‘Top Chef’ Season 21 Winner Danny Garcia Talks Big Victory

SPOILER ALERT: This story contains spoilers from the season finale of “Top Chef.”

The utensils have been put down, the knives have been packed away and “Top Chef” has crowned its latest winner. Season 21 kicked off in Wisconsin before heading to the Caribbean, where the contestants visited Curacao and Aruba in between cooking meals on a huge cruise ship. On the series finale, Dan Jacobs, Savannah Miller and Danny Garcia were each tasked with cooking the best meal of their lives, in the hopes that alumna and new host Kristen Kish would declare them the newest Top Chef.

In the end, Garcia won the prize. The New Yorker and fine dining veteran consistently delivered strong performances, crafting precise and cerebral dishes with ingredients that could be as humble as a carrot. His four-course finale meal was centered around the theme of first food memories, while local Caribbean produce took center stage, from a leche de tigre ceviche with breadfruit tuile to a piragua, a Puerto Rican shaved ice dessert that was reminiscent of Garcia’s childhood in the five boroughs.

At home, Garcia works with Saga Hospitality Group, which currently operates two restaurants and a bar in the skyscraper at 70 Pine Street in Manhattan’s financial district. Sadly, news broke this weekend that Saga’s founder, Chef Jamal ‘James’ Kent, had died of a heart attack at the age of 45. Garcia remains committed to opening Saga’s next restaurant as executive chef this fall. “We are going to continue his legacy,” he says.

Kent’s passing makes Garcia’s victory somewhat bittersweet. The winner of the “Top Chef” nevertheless agreed Variety about seeing himself on TV, his plans for the prize money and why he has no plans to return his TV cooking style to professional kitchens.

You mentioned in our earlier conversation that you had spent some time studying the cuisine of the Caribbean, in addition to your previous experience, before going to the finals. What are some of the lessons you learned from that time?

There are many products. There is a lot of fish. There are many products that are simply different, that cook differently. They are simply native to their space. So I went to Little Haiti in Brooklyn, and I met some people who had different farm stands at different markets, several of which were like a guy who had a market where he brought produce from his family’s farm in the Caribbean. I chatted with him about what was in season, and he shared with me several products that would be in season when we were in Curacao. I basically just gave myself a masterclass in understanding different ingredients that I had never seen before.

Why did you choose Manny Barella as sous chef when it was time to prepare the final meal?

Manny and I got along really well throughout the season. He’s just someone who cares. He is someone who is friendly. He and I just became friends. I knew, maybe he doesn’t cook like me, but that’s not necessarily the box I needed to check. He would help do the things I needed to do. And in the end, he would do whatever it took to help me win.

Can you talk about your final meal planning process and how you arrived at these four dishes?

For me it was telling the story; the story was the most important part of my meal. Two challenges earlier I was really struggling to talk about how I improved during the season. The food is important, but the story on ‘Top Chef’ is just as important. It was really this through line of first moments, and being able to tell this very personal story of where I started and where I went.

You had to turn a few times while cooking. How do you keep calm under that kind of pressure?

I think that as chefs you should be able to switch gears. You have to be able to – at any time, whether it’s in your kitchen, or on “Top Chef” – you just have to be ready for things to catch on fire and things to go haywire. That’s just the name of the game. Being able to react, remain cool and calm and not fold like a deck of cards when something goes wrong. I would always say: it never goes away as Things will go wrong, it’s about being prepared when things go wrong.

Emeril Lagasse was the surprising jury in the final. What was your pre-existing relationship with him and his work?

He’s an OG when it comes to the American food scene, that’s for sure. I remember being a kid and seeing him on TV and being exuberant, just throwing pans everywhere and livening things up a bit. But it was nice to meet him. It’s cool to be in his presence, and he’s super nice. He is an icon in American cuisine.

Your wife, pastry chef Sumaiya Bangee, is also a culinary professional. How has she influenced you in your own cooking life?

Sumaiya is my partner. That’s my best friend. That’s my confidant. She is never afraid to check on me. She never lets my head get too big. She is always the one who tells me without hesitation whether something is good or not good. So it definitely helped me. She was a sounding board. She always exemplifies the food I cook and the decisions I make.

Out of curiosity, are you watching the actual show as it airs live?

At Crown Shy and 70 Pine we have a theater in the basement of the building. The team comes by every week and we watch. Normally on a quiet day there are twenty of us and on a busy day there are about fifty of us sitting in this theater, eating snacks and watching the episode.

Does watching give you a new perspective?

No, it just gives me cringe-worthy moments listening to the ridiculous things I say on TV. Everyone laughs at the ridiculousness of me constantly going around making fun of each other. But it’s fun.

I know you are currently working on opening a restaurant. What phase of this are you currently in?

Later this fall we will open a new restaurant, Time and Tide. With Jamal’s death we are taking a short break to collect ourselves, grieve well and just be there for each other. But we’re going to continue his legacy. We continue building what we were building. We’re going to take Saga Hospitality to all the places he wanted to take him and beyond. We are expected to open in the fall. The expectation was that this restaurant would be a great seafood restaurant. And that is the goal: to continue to strive for that. Just keep doing all the things we planned, bigger and better.

Do you have specific plans for how you want to use the prize money?

$250,000, I think $300,000 if you add it all up – it’s a lot of money. My wife and I want to buy our first home. This is something I’ve said consistently this season, and something we continue to look at: preparing ourselves for our future and finding our first home and establishing this next part of our journey.

Now that you’ve taken some distance, are there any important insights from the competition that you will apply to your cooking in the future?

Not necessary. It’s so different. Competitive cooking and restaurant cooking are like apples and oranges. They are not the same. I walked away with a lot of great relationships I had built with other chefs, but I don’t think the food cooked on that show would have ever been prepared in any other place. Like a watermelon-gooseberry A1 variety sauce? There’s no way I would make that sauce in the real world. Was it good and tasty? Yes, for that moment. But it’s just a different cooking style.

It’s a different time and place. I prefer to leave it at that cooking style.

This interview has been edited and condensed.