A GoPride Interview

Soo Ahn

Soo Ahn’s talents at Adalina lead to Top Chef

Sat. May 11, 2024  by Jerry Nunn

I try to stay in my lane and focus on what I have to do.
Soo Ahn

soo ahn

photo credit // jerry nunn

Soo Ahn goes from golfing to frothing

Chicago’s very own executive chef Adalina Soo Ahn has graduated to celebrity status on Top Chef’s 21st season set in Wisconsin. This Michelin Star winner was cast as a 16th contestant with the requirement that he battle into the main series after winning challenges on Last Chance Kitchen. He accomplished that by joining the rest of the competitors in episode five.

Ahn met up at Adalina to discuss his humble beginnings before his rise to become a sudden reality star on Bravo.

JN: (Jerry Nunn) Start off with your journey to being a chef.

SA: (Soo Ahn) Prior to being a chef I was a professional golfer. I played golf my whole life. Towards the end of my career, I was getting really burnt out. I wasn’t playing very well and traveling a lot. I was physically and mentally drained, so I took a step back and took a hiatus from golf.

I did a little bartending and serving. I was fortunate to have a chef who worked in the restaurant, a sushi spot, who always brought in new stuff and tried out new techniques. He showed me a little bit here and there. That got me intrigued.

I took the deep plunge and went into culinary school.

JN: Was this all in Chicago?

SA: No, this was actually in North Carolina. That is where I went to culinary school. As part of their curriculum, they require a 10-week internship somewhere. There was something about Chicago chefs having a chip on their shoulder because of New York and San Francisco being the industry giants already made me love that about Chicago.

I came here and more than 10 years later I am talking to you!

JN: Was it hard to get on Top Chef as a contestant?

SA: It was Joe Flamm who posted on Instagram and invited people to apply for Top Chef season 21. I applied and after multiple interviews and different processes later I got on the show.

JN: I interviewed Joe because he was a Chicago contestant at the beginning of season 15 and I had no idea he was going to win. We had a Bravo representative on the speakerphone when we talked at his restaurant in case we said anything too revealing about Top Chef because the company is very strict on spoilers.

In the past, I spoke with Sarah Grueneberg for season nine of Top Chef and I thought asking what friends she made on Top Chef was an innocent question. It actually sets up a timeline so we had to remove the question. We laughed about it later and it was a good lesson.

SA: Bravo is very strict about what you can and cannot answer.

JN: I just started a new career at Haymarket Center in the West Loop. I volunteered at our company fundraiser last weekend and I wanted to let you know the donation you made to cook for a party of four in their own home raised $2,600 with the live auction and bidding.

SA: Wow, that’s awesome!

JN: Now you can go cook in someone’s house.

SA: I’m in. I love doing that!

JN: I love that my worlds come together in that way. I work with recovery patients during the day and then get to interview talented celebrity chefs like you at night.

SA: That is full circle.

JN: Did you watch The Bear before that themed episode?

SA: I have not watched it at all, but my wife has seen every single episode. She always tells me about it. My manager told me that he gets post-traumatic stress disorder just watching it. I decided to save watching the show for another day when I am not working 60 hours a week!

JN: Did you know Kaleena Bliss from Cindy’s Rooftop in Chicago before seeing her on Top Chef?

SA: No, I hadn’t met her.

JN: Are the cameras noticeable all around the contestants when they are competing on Top Chef?

SA: I didn’t notice the cameras honestly.

JN: So they are not in your face?

SA: No, they are very good about that.

JN: Was there one past winner of Top Chef that inspired you?

SA: Kristen Kish. It was meant to be because that was before I got to be into this industry. That was the one season of Top Chef that I watched from start to finish. I remember season 10 because after a golf round, we would come in and all get together to watch the show. It was amazing to see her journey and having her be the judge on the season I am on is so cool.

JN: I have worked on creating a Critics Choice Association LGBTQ+ celebration and we are giving her the TV Host Award on June 7 of this year. I love that she is out, open and cool!

SA: That’s the perfect way to describe her. She’s just cool through and through.

