'Top Chef: Just Desserts' winner speaks: 'My life has been exploding all around me'
SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t yet seen last night’s finale of Top Chef: Just Desserts, do not click any further! But if you’re already in on the news, click ahead to check out our Q&A with the the cooking show spinoff’s first winner.
Image Credit: Kelsey McNeal/BravoOn last night’s Just Desserts, 30-year-old pastry chef Yigit Pura was crowned the champion of the debut series, beating out the competitive Morgan and underdog Danielle. The San Francisco-by-way-of-Turkey native talked to us about his big win, the emotional roller coaster he experienced late in the season and the effect Morgan’s name-calling had on him.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did you watch last night?
YIGIT PURA: We had a little finale viewing party at Macy’s and my sisters and my mom flew up and my closest friends and apparently 300 or so people from San Francisco showed up. I felt kind of shell-shocked. When we went downstairs, the line of people — I was kind of flabbergasted. I kind of stood of on the sidelines and people were pretty calm and composed, but needless to say, once they found out the reaction, I think the entire store kind of exploded. It was pretty extraordinary.
Describe the moment when you won in one word.
I’ve thought about that moment a dozen times, but I drew a complete blank. I just remember my heart sank and my knees buckled. I had this overwhelming feeling of euphoria all over me. It was pretty intense.
And then Zac came and jumped on you.
Yeah, my divas came! And that’s the second thing I could hear. I couldn’t see anything around me and I could hear was Zac screaming and Heather screaming behind me.
Were you surprised to see the past contestants show up on the finale or are you well-versed enough in Top Chef that you guessed it?
I’ve always watched Top Chef obsessively. One thing I taught myself going on from the second episode is anything is possible. I was actually expecting Sherry Yard to be my sous chef again, but it was definitely a nice change. I was really glad Tim and I ended up working together because we represented Team San Francisco together. And it was pretty amazing to win this for the first time for San Francisco. We definitely have a feeing of a community here so I think people will really love that.
The judges had talked about you trying too much, so how did you manage to pull it back — and pull it together — for the finale? What clicked?
I still have that, what I like to call, Top Chef anxiety when I go to bed, especially after watching each episode. I’m like, “I could’ve done this and I could’ve done this and I could’ve done this.” Perfect example with Sylvia Weinstock, the cake episode: I really make pretty amazingly delicious cakes, and it has one or two or three components. But I think when you’re in an environment where you’re constantly being judged and if you fail, I guess on my end, it’s kind of like overcompensating. You keep throwing more and more at them even if it’s not in your natural style. Going into the finale, Gail wrote us all these encouraging words, and her one thing was that I really need to restrain myself. And I just realized, you’re a great pastry chef, you’ve made it to the finals for a reason, now just don’t try to prove anything to anyone. Just do what you do and do it well.
What else did she say to you in her note?
Gail is so lovely and I truly adore her. She said something along the lines of, “You’re a true gentleman,” and the fact that I was so professional throughout the competition and she was very proud of that. She said to practice restraint. When I was writing my menu that night at home, I constantly kept that in my head. Let it go. Let it be.
Gail was right because you seemed like a pro working the front of the house during Dessert Wars. Does that skill come naturally to you?
I do think I have a pretty jovial personality. Going into this competition, I didn’t know who the chefs would be or what the personalities would be like, but my philosophy was OK, I’m going to go through this entire experience, I’m sure it’ll help my life tremendously, and even if I lose, or even if I win, I get to come back home and be a professional pastry chef. It’s not in my nature to be so belittling or talk sh– about people. Some people were very intense, but I wanted to stick to my core. I’m really proud of the fact that I won this as a professional pastry chef and a decent human being. I think that goes a long way, too.
In the finale, you and Sherry seemed to be like peas in a pod. What was it like working with her?
I think Sherry and I are kindred spirits. She was here just last weekend, and she and I spent two days together and eating. She’s tremendous. I have no words for it. I think if I have to thank someone who really helped motivate and pull me through that finale, I’d have to thank her. She’s an amazing human being.
Some of our readers were none too happy about Morgan’s seemingly homophobic comments about Zac when he called him a “fairy” and “a little girl.” What do you make of it?
I don’t want to say anything too bad, but the truth of the matter is Morgan is a brilliantly talented pastry chef. No doubt about that. In fact, in the finale, I constantly kept thinking, “What is Morgan going to do?” I kept trying to strategize his plan and tried to stay a step ahead of that. But as far as Morgan’s aggressive behavior, there’s so much I could say. It was really sad that he could not relate to people because they were gay or women. I would hope that going into the 21st century that people don’t judge each other on these bases. And yeah, so what if Zac was flamboyant? And he can be overwhelming, but he’s an amazing human being at heart. He’s like the sister I never had in some ways. Homophobia is disgusting. Being surrounded by that is a shock because I haven’t had that since I was probably in my early teen years. I do have hope and compassion that even people like him can grow out of it, and hopefully he’ll teach his son better manners.
How did Zac take it?
Zac was very irritated. Both Zac and I pointed out to Morgan multiple times in the beginning — politely — and he didn’t change his course of behavior. But that’s fine. I didn’t want to necessarily point it out during my interviews because people can make their own assumptions and generalizations.
Was it tense in the house then?
