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Top Chefs Take Manhattan

by Francine Cohen

Walk into any NYC kitchen on a Thursday morning and toques are wagging about the previous night’s episode of Bravo’s Top Chef and the one unlucky chef - or lucky, if you consider the national exposure they just received - who was asked to pack his or her knives and go.  With head chef Tom Colicchio’s oft-quoted assertion that this season’s cast fields a deep bench of talent, New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni weighing in with his own pick for hometown favorite Lia (with Joey getting an honorable mention), and the fact that the first two winners are local boys, we have to wonder if there’s something in the water in the city that never sleeps.  What we know for sure is that whether they made it all the way to the finale or went home early, each and every New York based Top Chef contestant is a winner, having beat out thousands of competitors to showcase their cooking skills on this nationally televised pop culture phenomenon.

Sam Talbot had a typical contestant experience.  Cooped up in the kitchen of Punch restaurant in New York as he usually was, he admits to only catching about three episodes of the first season.  But his comrades were watching the show, and encouraged him to audition when the second season was being cast.  “All my line cooks were telling me about Top Chef,” Sam explains.  “A friend went on the website and found out about the casting call and I went.  Two weeks later, they called.  At the audition they wanted to see how you carried yourself and how the camera picked you up.”  The camera favored Sam in a big way, and he was voted the season’s “fan favorite.” 

Another second- season favorite was the lively Josie Smith-Malave.  Although Smith-Malave was knocked out of the competition much earlier than she would have liked, she still has a following and has landed a new gig as executive chef of Island, a Mediterranean restaurant and lounge in soon to be uber-hip Long Island City.  Her road to Top Chef was similar to Talbot’s.  “My partner Caitlin signed me up for a reality TV website that blasts you audition notices, and a few days later I got a blast announcing Top Chef is looking for chefs,” she said.  “The process was long, grueling and nerve wracking.  The application is long, and then there are the interviews.  It was an open call on a rainy Thursday morning, and I figured I’d better get there early, so I arrived at 7:30 a.m. and auditions didn’t start until 11:00; still, I was the second one there.”  

A growing need for a better job led Dave Martin, New York’s newest transplant, scouring, when he saw the casting call.  “It said cash, prizes, Bravo, etc.,” he remarked.  “I had several meetings with shrinks, executives and the producers.  The casting team actually came and had dinner at my restaurant the day we met.  I thought it was a good sign, and even better when they told me my food tasted like good New York food!”  

A good reputation is what landed Lia Bardeen, who works at Jean-Georges in New York, on the latest show.  This time around the producers reached out to respected chefs around the country for recommendations, and Lia was tapped.  Personal recommendations are also what landed New Yorkers Sara Nguyen, Sous Chef at Boucarou, and Joey Paulino from Café De Artistes on the show; friends from the previous season encouraged them to apply.  

At the start of each season, with auditions behind them, each cast member lands in a new city and is bunked with competitive strangers, each of whom is trying to win.  Throw in the 20-hour a day camera coverage, microphones, sleep deprivation, a football field sized kitchen, consumer-style (as opposed to commercial) equipment, and it made for great television.  Talbot recalls, “You are tossed you in a room with 14 people you don’t know.  There is nothing natural about it.  You’re deprived from sleep, have no cell phone, everything is taken from you. You’ve got 14 newfound friends and some smell.  For me, the hardest thing was the sleep deprivation. Being diabetic it was hard to regulate.”  

Paulino said that the Season Three cast relied on charades, sodoku, and long discussions about food to pass the time while they were cut off from the outside world.  The Long Island native especially found the hurry-up-and-wait nature of the shooting schedule disconcerting.  “It was a little frustrating being used to working in a kitchen where I am always on the go, versus being held to a schedule dictated by the cameras and lighting,” Paulino said.  Marisa Churchill, Season Two’s only trained pastry chef who recently created the dessert menu for Smith-Malave’s New York restaurant, said that the hardest parts of Top Chef were the lack of sleep, along with the absence of proper equipment and ingredients.  “Those are the kinds of things that wear on you,” she said.  “If you got everything you needed and eight to nine hours sleep and all was hunky dory, you’d have a very boring show!”

Lee Ann Wong, a Season One standout who served as the culinary producer on this Third Season, said that this year’s show will be anything but dull. “The cast is wildly talented this season,” she commented.  “It is going to be good television and it’s as accurate as reality television can be.  All the drama you see, that is what really happens.  That’s all their natural charm coming out on camera.   It is not as orchestrated as one would think.”  So while you’re shaking your head wondering if he or she really said what you think they did, rest assured, they did. 

When Season Two winner Ilan Hall was asked if he thought he was portrayed accurately, he said “Yes, everything I said was said.  Some people on blogs said I was an asshole.  I’m pretty straightforward, but I don’t think I’m unreasonable.”  Talbot thinks that his good guy persona on the show is what makes folks comfortable enough to stop him in public, though he said he has been mistaken for first season winner Harold Dieterle at least once.  And Smith-Malave found she had fans overseas, encountering people in Dubrovnik and Venice recently who were just thrilled to see her.  On the flip side, others felt their image was slightly skewed.  “The editing was fine except for showing all of my nervous twitches, which I only have under stress, along with the dramatized crying,” said Martin.  “I was exhausted, not sad.”

Expectations are high as Colicchio notes, “It's a good group this year. For the most part, they're all Executive Chefs and Sous Chefs.  We saw some of them and we were just like, "Wow, that's pretty impressive."   Hallowed training grounds aside, all these chefs have been well prepared since Season One to take on the challenges of being named Top Chef, in spite of challenges that almost sent some of them packing. “It's a funny situation that some of the chefs get into, because some of them are very talented cooks, but they can't go outside of what they do,” said Colicchio.  “And they get thrown something that's so different and bizarre, and they can't roll with it.  In Season Two, I got so much shit for letting Sam go.  Quite frankly, Sam should have been gone after the beach episode, where he made green eggs and ham. They were disgusting!  The only reason he lost was because some other guy made something even more disgusting."

In addition to consistently high ratings, the New York based contestants all feel that this show is so successful because, unlike other reality shows, this one is about the craft.  Curious viewers get an inside peak of a physically demanding and sometimes glamorous career, and are eager to watch a well-produced show that displays well-prepared food served up with a side of drama.  “It looked sexy and it was a fun show, with some great one-liners,” Martin explained.  “The fans just latched on and we were very fortunate for that.” 

Also contributing to the show’s success is the spirit of camaraderie and lasting friendships that developed on set, despite the competitive element.  And, of course, the doors that have been opened; Hall, Talbot, and Martin are now exploring new restaurant projects, and Churchill is working on a children’s cookbook.  As New York’s Top Chef contestants continue to open restaurants here in the city, Gotham’s savvy diners will have the great pleasure of deciding who truly can be called Top Chef.

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