Thanks to a Culinary Institute of America education followed by stints at Vong-Chicago, Spring, Le Anne and Buddakan restaurants—to name a few—Chef Dale Talde knows a thing or two about cooking professionally. The Top Chef alum now runs his own show with two Brooklyn eateries, TALDE and the cleverly named Pork Slope, and ambitiously delicious menu items like Crispy Oyster and Bacon Pad Thai. We caught up with the Chicago native to discuss fast food, coffee and success.

Oh, I had a double cheeseburger from McDonald’s yesterday. I drink alcohol. I party hard. I think if you do those things and you say it’s bad to eat fast food, you’re holding a double standard.

You have quite the pedigree. What’s the most prominent piece of advice you’ve gleaned from your years of training?
When I came into my own as a chef was really when I was cooking with Steven Starr. He would do tastings with us and he just really cut through the bullsh*t. We would make something and try to explain it, like “First drag this thing through that sauce and then eat it.” And he was like “What the f*ck are you talking about? If you have to tell me how to eat it, I don’t want to eat it.” I realized that if it’s not just plain delicious, you’re cooking for yourself, not for your guests.

So what’s the one food that brings you back down to reality? Do you ever crave anything simple?
I’m a real emotional eater. Last week, it was Mexican food: tacos, rice and beans. That’s it. I don’t cook [at home] at all.

Be honest: Do you ever just get down and dirty with fast food?
Oh, I had a double cheeseburger from McDonald’s yesterday. Listen, I drink alcohol to excess. I party really hard. I think if you do those things and you say it’s bad to eat fast food, you’re holding a double standard. It’s like “Oh, [fast food is] poison…” Well, so is alcohol. Whether it’s artisanal or fancy or made by a mixologist, it’s still poison. And millions of people have a job because of McDonalds. You can’t act like that’s a bad thing. I have real fond memories of going to Pizza Hut and getting the personal pan pizza. I love that.

Talk to us about coffee.
Um, I’m slamming one right now. I’m also a dirtbag who drinks sugar-free Red Bulls. I’m lactose-intolerant so I do soy milk and probably two cups a day. Then one sugar-free Red Bull—two if I’m working out—and an espresso before service. It’s a nice ritual to do that before it gets crazy.

If you think the play on words is good, you should try the food!

Do you ever have sweaty Top Chef flashback-style nightmares?
I used to. I would have this anxiety dream about the quickfire challenges, like I had to go to the bathroom when they were explaining things, so I’d miss the concept of the challenge and I’d be cooking or even plating but I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing.

Let’s go to a happier place. Finish this sentence: “The best part about cooking professionally is…
Mentoring—actually being part of the process of teaching people how to cook. I can teach philosophies and attitudes in addition to technique. That’s so important. That is so important.

How do you manage the stress of being a mentor, chef and owning your own restaurant?
My secret is, ignorance is bliss. I worry about the restaurant all the time. But all of the other things I have to do, like TV appearances and articles and interviews, I just don’t worry about them. I had no idea that you were calling me today. Like, I knew you were going to, but I had no idea what it was about…

You’re actually supposed to come cook lunch for me.
[Silence]

No, I’m kidding. OK, one last question: What motivates you to constantly improve?
Cash money, homey. No, the fear of failure. I used to have this fear of being homeless. Growing up in Chicago, you saw that a lot. Failure is… I mean, I’ve tasted it. I wasn’t given a silver spoon. I work hard because I know there’s always that possibility. I never get too comfortable.