don't you come and work for my restaurant group as a chef?" I'm like, "No, that's not what I want." And by the time "Top Chef" aired ... people were not like, "Hey, I'd love to pay to open a restaurant with you." Still, I don't know, there are some chefs who apparently that happens to, but I wasn't one of them.

It obviously sounds like there were a lot of personal factors that went into your decision about your career, but do you feel like there are a lot of other finalists and contestants who end up in the same position that you were in, in terms of not necessarily even having the option to go down that path?

Yeah, I think so. And there are a lot of people like, "We choose it." So I have had a few offers to work with different restaurant groups or partners, contracts to open a restaurant or be part of a larger building that's bringing in chefs to do different concepts. So I have offers to open different outlets and different types of restaurants, but I haven't found one that I felt good about, that I really was like, "This is it."

Adrienne Cheatham says this is the best part about competing on Top Chef

When you look back, what is your biggest takeaway in terms of what you got out of "Top Chef" and what made the whole experience so worth it for you?

Part of it is the confidence, the exposure and the fun. It was really fun. It's dead hard, but I met some really awesome people who I'm still friends with today. And it's being in a kitchen, sometimes you have more in common with your co-workers than you do with your friends and family sometimes. So it was a great experience for that. It helped me get out of my comfort zone. So it really pushed me forward in a way that I wouldn't have gotten, if I hadn't done it. It would've taken me years to get the confidence. It's like seeing yourself with your own eyes, but in a different light. It's like, "Whoa. That's me? That's what I sound like?" All of that is so weird. But it really helps you see yourself in a new way.

And it was great. And so that's why when I couldn't find investors in the beginning, and then "Top Chef" aired and I got some offers for some different opportunities, I was like, "You know what, let me just work, save money. And then when the right partnership agreement comes along, I have enough equity to put in to get a sizable amount of ownership instead of just being the chef of the restaurant."

What's on tap for Adrienne Cheatham

Do you see yourself having plans to pursue a restaurant in the future?

I definitely could see it for sure, but it would have to be the right agreement because I have a really great amount of flexibility now. Like I said, my one private client is like, he's just a cool dude from Brooklyn who became a billionaire. It's fun. I get to play with all types of equipment and ingredients and it's amazing. So I'm still like... Part of me still has that draw. I still feel like I have something to prove. So I definitely get that itch to open a restaurant sometimes, but it would have to be the right circumstance.

It seems like you're having a lot of fun with the dinner series. Are there any standout moments or memorable guests that you've had that you can share?

Oh my gosh. Yeah, when I did the Blue Hill residency ... Oh my God. There were so many people that came like ... What's his name? The head of the NBA, [Adam Silver]? Yeah. I cooked for Alain Verzeroli. He's a Michelin star chef. He was [Joël] Robuchon's right-hand man. In Tokyo, he ran Robuchon Tokyo, and he also oversaw the opening of all of the Robuchon restaurants. He's like a country legend if you work back at the house. So I cooked for him. Carla Hall came. Gosh, there have been so many people I cooked for.

Is there anything else we can look forward to from you this year?

This year, there'll definitely be a lot more events related to Sunday Best. Coming up later in the fall into the winter, there will definitely be a lot more Sunday Best events coming up. I have the show with Epicurious, "The Big Guide," that we do on their YouTube channel. And the first video I did with them has over two million views and the other videos are doing really well. So we're extending the contract. We'll be doing more episodes with that, more television appearances, and hopefully some judging or hosting soon, but you never know if that's going to happen or not.

Adrienne Cheatham advocates for youth in her community

Before I let you go, could you share a little bit with us about the charity that you chose to highlight on Selena + Chef, just to circle back to that?

So the Brotherhood Sister Sol is an organization in Harlem and it's been around [for more than] 20 years. They do great work with teenagers and adolescents and pre-teens in the neighborhood. They really help people identify themselves in a supportive environment because a lot of times in inner-city neighborhoods, black, Hispanic ... just where you have these close-knit communities, a lot of times you have these gender roles, racial roles that you're supposed to be and you're supposed to live up to.

So they provide a space to help people define: What does it mean to be a man to you? What does it mean to be a woman to you? You pick your identity. You pick how you are seen in this world and how you see yourself. So they just really help kids get the confidence to go from these neighborhoods where they may not have a ton of exposure, but they know themselves. They know they have good character. They know they're strong, they're worthy, they're intelligent. And they can go out into the world and not be swayed or not be denigrated by other people because they know who they are. They do job training and interview skills. They help with a lot of the stuff that gets kids matriculated to high school and to college, but they do those support things along the way, but it's really about getting these kids to college.

Catch Adrienne Cheatham on the fourth season of "Selena + Chef," now streaming on HBO Max.

This article was edited for clarity.