Chef Ed Cotton Reflects About Life in Food and TV
An Interview by Laurie Ulster
Full disclosure: someone else on our team already interviewed Sotto 13’s Executive Chef Ed Cotton, but the interview got swallowed up by a hungry computer and that was the end of it. Fortunately, he’s a good sport, and agreed to sit for a new one.
He’s had an impressive career. As a teenager, he was already working for Todd English, and since then has worked for Barbara Lynch, David Burke, Laurent Tourondel, and Daniel Boulud among others. He was Cat Cora’s sous chef on “Iron Chef America” for six seasons, great training for his subsequent appearance on “Top Chef” season 7, where he was a runner-up.
It’s no surprise that he won “restaurant wars” on “Top Chef”; Sotto 13 boasts a casual but intimate environment, friendly and efficient staff, and absolutely delicious food. When I went there for dinner, the hostess told us that she “came for the job, and stayed for the food,” and we completely understood why after we got our hands on the wood-fired pizza, prawns ‘saltimbocca’, and fettuccine bolognese, not to mention the tiramisu.
Chefs Connection (CC): So let’s start with Sotto 13. You’re completely in charge of the menu?
“The whole menu is mine, along with my sous chef Patti. We bounce a lot of things off of each other. But yeah, 100% mine.”
CC: What are your favorite things on the current menu?
“For the pizzas, my favorite thing is the capicola pizza – it’s a bacon red onion marmalade, there’s shaved red onions, there’s spicy capicola, thin slices of that all over the pizza, and then there’s some ricotta cheese on there and it’s all baked in the oven, just so you get that sweet and sour kind of spicy, and that sliced raw red onion flavor. So that’s one of my favorites.”
“For appetizers, I love the rabbit sausage, the pigs’ feet Parmesan, and the tuna tartare is great, it’s nice and fresh and refreshing and flavorful. For the pastas, the first three on the menu are my favorites. The duck carbonara, the fettuccine bolognese, and then the rigatoni pasta with spicy lamb and grilled octopus. And then the chicken’s really nice, too. We brine the chickens whole with garlic and herbs. The next day we roast ‘em, and carve ‘em off the bone, and baste it with garlic butter.”
CC: And as a kid, you loved cooking?
“I grew up cooking with my dad and my mom. They’re both avid cookers. My dad was a professional chef, he owned a restaurant years ago, back home in Massachusetts. And prior to him owning his own restaurant he was executive chef at an Italian-American restaurant. It was really popular back in the 80s. My mom was a great cook and obviously my dad’s a great cook, so at a very early age, I remember asking my dad how to make Hollandaise and stuff like that.”
CC: How old were you when you asked how to make Hollandaise?
“I must have been 11 or 12. And learned how to make Hollandaise and serve it with steamed asparagus. That, and making fettuccine carbonara. I was intrigued by that.
CC: Did you spend a lot of time at the restaurant?
“When I was in preschool, that’s when my dad was the chef at that restaurant. So the preschool was a few streets away, so he used to drive me in to work with him, up until the time that I had to go to preschool. I would hang out at the restaurant with him and watch the cooks get set up for lunch and everything. And then later on in life, when he did have his own restaurant with my mom. I would help him out every so often, but I was already working at that point in Boston, for Barbara Lynch, and some of those other people. So I’d help him out if he was in a bind. But it was more short order cook, it was more of a mom & pop type of place. My sisters were waitresses. It was cool.”
CC: You’ve also done a lot of TV. You were on “Iron Chef” first; what was that like?
“That was fun. Doing ‘Iron Chef America’ was just really cool because you got to really push yourself, and see exactly what you can physically do in such a restrictive amount of time. And on top of that, it’s great cooking in kitchen stadium, and being featured on a major network.”
CC: What was the hardest part about doing that show?
“Probably waking up for the early shoots in the morning! It was dark outside, some mornings. It was a long day. It’s a long time to tape a show that’s only an hour long, it was hours and hours. But the actual cook time is real time, it’s one hour. But there’s a lot of re-takes of the intro, the chairman, the judges going through their names again for the seventh time. It wasn’t that difficult because it’s just food, it’s cooking, and I love to cook. It’s fun, but the most discouraging thing is what you envision in your head, and you know what you want it to be like, and sometimes you just didn’t get around to it, that extra two minutes that it needed underneath the broiler. ‘Oh man, I was so close to it being super perfect,’ you know.”
CC: And then “Top Chef” must have been a game-changer for you.
Yeah, you know … being on ‘Top Chef’, I thought – and this was sheer coincidence – but I think that having been on ‘Iron Chef America’ and working under time restraints and seeing what you can physically produce and using your brain in a different way, and time management and all that stuff, and what are your priorities — do I make the pasta dough first, or do I let that rest, or do I grind the meats first? – so that definitely helped me during my time on ‘Top Chef’. Especially with the quickfires. I didn’t win that many quickfires, I won a few. But it definitely helped me for the whole season, of being quick on my feet and in my head.”
