Chef Catie Randazzo
Created by Dan Levy, HBO Max’s new cooking competition, The Big Brunch, celebrates culinary voices from across the country. Instead of the traditional hyper-competitive battle often seen on these sorts of shows, The Big Brunch takes a kinder approach. The ten chefs compete for a life-altering $300,000 cash prize by winning the approval of judges Levy, chef Sohla El-Waylly and restaurateur Will Guidara through various brunch dish challenges.
Viewers see the chefs help each other out, whether its carrying one another’s plates to the judges or cheering their competitors on. But much of the bonding happened behind the scenes. Chef Catie Randazzo describes being on set for about 13 hours each day, but only filming for approximately four hours. The rest of the time is spent hanging out in a holding room, which allowed the cast to really get to know each other.
“It had been five days of filming,” Randazzo says, thinking back to one specific day. “We had been being fed food that wasn't great and moderately depressing, which didn't help the situation. And we came in from filming and our dinner was there. It was this chicken breast that was cut into thirds and it was incredibly dry. And there was just raw grapes on top of the chicken. And Daniel picks up the food he goes, ‘Why are there grapes on the chicken?!’ And we all just lost it. We all just laughed so hard.”
“All the best moments happened in that room,” they add. “We were doing yoga together. We were telling our life stories. We were bonding. There was a lot of laughing.”
Native to Columbus, Ohio, Randazzo is now the executive chef of Rustic Canyon Family’s Huckleberry Bakery & Café in Santa Monica. They knew they would have to leave Columbus to make the next big step in their career and only became set on Los Angeles after The Big Bruch. Randazzo has a sister in Los Angeles and visited often before the pandemic, but really fell in love with the city after filming. “It felt right, I felt lighter,” they say. “I felt at peace when I was here.”
The Big Brunch first premiered on Nov. 10 and the last two episodes will release on Nov. 24. Ahead of the finale, read more about Randazzo’s experience on the show and how a great meal can be life-changing.
Why was The Big Brunch a competition you wanted to take part in?
A friend of mine actually sent me the link to apply for the show through Facebook Messenger. And I was like, “I don't really do competition shows.” I did one once like nine years ago, and it was great. I had a fun time. It's just not really my bag. And then I saw Dan Levy was attached to it and I was like, “I really like him.” And then I read some information that it was more about people who give back to the community or are involved in the community. It's more about kindness and generosity, as opposed to a cutthroat competition. So I was like, “F*** it, let’s give it a try.”
What was a typical day on set like?
When we got to Los Angeles, we were quarantined for five days. So we were in our hotel room for five days, but the way that our rooms were set up was we were near the courtyard, so I could look and see other people's windows and so I was always looking for clues of who my competitors were.
They had us meet in the lobby every morning. And this particular [first] morning, we didn't know who anyone wasn't competing against. So we're all in the lobby just staring at each other trying to figure each other out. We weren’t allowed to talk to each other yet because I think they wanted to capture that first interaction.
We would go to set and we would go into the holding room and we would sit in this holding room for several hours before anything ever happened. A lot of times they would come grab one person to go do some pickup interviews. But I think that being in that room with each other for so many hours a day is where we really started to bond and to grow and to become the family that you definitely see on the show. You would sit in that room for a long time and then they’d come grab you and you'd go to set and then you would find out what your challenge was and then you would start cooking.
Do you have a favorite dish you made during the competition?
The carrot dish in episode three was hands down my most favorite thing. For some of the challenges prior to that, I was making things that were already in the rolodex of things that I know how to make, other things I had done before and I knew that they delivered. The carrot dish was just purely off the cuff and something that I created in that moment and something I've never done before. That challenge was really special to me in a lot of ways too, just that whole day. I did a lot of healing on that challenge as well.
I lost my restaurant in COVID and losing that restaurant was really hard and difficult and it did a lot of things to my self esteem and it did a lot of things to me mentally. And so to pull that out with me was healing for myself because that's when I started to believe in my skills because I hadn't created in so long. I just had been going through the motions of trying to survive. And I created a piece of art, in my opinion, that day, so it's really special to me.
The Big Brunch
On Instagram, you described premiere day as “a little to a lot overwhelming.” How has being on The Big Brunch had an impact on you?
