Libertyville-based chef Paul Caravelli served up gourmet meals and a sense of humor on ABC’s new hit show “The Taste.”
Paul made his mark as one of the seven semi-finalists on “The Taste,” and if you were watching, it was impossible to miss this fan-favorite. With his bright red hair, mouth-watering dishes and constant cracks in the kitchen, it’s no wonder why we couldn’t get enough of Paul.
Eventually sent home in the seventh episode (which was “seduction” themed—the artichokes in his spoon just weren’t sexy enough for the judges), Paul returned to suburbs, where he heads up the kitchen at 545 North Bar & Grill.
We talked with Paul about his time on “The Taste,” his awesome moment with Anthony Bourdain and his food favorites back in Chicago.
Congrats on making it to the semi-finals! That’s insane! What was your experience like competing on “The Taste”?
Insane was a good choice of words for it. It was nuts to hang out with Tony Bourdain and Nigella and Ludo and Brian for an extended period of time. Getting to see them every day and be part of that whole thing, plus the other 16 contestants; everyone was so great.
I tend to pick up inspiration from the weirdest places sometimes, and also the most obvious places, but being there was just a flood of knowledge. Everybody was doing cool stuff, unexpected stuff, trying to impress the judges. I got to see some really cool things and bring them back with me to my restaurant. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
What was it like cooking with Ludo on his team?
He was big on the fact that he was the best, and he is. He worked for some top-notch chefs in France and it gave him a pretty big ego, and he’s a traditional fiery Frenchman. But it was definitely an amazing experience.
I couldn’t stand him yelling at me all the time, because I’m a chef and I’m used to being in control of my kitchen, but he’s so good. He was the most hands-on of all the mentors.
What was the most important thing you learned from him?
I learned to finesse from him. He’s always talking about finesse, being lighter with the flavors and sauces and portion sizes, something that I don’t typically do all the time in my restaurant, because we were putting things on spoons there and trying to make the perfect one bite.
But here, people are ordering just one plate of food and you have to give them a healthy portion that will fill them up so they won’t be disappointed. He taught me to be more technical, and I’ve definitely brought that back home, just lightening things up. It doesn’t need to be so heavy to taste good.
I was pretty close to not being a chef anymore before I went on the show, so I really rekindled it. He taught me to want that again.
Why was that?
The industry is tough and it can be a really tough job sometimes, and if you don’t want to do it, you’re not going to do it well. I was slipping before this opportunity presented itself. You know, there are long hours, you’re always in the back, but the show definitely gave me a new lease on life for being a chef. It rekindled the fire.
I think it was my steak sandwich. Ludo said, “It’s like a symphony in my mouth,” because it was all crunchy and it had different textures and it was really, really good steak.
On the show you can use all the ingredients you want on the sandwich, and you don’t have to charge for it. As chefs, we’re trying to sell our food; so that always hinders what you’re putting on the plate because it’s a business. Here you can just create the most awesome thing that comes to your brain and forget that it costs money. In the restaurant it would be like a $25 sandwich, but here there were no limits.
What was your most memorable experience on the show?
When Anthony Bourdain cooked an omelet with crème fraîche and caviar and brought it over and shared it with me. It wasn’t on camera, but we drank champagne and ate an omelet together.
He’s my idol. I love his life. Like, if there’s anyone who I’d want to have their life, it’d be him. We drank Veuve Clicquot Champagne. It wasn’t filmed for the show or anything, but that was definitely something I’ll never forget. It was cool to share that with him.
What’s your favorite item on your menu at 545 North?
I would say it is the fish tacos right now. I’m trying to bring fine dining and street food together on that dish. I wrap them in paper and put them on a plate and it looks like you got it at a food truck, but it’s served to you in a fine-dining restaurant. It’s kind of mixing the two things together that I love. Plus, they’re f***ing delicious.
I came back from Mexico two weeks before I put them on the menu, so I went and did some real research, the real deal. I took my favorite pieces out of like 12 different tacos and put them together.
What’s your favorite place to eat in the area when you’re not at your own restaurant?
I don’t want to say Taco Bell, but… (laughs). No, I’d say Gene and Jude’s hot dogs. It’s my favorite, and it’s actually the first restaurant that I was ever at, and I go there every occasion I can. When I was in the womb was the first time I went there, and then I went there again when I was like two months old, so it’s literally lifelong. I love that place.