CC: And you won a couple of trips, right? Did you take them?
“I took one trip, I cashed in on one. The Australia one, it was for 5 days, and I couldn’t break free at the time, and there was an expiration on the trip. So I cashed in on that. But the other one was great, I went to Napa. They put us up in a really nice [place], right in Yountville, a few doors down from The French Laundry and Bouchon. We got our own private wine tour, we got to tap some barrels and try that with the winemaker. I don’t think it’ll ever happen to me ever again, having that personalized tour and attention. That was a really good time … a lot of wine.”
CC: And I saw you had an interesting range of judges, in addition to the culinary experts. Was it interesting to you to have judges like Buzz Aldrin and Nancy Pelosi?
“To be honest with you, when they told me that we were going to DC I was kind of bummed out, because I don’t care for DC, I don’t care about politicians and all that stuff. I couldn’t care less if Nancy Pelosi was there. We got briefed on who she was, we’re like, ‘Who is that? She’s definitely not a chef. There’s Secret Service over there. She definitely has something to do with White House probably, or something.’ So I got more excited when I saw Anthony Bourdain, José Andrés, we didn’t even know Sam Kass, he was the executive sous chef for the White House. We were all like, ‘Who is this guy?’ But we were really excited about seeing the top dogs.”
CC: How about Buzz Aldrin?
“I was excited about Buzz Aldrin. I’m still convinced that they never landed on the moon. I’m very skeptical. It was all done on a soundstage somewhere. I’d like to believe that they did land on the moon. But we met him, and we had zero interaction with him, really. It was a weird challenge and I remember this one because our food was supposed to be created for the astronauts. So when they’re up in space, their taste buds are different than what they are down here, so they tend to like things that have more seasoning, a little more aggressive on the spices, so we thought about it. We had time to think about what we wanted to do.”
“So I went Moroccan. So there was harissa and stuff like that. And I did a roasted lamb chop, chick peas, cucumber raita, smoky eggplant with tahini, and stuff like that. And when Buzz Aldrin ate it, he said, ‘This is too spicy for me.’ So I was just like, ‘I don’t understand if this is a challenge.’ It wasn’t ‘too spicy’ … there were a lot of spices.”
CC: It wasn’t too hot, it was just flavorful?
“It wasn’t like the rack of lamb was encrusted in chili flakes or anything like that. It was discouraging. And we didn’t even get to shake his hand or say hi, there was no ‘Hey, this is Ed Cotton.’ He walked in, and he walked by, and that was it, really. We went to the table to present our food, and he was there, and Padma was like, ‘So Buzz, what do you think?’ So we were kind of disappointed.”
CC: And did you feel like he was qualified, at that point, to judge your food?
“No, not at all. He’s not qualified. No. I mean, we were all … I would have walked right by him on the street, but when they said, ‘Here’s Buzz Aldrin’ we were all like, ‘Hey, that’s really cool, man.’ But it would be like cooking for my grandfather. Is he going to get the complexity of smoky eggplant puree? Or does he just want grilled eggplant? Sophistication is kind of out the window.”
CC: So how come you don’t like DC?
“Are you from DC? Oh wait, you’re Canadian, so we’re cool.”
CC: Right! But I went there and thought it was a great city. I’m not into politics either, but I found it to be a really nice city to visit.
“It’s nice. I’ve been there a few times in my life, and I always had a good time. But during the time that I was down there, we were on lockdown. We only got to see the city through the cargo van that we were driving through the city in. We didn’t really get to experience Ben’s Chili Bowl … there [were] a couple of restaurants that we really wanted to go that we didn’t get to go to.
“I wasn’t a huge fan of my season, anyway. I just wish that it wasn’t so political, what our season was all about. But it was DC.”
CC: You went to Singapore for the show too, right?
“I did. That was probably the best thing out of the whole experience.”
CC: “Did you get to explore the food markets?
“We certainly did. That was my first time in Asia and I was really excited about Singapore and then I told people I was going to Singapore and they said, ‘Oh, we call it Singabore.’ And I’m like, ‘Okay, well I was excited about it.’ We got to meet this guy, his name is Seetoh, and I don’t know if that’s his last name or his first name, but Seetoh. And he was the like the ambassador of street food. He’s been on shows with Anthony Bourdain. And this guy knows his street food and he took us to the best hawker stalls, and it just opened my eyes to a lot of different spices. And it was just really cool. I would definitely go back there, and eat everything again. Seeing the guys making roti bread right in front of you, it’s awesome. You don’t get to see that, I grew up in Boston. Singapore was great.”
CC: What was the weirdest thing you ate while you were there? Did you try anything really wacky?