Sincerely, it changed my life. I’m probably going to get a little emotional here. Losing my restaurant and the difficulties that came after that made me feel like a failure. It made me feel like I let my community down. It made me feel like I let my staff down who were so important and special to me.I'm still very close with them. And I went to a really dark place. For a long time, I didn't believe in myself anymore. I was suicidal. I was incredibly depressed. And instead of actually dealing with my emotions, I was self medicating with a lot of alcohol. Getting on this show and starting this journey was the journey to the happiest and healthiest life I've ever been. I'm sober. I’m in this really beautiful job. I live in California now. I got myself here, but the show pushed me. And the castmates have been so loving and so supportive and just complete and total champions, not just for me, but we are for each other. And so finding that family of people that had been through similar things with their businesses in similar situations that we can all connect with and all bond and the amount of love that we give to each other and the love they gave to me, it really pushed me to believe in myself again and to take chances and to make big moves and I wouldn't be where I am right now if I wouldn't have done that.
What do you hope audiences take away from seeing your journey on the show?
I hope that I can be visible for other people who are queer and nonbinary or questioning their gender and their sexuality. I hope that I can show people that if you don't give up, we end up in good places if you work hard. I also hope people like my food and want to come eat my food. And I hope that people see that kindness still exists.
Let’s dive more into your food. How have you put the Catie spin on Huckleberry Bakery and Cafe in your first few months as executive chef?
It's been there for so long. It's got a huge following. It's a staple to Santa Monica, I believe. The staff has been pretty welcoming. Upper management has been incredibly supportive. But there's a lot to learn. So for the first two months, I've just really been easing in with getting to know my staff, getting to know about them as human beings, getting to know about their family, learning Santa Monica cuisine because it is its own thing. I'm from the Midwest and I tend to cook heavy comfort food, and that's not necessarily what people always want. They like to have healthier options. It's just been a lot of like taking everything in and observing and watching, and then putting specials on the I want to eventually put onto the menu and see how they do. It's been really great going to the farmers market on Wednesdays, so that's been really cool. The first day that I went, I went to the farmers market with the pastry chef. I looked up and was like, “Is that the ocean?” She was like, “Yeah,” and I just started crying. I was just so overwhelmed by being surrounded by all this beautiful produce and then the water was right there.
Not like a heavy cry, just a few tears. I was overtaken with emotion. And I haven't let myself feel anything in a really long time because I've just been stuffing it all down, so now I have all these emotions I’m learning how to deal with. But back to Huck. It’s great. I really like it. It's a challenge, but it’s a good challenge. I haven't put my spin on it yet because I want to be respectful to the staff that's been there for so long. I want to make changes slow and steady, instead of all at once.
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The Fried Chicken Sandwich at Huckleberry Bakery and Cafe
In an Instagram post, you said a great meal can be life changing. How so?
Food is where people come together. Think about every sentence, every big conversation, it's around food. It's a way to bond. It’s a way to come together. It's a way to unite. It can bring you back to a childhood memory. It can take you to your grandmother's kitchen, five years old. I want to create those things that take people back to where they came from. And I want to create those things that are memorable. Some of my fondest memories growing up are dinner around the table with my parents and my family and my mom and my sister. It’s where you reconnect. It's where you talk about your day. It's where you share fears and thoughts. It's really cool that I get to be the person that creates those things for people. I have a lot of respect for it, and I take it very seriously.
I think the thing that I'm best at is taking care of people and bringing people together. And that's why I gravitate so much towards food because it gives you this opportunity to be hospitable in so many different facets and areas, not just with the food that you put in front of someone, but to make someone feel welcome, seen and heard. It's very important to me that people come to Huck and they feel seen and they feel heard. Not just the customers and not just the clientele, but my staff. I want people to feel like they are in a safe space.
For me, working in restaurants and being a queer person, it was the first place I ever felt that I could be myself and be in a safe space and feel seen because we're all just this group of misfits. So that's why it's important to me to carry that on and through with staff and guests.
It also can really suck. But it’s really beautiful how these families come together inside of these restaurants. Sometimes you're bonding over trauma, the trauma of the way the restaurant is run, but ultimately everyone is there for the same purpose and we all have that in common. And that common ground is what brings you together. It’s just really beautiful.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. The Big Brunch is now streaming on HBO Max.
Photography by: Elise Freimuth; Jeremy Kohm/HBO Max; Meghan Reardon