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What Happens After You Win 'Top Chef'? One Former Champion Shares His Story: 'It Was Just Insane.' Chef Joe Flamm dishes about becoming a celebrity chef, finding his love for Balkan cuisine, and why he keeps it real on social media.

By Shawn P. Walchef

Key Takeaways

  • Chef Joe Flamm leaned into Croatian cuisine after marrying into the culture. He knew he would have to explain to some customers why he chose Balkan food for his Rose Mary restaurant, but it has all paid off.
  • Years before winning Top Chef, Joe Flamm knew he wanted to be on television when he was a sous chef for Stephanie Izard on Food Network’s Iron Chef. When the opportunity to be on TV again came up, he jumped at it — propelling his career forward even more.
  • On his Instagram account, Joe learned that sharing a well-rounded view of his life and business resonated with people more than a carefully curated feed.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Growing up in a huge family helped Chef Joe Flamm learn the importance of speaking up. If you wanted to be heard in his house, you had to be loud and have something interesting to say. This upbringing helped prepare the eventual Top Chef winner for life as a celebrity chef in the social media era.

These days it isn't just celebrities that are expected to broadcast to the world. It's everyone with a story to tell. Chef Flamm shares a personal look at his work and life — not just food, but family and fun too.

"I'm a chef, I'm a husband, I'm a Southsider, I'm a Bears fan, I'm a Sox fan," he said about the many parts of his life. In other words, don't go to his social accounts and expect a perfectly curated feed. "I'm not perfect, that's what makes it fun."

Taste for Television

Chef Joe Flamm is now the culinary director of Day Off Group, which runs Chicago restaurants Rose Mary and BLVD Steakhouse. Before opening his first restaurant Rose Mary (named after his Grandmother Mary, a culinary inspiration) Joe Flamm worked with several well-known chefs in Chicago, including Stephanie Izard at Girl and the Goat and Tony Mantuano at Spiaggia.

Related: How One Top Female Chef Is Transforming Green Cuisine

When Flamm was working as a sous chef for Stephanie Izard, he got his first taste of television. He was chosen to cook alongside her on Food Network's Iron Chef competition show. "It was so overwhelming, the adrenaline rush was through the roof," Flamm said about cooking before a big television audience. And when the dust settled from the Iron Chef competition, he knew that media was for him. "I thought, 'That was cool. I've got to do that again sometime,'" Joe Flamm told Restaurant Influencers host Shawn Walchef.

He didn't know that years down the road he would get another chance to star on food TV — this time with an even bigger stage.

It was while working at Spiaggia that Chef Flamm was invited to be a part of Bravo's Top Chef season 15 in Colorado. He went on to win the season. "It was just an insane experience," he said about winning Top Chef.

When Joe Flamm left Spiaggia to take the leap into restaurant ownership, he knew he wanted to forge his own path. That meant with Rose Mary, he wanted to steer the menu away from the traditional Italian cooking he had been doing. "I didn't want to leave Spiaggia and open Spiaggia. I wanted to make my own thing."

Rose Mary bridges Croatian cuisine with his Italian heritage. Flamm calls it "Adriatic drinking food."

Soon after opening that restaurant, Chef Joe knew he would have to prove his credentials to some customers who were skeptical of his ability to cook Balkan food like they knew back home. "Balkan hospitality is like skepticism with kindness," Joe Flamm joked.

Related: Top Food Franchises

Some people raised their eyebrows when they saw his last name and the menu together. "This is not the cuisine I grew up with. This is the cuisine I adopted over the last 14 years of my relationship with my wife Hilary. I did a ton of research, I read as much as I could," he said about marrying into a Croatian family.

"I think I own more Croatian cookbooks than anyone in the United States," he said at the Toast booth during the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago. "I love this food and I wanted to be able to cook it and tell this story. I always say, I hope I'm doing a great job. I'm still learning this. I'm still growing at this."

Joe Flamm said all the hard work has paid off when he learned about how his food has touched people and moved Balkan cuisine forward in America. "I had a woman who came in after we opened and she started crying," he said about a special customer experience.

About Restaurant Influencers

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Shawn P. Walchef

Founder of Cali BBQ Media

“Be the show, not the commercial.”

Cali BBQ Media Founder Shawn Walchef helps brands and leaders leverage the new Business Creator Economy with strategic Smartphone Storytelling and Digital Hospitality.

His Cali BBQ restaurant company has generated more than $35 million since opening in 2008. They operate numerous locations in San Diego and beyond.

Shawn’s weekly video series Restaurant Influencers (published by Entrepreneur Media and produced by Cali BBQ Media) has been seen by over 25 million people.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

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