On Thurs. Dec. 1 the Holy City will once again be thrust into the spotlight as Bravo’s Top Chef: Charleston debuts. It’s a wonder it took the same network of Southern Charm this long to capitalize on Charleston’s culinary scene, but here we are and the only thing making our cold, snarky, cynical hearts happy about it is the fact that one of the Holy City’s own is a one of those cheftestants. Emily Hahn is, as she told us back in September, pretty damn pleased to be “the chef with tits representing Charleston.”
Hahn, the executive chef of Warehouse, may not be the most familiar name to Charleston foodies, but that’s about to change and it should. Why you ask? Well, allow us to formally introduce Hahn.
CP: Where were you born?
EH: Lynchburg, Va.
CP: How did you get to Charleston?
EH: After high school I went straight to Richmond, Va. I got into Virginia Commonwealth University and really just was interested in English, Spanish, and Women’s Studies and not anything else that came with having to go to class every single day. I took a part -time job at Bacchus in Richmond. I kind of started getting nosey and I don’t know, maybe I had a little bit of a crush on the chef. I was poking around the kitchen and found myself also, in addition to hosting, the part-time prep cook, which led to seeking other kitchen jobs. I ended up at Mamma Zu, one of my all-time restaurants ever. It was a small Italian eatery run and owned and operated by Ed Vasaio. He was one of my mentors who most inspired me to cook. It was a violent place at times. He was your typical Italian boss. I cooked there for three years. I got some pressure from my Mom being that I was 23. She was like, “We need to see a diploma. This cooking thing is great, but are you gonna do something else?”
CP: Where did you get your training?
EH: I went to New England Culinary Institute.
CP: How’d you end up in Charleston?
EH: A couple of my good friends landed in Charleston for college and I fell in love with the city. In addition to that, I started scoping out Charleston and discovered Mike Lata, the king of veggies. So I came here and my heart has been here ever since.
CP: So you worked at FIG?
EH: Yes. I loved Mike’s style and loved the restaurant. I came back and went to FIG and worked there for a collective of about three years.
CP: But would you say cooking was in your blood?
EH: I was a hostess in high school and I’ve always loved the hustle and bustle of the restaurant industry, right off the rip. As for the cooking thing, some of my friends would say, “We always knew you wanted to be a chef.” But I really didn’t realize my passion for cooking until I got to Mamma Zu. It was the most authentic experience with people. They were people like me — not classically trained, Ed grew up with his mom and dad and cooking. There were drug problems, alcoholism, young and old people, natural human beings cooking delicious food. I didn’t need an education telling me how to cut a mirepoix, I’d just chop up the damn vegetables.
CP: What’s the biggest lesson your mentor Ed gave you?
EH: He said, “Have some fucking humility, Emily.” I got a little big for my britches, but he always reminded me where I stood. Yes, I was a natural leader and cook but he told me to take it with a grain of salt.
CP: So were you kind of a cocky asshole?
EH: I’m a very outgoing person. I’m full throttle 100 percent of the time and very direct. That can come across, when you’re a female boss in kitchen, as a badass, or it can kinda come off not so hot. I wear my emotions on my sleeve and say it like it is. I’m a hot head in the kitchen.
CP: How so?
EH: Well, the first time I sat to eat at FIG with my Mom, Lata walked out and my mom was like, “Do you love having Emily in the kitchen?” and Lata smirked and he looked at my mom and said, “I’m still trying to figure out who’s running this ship, me or her.”
EH: I’ve come a long way. I truly believe in team work and team spirit.
CP: So you mention in the Top Chef promo that you’ve been fired a few times. Can you tell me from where?
EH: I’ve been fired from FIG, but I should say I was let go and given an opportunity to open the kitchen at Monza. Emotions were high and we’d had a lot of transition going on. Lata sat me down and with tears in both of our eyes, “You know, kid, you’re bigger than this. Let someone else teach you some more stuff. I’ve given you all the tools to be who you are.” That hurt. It took a long time to get over that. It was the same scenario at Monza. I worked there for almost three years. I was a little too big for my britches there. It was never anything to do with my talent — I was a wrong fit for a delicate staff. I was too rough around the edges or too old school, too hot to handle sometimes.
I had a good long run at Carolina’s. I loved it and started under Jeremiah Bacon. Then, I opened my own kitchen with a friend in Charlotte. I needed a little break after Charleston. I opened Common House in 2008, we received Best New restaurant in 2009. The owner/investors decided after two years it wasn’t the Ruby Tuesday that they wanted. We all were let go. I moved back to Charleston and went to Carolina’s and then got an opportunity to go to South America. That cuisine was so similar to Italian cuisine — simple, straight forward, I loved it. When I returned, I needed a job and I cooked under Jill Mathias at Carolina’s. She’s a dear friend of mine and she welcomed me back with open arms. I cooked there for three years.
CP: Then you opened the Farmers Market stand Empanada Mama?
EH: Yes, then I did a small stint helping at Ted’s Butcherblock. I was trying to make a go at possibly doing the Farmers Market with Empanada Mama. I wanted to do a small empanada shop, bake bread, and chill out and that was gonna be it. I needed a kitchen, and so I cooked part time at Warehouse. Then Warehouse’s Chef Eva Keilty needed more help. I was working full time and doing Empanada Mama, I was super burnt out. All of a sudden, Eva’s like, “I’m going to quit.” Warehouse’s owners James and Joey said, “You wanna try this out?” I was like, ‘Uh, yeah. Sure.’
CP: So, from what we’ve seen so far in the Top Chef promos, has Bravo portrayed you accurately?
EP: I would maybe say, from what we’ve seen thus far — because it seems like ages ago and the way I know who I am — I feel like it’s only just a little bit of what you’re seeing. It was certainly a very raw experience. I was intimidated and scared and nervous and in interviews there are things that people ask of you that catch you off guard. But I think it’s gonna be exciting.