Jen Carroll is curled up on a leather chair in a meeting room at the Waterfront Square apartments overlooking the Delaware, trying to explain her tornado of a year. Sipping tea and dressed in jeans and a scrapple t-shirt, her signature blond mane pulled back, she looks exhausted. That’s understandable—it’s been a tough run for the Top Chef star, who went from landing her dream restaurant in her hometown to losing it to rolling the dice with a risky new opportunity in New York: a small-plate seafood concept called Concrete Blonde that’s left her sleep-deprived for months. In typical no-nonsense fashion, Carroll doesn’t try to dress up her disappointment in having to give up what she calls a “perfect” space in Philadelphia. “It’s a heartbreak,” she says, “because you feel so close to having something you’re excited about, then it gets pulled away.”
Her latest saga began back in October 2011, when the Somerton native announced she was leaving Eric Ripert’s acclaimed 10 Arts to open her own restaurant. Considering her two seasons on Top Chef and omnipresent profile on the local food scene, it seemed a can’t-miss proposition, a local-girl-does-great success story. Carroll found investors and an ideal location—the former Marathon Grill at Broad and Chestnut, which she planned to turn into a 3,000-square-foot, 90-seat space with an exposed kitchen, an expansive bar, and a windowed front that would open out onto the street in summer. Menus were drawn up; a potential staff was recruited. Then, in the spring, the project collapsed in a power struggle between Carroll and her backers. “I wanted it to be my vision,” she says. “I wanted control over hiring, design and decor. I didn’t want to compromise on plates and tables and seating.”
Now on her heels, Carroll spent the summer grabbing any gig she could find, from a food festival in Aspen to lucrative private cooking events, some of which were captured for Bravo’s Life After Top Chef series that aired this fall. Then, late one night in June, an old buddy called with a Godfather-esque proposal: A mutual friend—chef Michael Wurster, formerly of Lutèce, and also Carroll’s ex-boyfriend—had to pass on a New York restaurant project and had suggested her for it. The next morning, Carroll met the investor and scouted the Greenwich Village location, hoping to avoid another letdown. “We talked about terms of the contract, my wants and needs, my idea for concept and menu,” she says. “He loved everything.”
Little has changed from the initial plans for Concrete Blonde. Carroll describes the intended vibe for her 84-seater as “edgy elegance,” and is excited about a “dock to dish” daily special featuring fish caught within 24 hours of arrival on your plate. She refuses to nail down a target opening date (“sometime in 2013”), and acknowledges that while her Top Chef cachet kept her afloat this past year, it may work against her in a city where jaded gourmands feast on failed celebuchefs. Her plan to avoid that fate is blunt, as usual: “The food has to be fucking amazing,” she says. “I need to live up to it. If not, it’s my fault.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of Philadelphia magazine.