Season 14 of “Top Chef” debuted Dec. 1 and with it, a slice of Vancouver barbecue.
B.J. Smith, the baron of Portland barbecue joints, is one of 16 contestants vying for the show’s $125,000 grand prize. The tattooed restaurateur has been a fixture of Portland kitchens for two decades, but he’s been a dominant force in local barbecue in the past five years, with a handful of locations peppering the city. Smith just opened his first Vancouver endeavor, Smokehouse Provisions, in October at The Mill shopping center in the North Garrison Heights neighborhood.
Smith is the just latest Portland culinary talent facing off in front of judges Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi and Gail Simmons. Portland chefs Gregory Gourdet and Doug Adams both finished in the top three in the show’s 12th season.
With filming already wrapped up on location in Charleston, S.C., Smith spoke to The Columbian this week about the visibility of the region’s food scene, watching the show as a viewer, and the heat of competition.
The following interview has been edited for space and clarity. “Top Chef” airs Thursday nights on Bravo.
“Top Chef,” 10 p.m. Thursdays, Bravo
How did you get involved with the show?
One of my really good friends for the past eight years, Gregory Gourdet, was on Season 12. After that season, Gregory threw my name in the hat as a person who would be a good contestant, and that got me in the mix. I interviewed for Season 13, but for whatever reason, it didn’t work out that year. Then they gave me call the following year and asked me if I was I interested. A couple months later, I was in Charleston, S.C., filming.
How was it uprooting to Charleston, S.C.?
I think the biggest part of it was, I had two restaurants and I was in the middle of building my third restaurant (Smokehouse Provisions), which was the biggest and craziest to date. It was a big undertaking — to hit the pause button and leave was a little nerve-racking to say the least. As well as being on the show, competing against 15 other really talented people was really nerve-racking, as well. I showed up to Charleston, S.C., with some pretty intense anxieties, for a multitude of reasons (laughs).
How did the stress of being on camera compare to being in a busy kitchen?
It’s totally different. I’ve been cooking for more of my life than not. It’s kind of my happy place, being in my restaurants and being close to my staff. Having that camaraderie, where you all have the same end-goal and same interests at heart. Going to cook at a competition, where you’re not all on the same team and you’re competing against each other, it’s completely different. Competing against other people that are very talented kind of changes the kitchen dynamic.
Did you find that your barbecue-style translated to the show?
That’s the thing about it: I don’t know if it fits anyone’s style because it’s very different. You have to be very adaptable throughout the season. You have some stuff thrown at you that you wouldn’t normally have in your everyday kitchen. I wouldn’t say I was ever 100 percent in my comfort zone.
Are you watching at home along with everyone else?
We watch it with friends. It’s kind of weird seeing yourself on TV and remembering what it felt like when it was all happening. It’s been fun reliving that. You establish relationships with all these people and it’s fun to see their interviews. And it’s been a really awesome response from Portland and Vancouver. It has been intense this last week since I’ve been on TV, since the show has aired, we’ve had quite a response for sure.
How are their responses? Has it been overwhelming?
It’s definitely different to be recognized everywhere. We’ve had one episode shown and I’ve had a couple freak-out moments at restaurants. My mother is usually the only one excited seeing me. With strangers, it is definitely different for me.
Are people coming into your restaurants just to see you?
Not even in my restaurants, in other restaurants. I went to dinner the other night and had people freak out and come chat with me. I’ve been taking a lot of photos and signing menus.
How’s the impact on your restaurants?
We’ve definitely seen some growth, business-wise. I think people are excited to come in and try the food.
Was that part of the decision to go on the show in the first place?
There’s no doubt about it. I don’t know anyone who didn’t have that in mind going onto the show. Obviously there are eight other contestants who had done the show were a good reference point, and my two other friends (who competed on the show). It’s a huge impact on business in a positive way.
What does this say about the Portland metro area food scene?
Even 10 years ago, Portland was a foodie hot-spot. I think now it’s maturing. We have some world-class chefs here, not just kids playing around in the kitchen, doing interesting things. Those kids have matured and are doing some seriously cool things.
How is the Vancouver location, Smokehouse Provisions, holding up?
Oh man, we’ve had a tremendous feedback from the community. We were open a couple months before the show aired and we braced ourselves. We opened up really, really busy and kept up the momentum. People seem to really embrace it.