JN: We asked the venue to step up in their cuisine because a Top Chef judge will be attending! [both laugh] Do you feel pressure as a contestant on Top Chef when celebrities are there?

SA: When I would see the celebrity guest judges I would get star-struck. I would have to put that aside and it was easy to be a fan for a second, but at the end of the day, I was there to compete and try to win.

JN: You seem to have a very relaxed attitude in general.

SA: I try to stay in my lane and focus on what I have to do. Top Chef is a competition and the time limits are real. There isn’t time for dilly-dallying. I went in with a plan and just tried to execute it.

JN: What do audiences not see behind the scenes of Top Chef that might surprise them?

SA: It was all real, all the time restraints and curve balls they threw at us were not made up or staged. It is organic as it seems on TV.

JN: How did you wind up working at Adalina?

SA: Adalina was at Walton Street Kitchen and Bar before this. They closed during COVID-19. I was at Band of Bohemia before here. Once they closed and my wife was working remotely we did a little traveling. During that time I was looking for my next home and the team here posted an ad. I did multiple tastings for them and in June of 2021, we opened Adalina.

JN: I was here when the place opened.

SA: It was the tail end of the pandemic. The restrictions were there and tables had to be so far apart. There was a lot of back and forth with pivoting back then. It was a wild time but at the end of the day, I think it made this team a lot tougher. Any adversity thrown at us now we can handle.

JN: I came in when Adalina first opened and there was a speakeasy downstairs.

SA: Yes, it is the Rose Lounge where we do private parties now.

JN: Do you have a favorite new dish?

SA: I like the new crudo on the menu. It is a take on a Spanish chilled soup, but instead of almonds, we use hazelnuts to give it an extra Italian flare. We add smoked oil to give it a smoked fish flavor. The finger limes give it citrus and textural components. There are green grapes and celery on top. The dish screams spring and summer.

JN: That’s a good combo…

SA: It’s surprising and then it makes sense at the same time.

JN: Diners should taste the bite altogether, shouldn’t they?

SA: Yes, sometimes I have to guide them to stack all the ingredients on top of each other to taste the full effect.

JN: I saw a dim sum event on your Instagram.

SA: Yes, I just did it this past Sunday. Chef Daniel Jacobs is doing a guest series DanDan in Milwaukee that is dim sum themed. I went up there and did three dishes. Dan also did three dishes and it was so much fun. There were 130 people there within two and a half hours. It was one of the smoothest services I have had in a while.

I worked the line with Dan just joking around and talking about Top Chef stuff. It was a lot of fun!

JN: Seems like life is always a competition for you even when you are not on TV.

SA: I always tell the staff that even if things are prepared perfectly ahead of time there will always be curveballs thrown at them with service, whether it’s a guest with an allergy or there’s something they don’t like. We have to modify things and make a last-minute change. We can usually accommodate it and run around to make things work!

JN: Why do so many chefs have arm tattoos?

SA: I have no idea. For me, it is therapy to go in there for an hour or two and lie down while the artist does their work. I drift somewhere else because I am terrible when it comes to pain. I try to have a Zen moment and think about things. I will pick a vegetable or art to have tattooed on myself.

JN: What does the Morton Salt Girl on your arm represent?

SA: This is a rendition of the Morton Salt Girl by Andy Warhol. I saw it at an exhibit at a museum and wanted it on me.

JN: His Campbell Soup Can could be another one. What is one thing you would still like to accomplish in your career?

SA: I have been given so many second chances and I have been fortunate to have chefs guide me through my younger years when I was wild and unpredictable. That has helped me to become who I am today. I would love to pass that on and mentor my guys. Whether it is a cook trying to be a junior sous-chef or a chef de cuisine trying to be an executive chef. I would love to help them and give them opportunities that I had.

JN: That is what Haymarket Center is all about, having a second chance. Thank you for your contribution.

SA: Of course!

See Ahn serve up Italian cuisine in person at Adalina, 912 North State Street and see him pursue his dreams on the stream at bravotv.com.


Interviewed by Jerry Nunn. Jerry Nunn is a contributing writer to the GoPride Network. His work is also featured in Windy City Times, Nightspots Magazine and syndicated nationally.