Chef Manny Barella Dishes About Top Chef and His Future

BY Linnea Covington

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This past fall I had the joy of heading to Wisconsin to be on set while Top Chef filmed. While I still can’t divulge the episode I visited, imagine my surprise seeing Denver’s Manny Barella as a contestant. It felt thrilling. Now the secret is out, and Top Chef season 21 airs on Wednesday, March 20.

Chef Barella, who used to run the now-closed Bellota in RiNo (there’s still an outpost in Boulder), took a job last year as culinary director for Camp Pickle and Jaguar Bolera, run by the people behind Punch Bowl Social. While neither spots have opened yet, and Jaguar will launch in the South, the chef has been working hard to develop the smoked-meat-focused menu. Part of that included staging in Texas at Loro, the sister restaurant of Uchi, which started in Austin and has an outpost in Denver. He also did a stint at AJ’s Pit Bar-B-Q in Denver to learn about barbecue and brisket.

While we are still waiting for Camp Pickle to open, possibly by the end of the year, fans can get a Barella fix from the competition. And before Top Chef starts again, fill your appetite with a Q&A with the chef and watch the show along with us.

white plate with red sauce and lasagna
Before the show, Barella did a pop up at Cantina Loca, creating a many-layered lasagna as one of the dishes. | Photo by Amber Boutwell

Why did you want to do Top Chef? 

After leaving Mexico I left my family and friends and made a lot of sacrifices. I missed birthdays, celebrations, sickness, and my dad passing. I couldn’t be there because of my dream and what I am doing here. [That’s why] I am always looking for the thing that makes it worth it. 

When the opportunity came up to be on Top Chef, I was like, I don’t know if it will fill the hole, but I wanted to compete against some of the best chefs in the country and even myself. I had to do it.

How did Top Chef happen? 

All I know is it’s a lengthy process, so many things to take into consideration. I don’t have kids or a restaurant open, it was the perfect time for me to do it.

I did have a couple things [at home]. My fiance was planning the wedding by herself while I was there. All things considered, it could have been a lot worse. You go there to do what you are there for. 

How did you feel about doing Top Chef in Wisconsin? 

I have been traveling all over the country, mostly East coast and the South. I had never considered Wisconsin. It’s a super random place for my Mexican ass. Personally, I am not a fan of cheese. I know what it tastes like and the flavors I know, I’m a chef, but you will never see me snacking on blue cheese. But it is a beautiful place and now I have friends there 

chef manny barella at counter
Watch chef Manny Barella on Top Chef, starting March 20. | Photo by Amber Boutwell

Did you get to visit any hot spots? 

We drove around. When we are there we are completely focused, immersed, we are not on vacation. Every hour counts when you have a million dollar competition. We make all the time count, it’s one way of keeping it real. 

We are always engaged and always in competition mode and chef mode. As physiologically demanding as it is, there is no other way to do it other than being a hundred-percent immersed. In retrospect, if we had opportunities for distractions, I don’t know if the level would have been where it was. You have all these things that keep your mind busy, we are in chef mode. Not that we had an option to not be in chef mode, but I appreciate that. 

How does it feel to be in the Colorado circle of Top Chef alumni?

It is a privilege to have the opportunity to participate in the competition. Someone told me when we just opened Bellota about Top Chef. I was like no, never. But as you grow and develop those abilities, you think, I wonder what I will do. There is such a comradely and brotherhood with the people there. We are the only ones that will understand. I can talk about it for hours and hours and it will never honor the experience. 

Can you tell the past contestants about your experience?

We are sharing experiences, like “Hey, how was it for you?” Now that we have so many people in community, we compared notes. But one wants to be careful. You don’t want to spoil it. Not just because of the show, but all the effort. I earned the right [for you to] watch it with me. I want you to be excited, and scared, and go through all the emotions I did.

white plate with green sauce
One of the dishes the chef made for his pop up before the show. | Photo by Amber Boutwell

What did you think of actually being in the competition? 

Here at Top Chef it was very impressive. We never have to cater to, they never asked us to do things or say that. It was always be yourself. That’s not what a lot of people think. They say, “Oh they will have the asshole and the nice one,” but it’s not like that. Everyone there, that was them. 

What did you learn by doing Top Chef?

There were lessons learned there, good and bad. There were things that happened in competition with food, good and bad. I think, “Oh, I would never have done that.” We have to think on our feet and be comfortable outside our own restaurant and kitchen. it pushes you to create things that work out and some don’t.

After, I went to RD [recipe and development] mode for Jaguar Bolera and Camp Pickle. Top Chef, it makes you be more adventurous. It made me realize that I, first of all, have a lot to learn. I think that’s important in every chef’s career. It also showed me I have a better pallet and more skills than I give myself credit for. I am my own worse critic. It makes me want to keep getting better. But still, leaving Top Chef and having competed with the people I did, I think now I can hang with them. Before I wouldn’t have been able to dare to say that. 

Did Top Chef help you prepare for the openings of Camp Pickle and Jaguar Bolera?

Absolutely, I didn’t only learn from what I did, but having other conversations with other chefs. Intellectual culinary conversations. In my field, my career, that has been huge for development. When you sit down with other chefs and talk about ideas and flavors, it gets the hamster wheel going. Who better to nerd out about food than with people on Top Chef. 

I just wanted learn how to make tacos when I started cooking. I wanted to know how do you make al pastor, and the next thing you know I am cooking on Top Chef. It’s a beautiful career to be in, and be part of people’s good day. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Linnea Covington

Linnea Covington is the managing editor of DiningOut. She comes to us with a long background in food, restaurant and drinks journalism. Over the last two decades she’s written for tons of publications including Denver Post, Washington Post, Forbes Travel Guide, 5280 Magazine, New York Magazine, New York Times, Time Out New York and more.

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