Top Chef fans, rejoice. The juggernaut, which started its television run eight years ago, is back for a 12th season. Over its course, the show has not just graced our screens; it has helped serve as a breeding ground for chefs to make their marks on New York City’s restaurant scene (not that the scene wasn’t doing just fine before). Numerous chefs who began their rise to prominence as “cheftestants” have gone on to open food-related enterprises in NYC: high-end bistros, food trucks, tequilerias, spots celebrating their native lands or places they traveled—the list goes on. And head judge Tom Colicchio, one of the original celebrity chefs from our golden era of food TV, has expanded his Gotham-based empire over the course of these past 11 seasons.
So we’re here to help you chance a real-life glance at one of those folks you rooted for (or against) in seasons past and, more important, to stop speculating about their cooking chops and get a taste of the kind of chops—pork, lamb, what have you—they prepare. With the first episode scheduled to air October 15, we bring you, through a series of burning questions and longish answers, a rundown of Top Chef–related joints in New York City. We tried to find representation from each of the first 11 seasons, but fell just short (where are you, season 10?). Feel free to ask us to pack up our knives and go . . . out to eat, that is.
Harold Dieterle. Courtesy, The Door • Kin Shop. Photo: Vicky Wasik
Do any of the previous winners have restaurants in town?
A resounding yes. In fact, the top chefs of seasons 1, 2 and 3 each have highly regarded dining spots, some of them a few times over. Harold Dieterle, the very first champ in 2006, started off a year later with Perilla, his intimate neighborhood joint in the West Village serving elevated New American food by way of Asia. He then turned his attention more specifically to Thai flavors with Kin Shop, just a few blocks away. The winner of the following season, Ilan Hall—who among us can forget his season-long sniping with the villainous Marcel Vigneron?—recently launched The Gorbals Brooklyn, a Williamsburg-based version of his LA sensation, which touches on new interpretations of Jewish classics and hits plenty of other influences along the way. And Hung Huynh, the first chef to be crowned during a live finale, oversees things at Catch in the Meatpacking District and The General on the Lower East Side, both of which do seafood in as many ways as you can imagine: whole roasted, in tacos, as carpaccio, raw like sushi, stuffed in gnocchi and so on.
Speaking of Marcel, what about the show’s so-called bad boys (and girls)? Where can I find them?
Good question. Season 7 certainly played up cheftestants' wariness of runner-up Angelo Sosa, both for his cockiness and for the way he mentored fellow competitor Tamesha Warren, but we think he was just misunderstood. In any case, he’s opened the warm, friendly Añejo in Hell’s Kitchen, a Mexican restaurant with communal tables that serves lots of tequilas, tacos and tostadas. Stephen Asprinio (seasons 1 and 8) came off as brash and perhaps a bit pretentious, seeming to focus more on service and wine than actual cooking, so it’s no surprise that his NYC entry is high concept in nature: Pizza Vinoteca, which pairs grilled pizza with wines and looks like it could easily become a hit chain. Two of the show’s quite affable and likable cooks, Jeff McInnis (season 5) and Janine Booth (season 11), were involved in a minor imbroglio in the press due to their coupling, but they’re making sweet harmony at the East Village winner they've opened, the Southern-styled Root and Bone, said by some to have the best fried chicken in the City—brined overnight in sweet tea and cooked to a golden crisp. Then there’s Lisa Fernandes, the antagonist of season 5 (at least as depicted by the blogs and, perhaps, the show's editors), now working hard with the most public-facing of all entries, the humble food truck. Sweet Chili serves something she calls “Thaietnamese”—proteins with Asian sauces accompanied by spicy salads and rice.
Tom Colicchio. Photo: Bill Bettencourt • Craftbar. Photo: Phil Kline
I’m a real fan of Tom Colicchio’s. Is Craft still that hard to get into?