“I’m not sure what they were called … it looked good, and the locals really liked it. It looked like a small snail. I love snails. But I don’t know if it was a sea snail, or something, and they were tiny, probably about the size of a penny or a dime. And you’d put this shell up to your mouth and you’d suck whatever was inside of it, but you didn’t chew it, you had to bite off this little, uh, abductor, it looked like a fish scale when you spit it out. It was this clear … I don’t know what the hell it was. But I’m not into eating food where I really gotta suck something out of a shell too much. Lobsters and stuff, I’m cool with that. But these things, I didn’t know what the hell they really were.”
CC: And could you tell your family how you were doing on “Top Chef” as it was going on?
CC: Even your parents? You couldn’t say anything?
CC: So they didn’t know until they actually watched the finale?
“Well. You weren’t supposed to. All the phone calls were monitored by a production assistant, and videotaped. I couldn’t even tell my girlfriend that I was doing great. But some of the contestants, they also had code words. Like, ‘Hey, if I call you and I say it’s so hot, that means I’m winning.’ I don’t know, they had their own little codes for themselves like that. I didn’t think about anything like that. I was just going there to cook and whatever.
“When I got back from Singapore, I told my mom and dad that I made it to the finals: ‘just keep this between the immediate family.’ My two sisters and my mom and dad and obviously my girlfriend. And then when I came back, the first person I told that I was a runner-up, I told my girlfriend. She answered the door and I was like ‘Ehh. Runner-up.’ And I told my mom & dad, you know, they were cool with it.”
CC: Well they must have been really proud. You got so far!
“Yeah. They felt sad for me ‘cause I wanted to win it. I’m not sure when the next opportunity to get one hundred and twenty-five thousand dollar check is coming. It was really close.”
CC: And I saw their local paper had pictures of them watching it on TV. Was that fun for them?
“Yeah, it was good for them. My old high school, on the marquee outside, instead of ‘Join us for an open house,” it said “Watch Minuteman Tech’s alum Ed Cotton on Bravo.’ So that was cool.”
CC: So over all, it was a good experience?
“It was a good experience. I got to travel from it, and I got to meet some cool people. I got to cook nonstop for over a month every single day, and not worry about paying bills, and not have to worry about anything. Because they take your money, they take your wallet, they take your phone, they take everything. So you’re almost like, ‘I don’t have to do anything; all I have to do is wake up and cook.’”
CC: And does it get surreal, at that point, being so removed from everything?
“Yeah, ‘cause you don’t know about current events, you don’t know about … the only thing they did tell us, there was some sort of volcano erupted in, I don’t know where the hell it was. They were like, ‘We just want to let everyone know, there was a huge volcano that erupted in wherever.’ [Note: it was Iceland.] But we couldn’t find out about the James Beard nominations, we didn’t know who was playing for the baseball game, or anything on television, nothing.”
CC: That’s a lot of great “Top Chef” info, thank you! I read that you have dyslexia. How has that affected your chef life, and your life as a kid, and things in general?
“It was tough. When I was younger, in elementary school, that was hell for me.”
CC: Now everybody knows what it is and how to deal with it, but was it like that then?
“They just knew that I had some sort of issues. [Laughs] I still have issues! [Laughs] I don’t think they necessarily treated it the way that it can be treated nowadays. Instead they just kept me in the same grade again. I stayed back in second grade. I still sucked.”
CC: Well, you still had dyslexia.
“Yeah. So school was very difficult for me and [then] middle school, it got better. But elementary school was just hell. The best thing was going to high school for me. I loved to draw growing up and I loved drawing cartoons and stuff like that. I was very creative. And I always knew that I wanted to do something with my hands, whether it be a carpenter, a plumber, fix cars, whatever. But I really enjoyed cooking, my whole childhood, and I had an opportunity to go to a vocational high school in Lexington, Massachusetts, and that was the best thing for me in the world.
“And they had teachers that would help. I got filtered into all the right classrooms instead of being thrown into this one group where Tara’s super smart, but Ed’s over here, but we’re teaching at this [level]. I just needed people to break things down for me. I needed them to slow it down, and meanwhile, they’re just going boom! boom! boom! So high school, I had the right teachers to break things down for me, I had extra time to take my tests. If I needed someone to read the questions for me, they would offer that. So I did great in high school.
“And then college was good too, but I really wanted to go to school for cooking. I wanted to be the best cook; I wanted to be the best line cook ever. I graduated at 20 from college, and I think I was a little too young, because I didn’t really think about, I never saw myself as having a business, like, ‘Why do I need to take a business management course, why do I need to do this?’ I just wanted to learn the mother sauces, how to make a consommé, how to break down a whole side of beef. “I want to do this, I want to do that, but I don’t care about the grape varietals, and I don’t care about …’ So that was tough, learning wines. I was just really immature, really young, and I wish I could go back. I can go back and take courses and stuff, but you know. And maybe I should.
