Rotterdam native Steven DeCarlo will represent the Electric City in an episode of Bravo’s “Top Chef Amateurs” slated to air Thursday night.
The show premiered earlier this month and is modeled after the original “Top Chef” series, featuring the same challenges. In each episode, two amateur chefs go head to head to try and wow the judges, with help from two “Top Chef” all-stars. The winner gets $5,000 and “culinary bragging rights,” as host Gail Simmons puts it.
DeCarlo’s love for cooking began at an early age. His family is Italian, and he grew up enjoying homestyle Italian cuisine.
“I learned how to make sauce when I was young; I learned how to make stuffed artichokes when I was young,” DeCarlo said. “I’d watch cooking shows when I would come home from school to get my mind going with what I could do with whatever food is in the kitchen.”
His mom, Michele Webb, worked two jobs when he was going to Mohonasen High School so he often cooked dinner for the two of them, gaining inspiration from the shows he’d watch.
“We learned very quickly that I had more talent in the kitchen than mom did,” DeCarlo joked.
However, after graduating in 2007, he decided against going to culinary school and instead attended SUNY Schenectady to pursue liberal arts.
Afterward, he attended Paul Mitchell School in Schenectady, following in his mother’s footsteps by becoming a hairstylist. He moved to New York City to pursue an apprenticeship and then a job and has been working in salons there ever since.
Yet, cooking has remained an important part of his life.
“Cooking isn’t an annoying task for me. It brings me joy, it calms me down at the end of a busy day and it’s almost like a meditation for me,” DeCarlo said.
He typically cooks after getting home from work and tries to meal prep as much as possible.
“I think because of having a short amount of time to cook after a long day of work in New York and the commute home . . . I had to cook quickly, but I had to cook really well,” DeCarlo said.
DeCarlo usually brought in homemade meals to work and co-workers would always ask what restaurant he ordered from. “[I’d say] ‘I made this last night when I got home from work so I could have a delicious lunch today,’ and they were always surprised by that,” DeCarlo said. Over the years, he’s inspired co-workers to cook and would often share tips on cooking good food on a tight schedule.
When the news about “Top Chef Amateurs” was first announced, a friend from Schenectady encouraged him to apply and DeCarlo decided to go for it.
“What truly inspired me to apply for the show was that I’ve always wondered what it would have felt like if I went to culinary school, so this competition helped me prove to myself that I can do both of the things I love, cut hair and cook food,” DeCarlo said.
The filming took place in the fall of 2020 in Portland, Oregon, and, strangely enough, it couldn’t have come at a better time. Salons had largely been shut down in New York City for several months, so DeCarlo started freelancing with some of his longtime clients.
“I remember in New York City we were pretty much on the lockdown side of things in the fall,” DeCarlo said. “Also, for me to get on a plane during COVID and getting multiple COVID tests and quarantining to film this was slightly nerve-racking but mostly exciting because I feel like for most of the year I did nothing.”
After arriving in Portland, DeCarlo had to quarantine in a hotel room for a week before filming his episode. Another challenge was getting used to being in front of the camera.
“Being a hairstylist, I’m very used to being on the opposite side of the camera . . . to be the one in front of the camera for a bit . . . I was definitely a little nervous,” DeCarlo said, “But it was so fun just to see how ‘Top Chef’ works; to really be there in person to see how the show makes the magic happen and how the cooking, how fast it actually is and how everything just happens in the blink of an eye.”
He competed against fellow amateur chef Danie Baker from Seattle, Washington, and found that cooking at home under a time crunch helped to prepare him for the intense pace of the show.
“When they say ‘time starts now’ there’s no pause in between, there’s no cut,” DeCarlo said. “You’re running around that huge kitchen, you’re sweating, you’re freaking out, you’re overthinking everything you’re going to make and it was kinda funny cooking in a kitchen you’ve never been in before that’s that big and you don’t know where anything is.”
Thankfully, he had some help from Joe Flamm, a “Top Chef” winner, who he was paired up with for the competition.
“They were there for any sort of questions we had along the way. The food is our vision because we are the amateurs on the show,” DeCarlo said. “I felt like it was still my take on what I would do at home, but even a little bit elevated because I had some amazing help.”
Meeting Simmons, a food writer and cookbook author, was also a wonderful experience.
“Just being in person and seeing Gail, getting to speak to her a little bit was just so cool. I read all the food and wine magazines as well and I’ve seen and read her own recipes,” DeCarlo said. “It was just a cool moment.”
DeCarlo also wanted to put the spotlight on Schenectady and mentioned his hometown on the show: “We have good food in Schenectady. I don’t want people to not realize it.”
The episode of “Top Chef Amateurs” that features DeCarlo airs at 9:15 p.m. Thursday on Bravo.