Top Chef – Reality (before and after)

Sometimes I write blog articles that resonate with me, and hope it means something to someone else as well. One thing that really hits home for me is the world of Reality TV – particularly Top Chef. I was once married to a chef who was a second runner up on Top Chef Canada, so I was intertwined with the before and after of his life once being on tv…. A lot of skepticism long before auditioning, and then a lot of anxiety while waiting to hear whether he have made the cut. The show is high stress, high stakes, and a feeling of ‘this will make me or break me’, ‘what will I say if I dont win?’ and ‘I need to win’. And then there is this in between phase after the contestants have come back home but before the show has aired. For those of you who have experienced it first or second hand know that this period is a test to your patience and your mental health, and sometimes to your relationships. But once that show airs you really do have a period of a year to use the show as a tool to leverage your career. It sounds mean, but next year there will be a new winner and you will be a ‘has-been’. Well thats the mentality at least. If done right, the show can really boost you into a position of culinary experience that makes you a household name.

Since moving to California it has become so apparent that Top Chef (America) has changed a lot of careers. Lucky for us this means diversification of the LA food scene. I have articled here the chefs from each season who resided in LA either during or after the airing of the show, and how their lives have unfolded due to Top Chef. The list below is hyperlinked to provide you additional information on the chefs and their restaurants. Enjoy! (*by the way I haven’t seen season 13 yet).

Season 1 didn’t see any Angelenos in the top 5. Brian Hill, from Beverley Hills, had been cooking as a personal chef for many high profile celebrities before doing his stint on Top Chef in 2006. After his release from the show he appeared on several other culinary shows. In March 2010, he launched the Comfort Truck in LA serving “Classic American, European and Caribbean cuisine. We don’t know much about Brian’s whereabouts these days.

Season 2 was a big season on Top Chef (or should I say ‘post-top Chef’) for Angelenos. Ilan Hall (winner) and Marcel Vigneron (runner up) were neck in neck during the season finale. It was clear that both brought very different experiences and expertise to the table but the power of television made us believe that while Ilan’s food was exceptional there may have been an element of ‘lone wolf’ syndrome with Marcel that swayed the judges against him. While he was residing in Las Vegas at the time of the show, he has moved to Los Angeles and has opened a restaurant on Melrose called ‘Wolf’ – a no waste concept where every part of the crop will be used somehow. Ironic that his slogan has become #jointhewolfpack. But undoubtably, Chef Vigneron has a passion and an extreme talent for gastronomy that transforms typical and redundant dishes into artful masterpieces. This of course is my take from his time on Top Chef but I have yet to taste it myself. Chef Hall, at the time residing in New York, moved to Los Angeles in 2008 with a few bumps along the road to get (and keep) his first restaurant open. Ultimately it was closed for good, and Ilan moved back to the East Coast and opened an Israeli BBQ joint called ‘Esh’. But it appears that Chef Hall is back in LA running a gluten free Ramen Noodle house called “Ramen Hood’. How cute.

Season 3 had Brian Malarkey finish in the final 5. Although he resided in San Diego working at Oceanaire during his time at Top Chef (and I believe still lives there) he has made his mark here in LA. Before Top Chef he embarked on several cooking positions in LA, and since Top Chef in 2008, Chef Malarkey has teamed up with the Hakkasan Group to open Searsucker (San Diego, Del Mar, Austin) and Herringbone (La Jolla and Los Angeles), and GreenACRE. Most of his current Instagram photos however are from his current project called Herb and Wood in San Diego serving ‘wood-fired dishes and old school cocktails’. Alongside, Chef Malarkey has continued appearing on several Food Network shows. Perhaps he will continue to dabble in LA.

Season 4 brought us Antonio Lofaso who was eliminated just shy of the finale, with a rather subjective judging on Puerto Rican dishes. Antonio already had a stunning resume to build on to. Chef Lofaso was working at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago for several years until running (and owning) her own kitchen’s at Black Market Liquor Bar and (more recently) Scopa Italian Roots. Top Chef was only her first tv gig as she followed with several other Top Chef iterations, and is now hosting Restaurant Start up. My meal at Scopa Italian Roots has got to be in the top 3 best meals I’ve had in LA since moving here last year.

I will also mention that Season 4s runner up, Richard Blais is just south of us in San Diego and has just an utterly outstanding resume of tv and restaurant accomplishments. I have been to Juniper and Ivy which is such a monstrosity on its own but has exceptional cuisine and a lot going on architecturally.