“So certain classes were difficult for me there, at the CIA. I excelled in all the cooking classes. But again, the culinary-related stuff was great, and the regular academic type of stuff was not so great, still, for me. I still struggled with Culinary Math, and all that. But the school had the right people to guide you. Instead of sitting in a classroom with 30, 40 people, I’d be sitting in a classroom with 4 or 5 people, and have extra time. So culinary school was good. But I did struggle in the beginning.”
CC: And now does it affect you still?
“The only thing I really read [are] cookbooks. And I’m jealous of people like my sous chef, she reads books every day. She goes through books, books, books, books. And I wish that I could be one of those people who just picks up a book and just finishes it, and picks up another one, but I get lost in it.”
CC: No interest in audiobooks or anything like that?
“No, I just read the cookbooks. [Laughs] I think I tricked myself into believing that I only read things that REALLY interest me. [Laughs] The most recent thing that I did read was The Alchemist. And that was great. And honestly, that was four years ago. That was the most recent book that I really read.”
CC: I read that you were voted class clown. What did you do to earn that?
“I still joke around a lot. As serious as I can be in the kitchen, I do like to have a good time. I just like to play jokes on people.”
CC: Like what? What would you do?
“I mean there was … even on ‘Top Chef’, we took the plastic wrap and we wrapped up everything in Angelo’s bedroom. We plastic wrapped his whole bed, plastic wrapped the toilet, plastic wrapped the entrance of his bedroom door. Doing stuff like that. Just acting silly, goofy. But I was surprised I got the class clown.”
CC: Surprised? Why?
‘There were a lot of other people who were a lot funnier than myself. Especially in my class. But they know that I would probably do anything just to try it, taking a spoon full of peas on a plastic spoon and shooting them across the cafeteria …you know, like ‘Ed will do it!’”
CC: Oh, you were THAT guy.
Now, in terms of what you’d like to do next, what do you think about in terms of goals you’d like to accomplish, things you want to do?
Goal-wise, I’m really happy with what we’re doing here at the restaurant. My bosses, they’re really good people, and I’ve been very lucky to have these guys on my side and let me showcase what I want to be doing with food, and cooking from my life experiences, and all that. So I’m really happy with what we’re doing here. But eventually it would be really cool to actually open up my own thing, with them included. They’re guys that hopefully I’ll know for the rest of my life, and we’ll be a team together.”
CC: Is there any particular ingredient you just don’t want to cook with or use?
“There [are] a few of them. I hate salmon, I really hate salmon. But I’ll work with it, here. Just because I hate something doesn’t mean I’m not going to put it on my menu.”
CC: What do you hate about salmon?
“I don’t hate all salmon. I hate Atlantic salmon. Just the flavor, it’s oily. I think it has to do with when I was really young, I was a banquet cook, grilling off hundreds of portions of salmon this broiler, and the smell was just nauseating. I think that’s what really turned me off. I don’t like strong fishy flavors. I don’t like fermented fish … shrimp paste. I hate that. I don’t even really care for fish cakes in ramen soup at all, because it has that weird flavor. Strong fishy flavors I’m not into, really.”
CC: What are your favorite ingredients to cook with?
“What I like, personally, isn’t necessarily what I use here at the restaurant. But I always gravitate towards za’atar, and middle eastern spices. I love going to Kalyusyan’s. I love eating curries, coconut curries, cilantro, za’atar, and there’s this other thing called Ras El Hanout. Those ingredients are really fun to work with. I like bold flavors.”
CC: Any crazy kitchen accidents or stories to tell from your career?
“There’s so many, but here’s one I was just telling my guys in the kitchen not too long ago. I was working at No. 9 Park in Boston, in Beacon Hill, and there was this guy, let’s just call him Roland, even though his name was really Roland. So Roland dropped a knife straight down onto the ground and it went right into his foot, right through his leather clog. And so he pulled out the knife and there was … it wasn’t like a volcano but it was like a slow, slow bubble of blood coming out of the shoe. He’s a good guy, Roland. He was just extremely accident prone. Like him dropping a knife into his foot, it didn’t really phase us. But obviously he had to go to the hospital. And then he went with the general manager at the time, this guy Tom. So Roland was taped up and he went home or whatever, he didn’t come back to work. But when Tom came back to work, he said, ‘You know, I was waiting, in the ER, and they took off his sock, and his toenails were painted.’”
CC: The kind of thing you think nobody’s going to find out about.
“So then a couple of days later when Roland came in back to work, we were like, ‘Dude, your toenails were painted?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah, Carla, she painted my toenails!’ He was like ‘What? What? It’s okay!’”
CC: As long as he’s confident about it …
Interview & Photos by Laurie Ulster.