A Dash Of Reality

Odds Are Good That Abacrombie Chef Jesse Sandlin Will Make A Splash On Bravo's 'Top Chef: Las Vegas,' Which Starts Tonight

August 19, 2009|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,jill.rosen@baltsun.com

Piercings stud her nose and lips. A spectacular tattoo spreads, bra-like, over much of her chest. She sauces up a sterile white chef's jacket with magenta stilettos.

Jesse Sandlin might just be made for reality TV.

The head chef at Abacrombie restaurant will represent Baltimore as she attempts to mix, chop and saute herself into the coveted title of "Top Chef." The Bravo cooking competition, this season set in Las Vegas, returns at 9 tonight.

Sandlin is the second Baltimore chef to make the show in as many seasons. Jill Snyder, formerly of Red Maple, held the city's hopes last year until she got the boot in the second episode because of an unfortunate ostrich egg experiment.

Moreover, two brothers from Frederick are also competing this season - Bryan and Michael Voltaggio. Bryan Voltaggio is the chef at Volt in Frederick, while his brother now lives and works in California.

With her tattoos that stretch essentially head to toe, her bad-girl eyeliner, her cheeky retro fashion sense, Sandlin might be the last person someone might imagine behind the cooking at the refined Abacrombie.

And yet, if you read between the lines of the menu, there's the sedate fish, chops and chicken, but they might be served with a dollup of humor - a Sandlin-esque, mascara-caked wink.

The $26 chicken dish, for instance, is called "Two Piece and a Biscuit." The fried dish is served with ranch "dipparoo."

There's also the $28 "Breakfast for Dinner," blackened tuna served with a potato pancake, hollandaise sauce and a poached egg.

"I'm a simple kind of girl," says Sandlin. "I'm biscuits and gravy. Grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. I love food."

Though some "Top Chef" contestants come armed with culinary school degrees, Sandlin is self-taught. The 30-year-old, who graduated from Glen Burnie High School, got her first taste of a professional kitchen at Ann's Dari-Creme, putting together submarine sandwiches and foot-long hotdogs.

But she anchored her culinary chops at Esquire Grill in Sacramento. The chef at the steakhouse took Sandlin under his wing, answering her questions with patience and sending her home with cookbooks to read.

As she devoured the best of Julia Child and James Beard, made the "Joy of Cooking" her bible and worked her way through nearly every station at the restaurant, she realized her future was in a kitchen.

"It brought out the passion for food that I have," she says. "He was the first person to trust my skills as a cook and make me feel good about what I did."

She watched the first seasons of "Top Chef" religiously and has been hearing for years from folks who thought she should send in an application.

"It was nothing I even envisioned happening in actuality," she says. "It all came about in a surreal way, and all of a sudden I was in Las Vegas with a bunch of strangers."

In Baltimore, one can find Sandlin most Sunday mornings, rooting for fresh produce at the farmer's market under the JFX. She's a big believer in seasonal ingredients who likes to say, "If you used good quality ingredients, only good can come out of them."

At night, if she's not working, she might be hanging out at Brewer's Art, Woodberry Kitchen, Jack's Bistro, Peters Inn, Corks, Club Charles or Dionysus.

She's a big believer in the burgeoning Baltimore scene.

"Baltimore needs some recognition," she says, adding that's part of the reason she decided to go on "Top Chef." "There is talent here. We're not known as a culinary destination - or anything along those lines, really. I wanted to show people that there are good things here."

Sandlin, who's single, lives in Seton Hill with a roommate and Bentley, her half-Beagle, half-Bassett pup that she calls "an interesting little lad."

Before she went to work at Abacrombie, Sandlin spent a few years working line cook and sous chef positions for the Charleston Group, at such Baltimore restaurants as Petit Louis, Pazo and Charleston.

In fact, it was the group's marketing director, Allison Parker-Abromitis, who recommended Sandlin to the "Top Chef" search committee.

"They were looking for strong female chef candidates, and I thought she would be terrific," Parker-Abromitis says.

Restaurateur Tony Foreman, who owns the Charleston Group along with his wife, Chef Cindy Wolf, thinks Sandlin's free-spirited ways will convey quite well on television.

"She brings a lot of energy and a lot of appetite for what she's doing," Foreman says. "She's a very expressive kid and full of life."

He's also eaten at Abacrombie and been impressed with her cooking.

"She does American food and does it with a lot of spirit," he says. "She's able to mix classic techniques with an all-American, sort of Californian irreverence and that's nice."

Jill Snyder, who's now a chef at Woodberry Kitchen working on the wood-fired oven, is friends with Sandlin and also thinks she'll be great on the show.

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