Baltimore chef Jesse Sandlin talks about 'Top Chef'

September 22, 2009|By Rob Kasper | Baltimore Sun reporter

Being on "Top Chef" is not all gourmet food and glory. Part of the experience is eating humble pie and leftovers.

That is what Jesse Sandlin, who was a contestant this spring on the popular Bravo cooking competition "Top Chef," told a fine-dining group Monday night at Abacrombie, the downtown Baltimore restaurant where she is executive chef.

"It is weird, really weird," Sandlin said of her stint filming the show in Las Vegas. She said she and her fellow contestants were kept in isolation -- no television, books or newspapers -- and were allowed only to speak with each other for six weeks.

When they weren't in the studio, the chefs were quartered in a large house where they took turns preparing supper, often leftovers from the show, she said.

"We ate a lot of meat," Sandlin said "because one time, three chefs had made standing rib roast" on the show.

Sandlin, 30, who is also a graduate of Glen Burnie High School, said the competitive nature of the show was humbling.

"It is like being valedictorian of your high school. You think you are so great, so grand, then you go to college and are surrounded by all kinds of valedictorians," she said.

Sandlin survived the first few rounds of the competition but was later eliminated.

She said she still second-guesses some of the approaches she employed on the show. Sandlin knows she should have grilled -- rather than braised -- that chicken the judges said was too dry. She isn't sure why she tried to make sweet potato soup.

After feeding members of the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Wine and Food at her restaurant, Sandlin answered questions from the group about the show.

She said the show was heavily edited. You cook for two hours to get about two minutes of tape, she said. But she felt that only one segment -- one that showed her crying -- misrepresented reality. "That was after two hours of arguing with Tom Colicchio [one of the show's judges] about ginger," she said.

Of the judges, Sandlin said they were likable and talented -- except for former model Padma Lakshmi.

"That witch needs to eat a cheeseburger, she is too skinny," Sandlin said.

Despite the hardships of being on the show, Sandlin said she would do it again.

"It is great national recognition -- people in North Dakota now know who I am."

The show has also made a big impression on her 3-year-old nephew, who lives in Dundalk and pesters his parents to play recordings of the show.

"He keeps telling his parents: 'Play Aunt Jess, play Aunt Jess,'" she said.

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