Season 5 brought us two LA chefs in the top 5. Fabio Viviana finished in 5th place and was sent home along with his broken finger in part one of the season finale. Though much of his career took place in Florence most of his recent work has been shared between parts of LA, San Diego, and Chicago. In SoCal specifically he now has Café Firenze in Moorpark, Mercato by Fabio Viviani in San Diego, and Osteria by Fabio Viviani at LAX’s Delta Terminal. Chef Stefan Richter, winner of the most amount of competitions during his time in Top Chef, finished as runner up of season 5. He certainly was perceived as the chef most loved and hated at the same time. Shortly thereafter Chef Richter opened (and closed) several restaurants in Santa Monica. It is unclear whether Chef Richter lives in California or Finland at this point but his success has definitely escalated in Finland with three Steakhouses.

Season 6 had its own thrills unlike we have seen before, with the Voltaggio brothers running head to head, all the way to the finish line. It was a very close call, but LA’s Michael Voltaggio won the season – a very humbling moment. Michael Voltaggio’s story in itself is an inspiring one; self-taught and highly ambitious. During his time on Top Chef he was working at critically acclaimed Langham Huntington Hotel & Spa in Pasadena. It was announced shortly after the airing of Season 6 that Chef Voltaggio would be opening his own restaurant called Ink. To date my impromptu dinner at Ink was by far the most exceptional and gastronomic meal I have had in LA. Around the corner sits Chef Voltaggio’s small sandwich joint called ink.sack. Chef Voltaggio has since appeared on television, including judge spots on Top Chef and Top Chef Canada.

While Season 7 did not provide us with an Angeleno in the top 5, New York Native Alex Reznik (now in LA) was nothing short of ‘good tv’. He was eliminated just past half way through the season, most probably for behavioral and performance reasons. But today Chef Reznik owns a restaurant called Ditmas Kitchen and Cocktails here in LA that not only embodies New York cuisine but is Kosher and dairy-free. The concept seems like a fish out of water but with Alex’s personality, as fiery as it is, it might be the perfect asset to forming new rules in the world of LA cuisine. Amanda Baumgarten, whose ability to cook what is thrown at her, brought an Angeleno even closer to the finale. Chef Baumgarten certainly has strengths in cooking meat, which makes sense that she worked at Brian Malarkey’s Herringbone in La Jolla, and then managed and ran Waypoint Public to help lift them off the ground and become a hot spot for meat and beer. Last year it was announced that Chef Baumgarten split from the restaurant but the trail ends there. Does anyone know where she is? She also hasn’t tweeted off her personal account since 2013.

Season 9 was not so eventful for Angelenos.

Season 10 had so many LA (and surrounding) contestants, with an astounding runner up from Redondo Beach. Chef Brooke Williamson was eliminated during Top Chef’s first live (participating) audience with ‘Team LA’ behind her and a plethora of star chefs in the audience. One of the weaknesses of Top Chef is bringing back contestants who have previously been eliminated. During Last Chance Kitchen Chef Kristen Kish was brought back into the series only to win the series against Brooke Williamson. It was probably the most difficult competition I have seen on the series yet. Not only due to the talented competitors but the set-up of friends, family, and 9 previous Top Chef Winners in the audience. Now in Playa Del Rey, Chef Williamson is making her mark along with husband Nick Roberts at The Tripel and Hudson House, and the newer Playa Provisions.

Season 11 brought us Brian Huskey, who was eliminated just shy of top 5. Unlike many chefs, Chef Huskey has had the opportunity to travel parts of the world that have heavily influenced his cooking style. While living in LA he was also privy to the food truck movement, and while in New Orleans during the show was asked to make the New Orleans version of street tacos – the P’o Boy. Though this is the episode that resulted in his elimination from the show, Chef Huskey opened up to his fellow competitors about his pivotal low point in life. It was after this low that Chef Huskey met Chef Ricardo Zarate and helped him build an empire that (today) has seen better days, but the Peruvian style was a perfect marriage with Chef Huskey’s style. This is where he returned after the filming of Top Chef until his next move to Formosa Café. Today Chef Huskey is running a sandwich ‘restaurant’ on the beach of Corona Del Mar. Tackle Box shares a concession stand with Wahoo but serves up seafood/sandwiches with American and Asian influences.

Season 12 had 2 Angelenos in the final 6. Katsuji Tanabe was eliminated just shy of the top 5. Mei Lin finished the year as Top Chef Season 12. While close behind, Mei Lin did not win as many challenges throughout the season as Gregory did.  But her style and passion were impressive and her inspiration seemed to stem heavily (or at least mirrored) from Ink, where she spent three years working closely with Michael Voltaggio. She has a knack for thinking outside the box, adding an element of gastronomy, and pushing the flavor and texture boundaries. It was a pleasure to see her win this season. We know Mei Lin has since left Ink, and her Instagram indicates she is residing in New York, but hopefully this post will inspire her to reach out to us and let us know what she’s up to.

I hope I got all these facts right 🙂

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