I think he felt like he was “singled out.” You make the friends you want to make. If you want to be open-hearted and if you want to make connections with these people regardless of who they are, you can do that. Singing show tunes is not annoying. Making lighthearted jokes is not annoying. If you choose to be angry and choose to be homophobic or choose to be so narrow-minded and single yourself out, of course you’re going to get irritated. These challenges are so intense. I don’t think I slept more than 3 or 4 hours a night during the entire competition. It was about coming home, getting some calories in you, taking a shower and going to bed. I think I mastered the art of napping in this competition.
The pressure is obviously high, but it really seemed to get to you later in the season. What exactly was going through your mind?
It’s definitely very challenging on so many counts because pastry chefs are very involved with what they do. I think after Heather H. left, I was definitely thrown into an emotional jolt. One thing after another, and obviously some housemates were more aggressive than others. I actually remember when I was in the bottom with Eric, I was for sure I was going home that day and when they actually said his name and not mine, I was really sad for Eric because he’s a great pastry chef, but at that point I just felt the life force come back to me, and I was like, “OK, snap out of this. You’re still in this. Go for it.” And Sherry Yard has the most amazing spirit. For the first 10 minutes, I was really nervous cooking with her because it’s like cooking with one of the most talent pastry chefs. I kept asking, “Chef do you want this, do you want that?”
You could’ve gone crazy on Morgan for ruining your sugar vase. How the heck did you keep your composure?
I do wonder if the situation had been reversed and if I accidentally broke his sugar vase, I thought of what his reaction would’ve been. A lot of it for me was, especially towards the ends when I was going through an emotional roller coaster, I think if I acknowledged my frustration and anger and disappointment and those flood gates opened, it would’ve escalated into a worse state of mind. I took a deep breath and what’s done is done. I guess you can’t cry over a broken sugar vase. I just let it go.
How did Team Go Diva start? Who thought of the name? And are you now the president since you’ve won?
I’m amazed that most people still haven’t put two and two together. I pretty much lived on Godiva biscuits, and one day when Zac and I were sitting in the living room, as I was literally stuffing my face with biscuits, there was the Godiva — Go Diva. We’re two gay men. Come on. Zac said something to the effect that I’m the head Diva now.
Can you break down for us the insanity that was Seth?
To be honest, in some ways I was really sad to see Seth go home so quickly. I do some molecular gastronomy and I think he definitely brought that element into the competition because he was the one most well-versed in liquid nitrogen and all that good stuff, but I really feel bad for Seth. I don’t think he was emotionally stable enough to be on the show. The smallest things jostled him and he felt everyone was out to get him. When in fact in the first two challenges, I went out of my way to help the guy. I would give him recipes and techniques. There would be moment of being so thankful and then something would happen and it was, “You’re out to get me.” I hope leaving the competition, he was able to come to a better emotional state of mind and I hope he’ll find work as a pastry chef that can help him shine.
What was the dessert you were most proud of?
Considering our time restraints and the conditions which we worked in, I think the challenge where we built a showpiece as a group of three and pulled out those desserts, it was pretty amazing. I was definitely very proud of my dessert. It was me in a lot of ways. The approach was very flamboyant and feminine, but it was so well-structured with a masculine background. It was the one dessert that described me best.
And the one you wish you had a do-over on?
Oh god, there were so many. The ironic thing is, in the dress challenge — that was probably my most fun challenge — when I made those frozen lollipops, I had come up with that concept and played around with it at home a month before this all happened. I played with sorbets and had this amazing flavor punch. During the competition I chose to make it with ice cream and when I tasted it out of the machine, I thought, “Oh my god, this tastes a little flat.” At the time, I didn’t have time to stop and restart. When they said, “Your dress was beautiful, but the flavors on your ice cream pop was a little flat,” I just knew I would’ve had that $20,000.
You clearly know fashion because the dessert couture dress was fierce, but you were also a fan of Gail’s style.
Gail’s pretty fierce! I was really thankful that we had Gail and not Padma — nothing against Padma — because Gail has a really sensitive palette. She has experience in the culinary world, she worked at Daniel, she works at Food & Wine magazine. She’s really sweet and a really caring person, but then she’ll give it to you as it is and on top of that, the girl can wear pretty amazing stilettos. By the way, I’m still waiting for Björk to call me and ask me to make a dress for her!
If you had to pick one person from the show to open a pastry shop with, who would it be?
I’ll put it this way: I would want it to have Heather’s backbone and Zac’s personality. But if I had to pick one person, I’d definitely pick Heather H.
What’s next for you?
That’s a whole spectrum of events, which I couldn’t have predicted. My life has been exploding all around me. I feel really blessed. There are a lot of opportunities to come and I think we’ll have to wait and see, but there’s more to come. Possibly my own store within the next year and perhaps some more appearances on TV. It’s TBD.
Are you planning to stay in San Francisco for now?
I love New York and I say it’s my home, but having moved back [to San Francisco], great city, amazing people, awesome produce, great food and I really love here. When we moved from Turkey, we moved to the Bay Area, so I’ve been here since I was 12-years-old.
How has your boyfriend been taking the news?
We’ve separated since. That’s a hard one.
I’m sorry to hear that, but I think a lot of people — men and women! — will be happy to hear that you’re single.
Well there you go. That has been the case.