THE INTERVIEW: Former Top Chef Contestant and Restaurant Owner, Camille Becerra
She was on the third season of the Bravo channel show Top Chef, and currently, Camille Becerra, is the owner/chef of Greenpoint’s Paloma, where she doesn’t have to create a three-course meal in an hour and be judged by some of the food businesses biggest names! Here, she sits down to discuss her experience being on Top Chef, why she chose Greenpoint to call home, and where the name “Paloma” exactly came from, and more.
How did you get into cooking professionally?
It started as a great love I had and of course, I wanted to make some money off it, and it progressed from there. Early on in my late teens, early twenties, I traveled around the country, wound up in New Mexico, and started getting into Zen Buddhism. This monastery needed a cook at the time, so I became their cook and there, I really learned a lot of vegetarian techniques, and about foods and ingredients. Zen Buddhism plays a part in many things that I do in general, but cooking, as a whole, is very meditational. You have to stop thinking about everything else and just focus on what you’re doing. I take a lot of that and apply it to cooking.
Of all your experiences as a chef, what do you feel has influenced your style of cooking the most?
I think what influences me the most is where I live. It’s New York City. It’s all the boroughs. It’s incorporating all these different cultures and with them, their ingredients, and their techniques. Just going around the city and eating is a huge influence on how I cook.
How were you chosen to be on Top Chef?
I have a friend who’s a pretty well-known doorperson at nightclubs. Top Chef people came into one of the clubs my friend was working one night and they used the fact that they were from Top Chef to get into the club. They had just finished their NYC casting call. He is a huge fan of the show and had always been telling me to watch it. So at 2:30 AM one night, I get a phone call saying how he just met these people and they want to meet me. The next day they had me run up to midtown to meet with them. It went really well. We talked about food, NYC, and owning a restaurant. After that, I just kept meeting with them and then went to L.A. It all went really quick. I would say that from the time that my friend called me up until I was in Miami, it was probably a month and a half.
What was the experience like?
It was difficult. Some people are fine with it. I however wasn’t. You are sequestered, which is a huge downer for me because I own a business, and I have a daughter. Her birthday came up and I couldn’t call her. I was upset about it and they let me call her the next day. But at that point, I was just kind of over the show, and it became not about winning, but about leaving as a fast as I can, and keeping my dignity.
Did you have any heat with any of the other contestants or judges?
I left pretty early on, so no. I’m pretty easy going, friendly, and a social person, so they really weren’t going to get that much drama from me. Gail Simmons has been here to eat. Tom Collichio, though we didn’t know it at the time, we grew up about five blocks away from each other in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Of course, he’s a little bit older, so we didn’t really know each other. But now, whenever we see each other at an event, we’ve really become fast friends because we share our neighborhood. Padma [Lakshmi] is great. She’s always very gracious and fun. Instead of enemies, I actually made a lot of very good friends.
Given a chance to do it all over again on the show, would you have done anything different?
Well yeah! I could sit here and say loads of things that I would have probably done differently. But in the end, as I tell everyone, I took from Bravo what I needed to take and Bravo took from me what they needed to take, so it was a friendly exchange and I love that network and the people who work for it, so I really have no regrets.
Why did you choose to open your restaurant in Greenpoint?
I moved here in 2001, and opened the restaurant three years ago in 2005, so I was living here for a few years and there wasn’t really anything around. I saw a lot of great people, and that this neighborhood could potentially be great but also potentially a great community, and I think in Manhattan you don’t really get that because it’s so transient. Brooklyn has the ability to have great communities, more than just really great neighborhoods.
Tell me about the cuisine you serve. How did you come up with the menu?
The cuisine we have here is what we call Urban American. Basically, what we do is incorporate a lot of different ingredients and techniques from all over the world. But we really try to stay seasonal. Although we may use spices from India or wherever, we really try to buy a lot of our produce, meats, and proteins locally. There’s a lot of influence from all different cultures, but we offer seasonal and regional ingredients, helping our local farmers as much as we can. The end result is so much better, because a locally grown peach from a farm that cares is so much more rewarding. So those are the three components we feature, global ingredients and techniques, mixed with local, and seasonal produce.
Did the experience of being on Top Chef change the way you work with food in any way?
It was definitely a huge dose of inspiration. Just being around foodies and chefs, and then being so passionate, it definitely fueled a flame, and sometimes when you do a particular career for a long time, you kind of forget about that initial passion that you had. So that was a great thing to have gotten from Top Chef, a refueling of inspiration and creativity. So yes, it did change the way I work with food, and very much so, because I was reinspired, and on-set, you really do have a lot of time to share with these people, and when you get 15 people together who are also passionate about food, that’s what the conversation is, everything dealing with food. I left there with new techniques and new ingredients that I hadn’t really worked with before.
Where does the name “Paloma” come from, as it sounds Polish, like the majority of people who live in this neighborhood?
Ha! It’s so not Polish. It’s like the furthest thing from Poland! It’s the name of my seven-year-old daughter. It means “dove” in Spanish. It’s a common name in Spain. Naming a child is the most permanent decision I’ve ever had to make, so when I had to name the restaurant, I went in between names and decided to stick with Paloma. I asked all my friend’s and everyone really loved that it would be named after my daughter, so I just stuck with that. I kind of took the easy road to naming my restaurant!
Where do you enjoy dining and drinking in NYC when you have a free moment?
I really don’t go out that much. If I do, I kind of stick to Brooklyn. My favorite restaurant in Brooklyn is Marlow & Sons. In the city I like Public, Freemans, and The Spotted Pig. Those are my faves. I usually stay downtown. I like going to restaurants where the style of cooking is similar to my own. I don’t go out to eat a lot and that’s something I really want to start doing. I find myself eating and entertaining here mostly. Paloma is kind of an extension of my home, and looking at work in that light has helped so much, because I’m here so much. Looking at it like that, like Paloma is my living room and my dining room, helps me cope with working long hours.
Paloma is located in Greenpoint, Brooklyn at 60 Greenpoint Avenue. Phone: (718) 349-2400. Hours: Dinner 6:00 PM-11:00 PM; Brunch Sat. and Sun. 11:00 AM-3:00 PM; Closed Monday.