Craft is still quite popular, and its place in the NYC pantheon—relatively straightforward presentations of exquisite local ingredients, with diners responsible for organizing the meal—is secure, but his reach doesn’t end there. Less-formal spinoff Craftbar offers rustic tavern food, Riverpark boasts a wonderful waterside setting in which to enjoy pastas and market-fresh American fare, and Colicchio and Sons, in a warehouse on the border of the Meatpacking District and Chelsea, has a casual taproom and more ornate dining room—but the dedication to technique and locally sourced ingredients is the same in both. This is to say nothing of the 'Wichcraft sandwich stands peppered around town. Quick note: you’re very unlikely to see the busy Colicchio at any of these places, but you’ll appreciate his aesthetic throughout.
Pig & Khao. Photo: Zandy Mangold Big Picture Media
I remember season 5 winner Hosea Rosenberg wearing a “Bacon Is a Vegetable” T-shirt. And Kevin Gillespie’s celebrated bacon jam. Just how much do all these chefs dig pig?
Well, Dale Talde has a roadhouse bar in Brooklyn called Pork Slope. (Get it? You will if you’re familiar with the similarly named neighborhood it’s in. And the Mother Porker sandwich helps bring home the bacon.) Leah Cohen’s Filipino-influenced Pig & Khao (more meat-related wordplay) on the Lower East Side does sisig (crispy bits of the pig’s head) and chicharrón (fried pig skin), among other porky delights, and even names some of its drinks after the swine. To wit: the Pigroni (meat products fortunately not included). Dave Martin, who coined a few memorable phrases during season 1, created the dinner menu at the second Long Island City location of Sweetleaf (café by day, something more by night), and it includes “pig sticks”—aka bacon with hot fudge and caramel dipping sauces. Not to be outdone, chef Ed Cotton, a runner up on season 7, cooks a pig’s feet parm at his Italian restaurant, Sotto 13 (bonus for die-hard fans: Patty Vega, from season 11, is currently a sous chef there). And those are just the tip of the snout.
Is that all you got?
Not by a long shot. Besides Pork Slope, Dale has opened two neighborhood hangouts, Talde and Thistle Hill Tavern, both serving the kind of well-crafted takes on favorites (more Asian-inflected at the former in dishes like crab fried rice, and Mediterranean at the latter in a falafel burger) that bring folks back. A couple of his fellow season 4 alums also do Brooklyn right: Mark Simmons pays homage to his native New Zealand through the spicy horopito in his fried chicken and a burger topped with egg, pineapple and beet at Kiwiana; and Andrew D’Ambrosi, who once worked at Le Cirque, gets obsessive with seafood, serving lots of raw presentations and pairing them with high-minded cocktails at Bergen Hill. Manuel Trevino, another season 4 cheftestant, operates a spirited Greenwich Village Mexican spot, Horchata—think lots of cocktails and made-to-order guacamoles—while a neighborhood away, Camille Becerra (season 3) runs the kitchen at small, bustling Navy, emphasizing proteins from the deep, like mussel toast and duck-fat-poached mahi mahi. And a couple of chefs have been brought in to existing institutions to put their stamp on things: Ty-Lör Boring, from season 9, brings his heartland heritage and classic training to the Southern menu at Tipsy Parson, and Ash Fulk, a seaon 6 cast member, has helped Texas-style brisket mavens Hill Country Barbecue Market open a new location in Downtown Brooklyn and is the chef du cuisine there.
What should we look for in the future?
Season 12 includes a few cheftestants who hail from NYC, including one who briefly worked at Red Hook’s Hometown Bar-B-Que (Adam Harvey). Who knows who else might migrate to the big City after being put under the bright lights? Also worth noting: fan favorite Carla Hall (seasons 5 and 8) is trying to Kickstarter her way to a Nashville-style fried chicken emporium, due here in 2015. So Top Chef devotees have plenty to look forward to, beyond Padma and Tom, beyond this edition's quickfires and eliminations, beyond who will throw whom under the bus. The real “restaurant wars” are happening in the kitchens of New York City.