Does 'Top Chef' Crown Make A Winner Or Flash In The Pan?

Foodies Debate Merits Of Tv Buzz Vs. Quietly Honed Skill

December 10, 2009|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen , jill.rosen@baltsun.com

No one knew Harold Dieterle before he appeared on the first season of a show called "Top Chef." As he packed for the taping, his business partner fretted over the countless ways reality TV could go awfully wrong for a young cook trying to open a restaurant, over the ways this could make them a culinary world punch line.

"Do you think this is going to be a good thing for us? Are you going to come off as the jerk?" Alicia Nosenzo wanted to know. "Don't say anything stupid!"

Dieterle held his tongue, cooked well and won, using the prize money to open Perilla, a cozy spot in New York City's West Village where people - many of them "Top Chef" devotees - savor his spicy duck meatballs, edamame falafel and vanilla-scented doughnuts.

Will the show be as much of a career-maker for Michael Voltaggio, the cocky Frederick native whose sophisticated cuisine earned him the "Top Chef" crown Wednesday, or his brother, Bryan, who arrived Wednesday night at his Frederick restaurant, Volt, to thank the 300 or so fans who turned out to cheer him on?

Or will they, like most contestants, slip anonymously back into a steamy kitchen? After six seasons of "Top Chef" and a smorgasbord of similarly seasoned imitators, the nation's foodies still argue about whether reality TV is any place for a serious-minded chef, about whether the chance to win a jolt of fame is worth the potential for prime-time mortification.

"I feel bad for half the people that go on that show," says John Walsh, executive chef at Timonium's Chef's Expressions catering company, who says if he could hire any of the chefs on the show, he'd choose a grand total of "none" because he thinks they've embarrassed themselves - even those who appear to have cooking chops.

"They turn around and their careers are shot."

Just as "Top Chef" cameras pull in tight to record a contestant seasoning a roast or garnishing an amuse-bouche, they capture things no careerist would want on the resume: stolen smooches, drunken contestants tackling another and trying to shave his head, all kinds of shouting, sniping and sniveling.

"They put people on that show because they've got this many tattoos or because they're a lesbian or whatever," Walsh says. "It's not always 'Is this a good chef?' or 'Does this person really know how to do it?' "

Arthur Gallego of the marketing company Gallego & Co., who's worked with chefs and restaurateurs including Julia Child and Jeremiah Tower, one of the iconic chefs credited with developing California cuisine in the 1980s, watches "Top Chef" with a skeptical eye.

The show's contestants strike him as wannabe's and attention-seekers more than the real Julia Child-esque thing - even those with impressive culinary degrees.

Gallego prefers the old-school climb to the top, where earning a solid food reputation comes first and later, perhaps, a cookbook, a TV show, fame.

"The 'Top Chef' contestants are like every other reality show contestant who wants a short-cut to fame and fortune, but unlike "American Idol," they can't achieve that with a single performance or memorable rendition of a song," he says.

"As chefs and restaurateurs, they have to prove themselves every night. ... Respect in the food world really belongs to the pioneers and those with real longevity, the ones who influence menus nationwide and globally ... and redefine the restaurant experience."

And then there's what can happen on the show when the focus is on the food.

Like when Baltimore's Jesse Sandlin, also a contestant this year, was undone by making an "ELT," the "E" being escargot.

Or when Baltimore chef Jill Snyder disastrously chose ostrich eggs for a quiche that judges compared to "glue."

Or when Carla Hall, a Washington caterer who had just messed up a cake, explained to judges that she was just "sending the love" out to the diners. Judge Stephen Starr, the prolific restaurateur behind Moriomoto and Buddakan, dryly replied, "Keep the love in the kitchen and send out good desserts."

Even Dieterle, in his first episode, nearly gave Nosenzo a heart attack when he was kicked out of elite chef Hubert Keller's storied kitchen because his hands shook too much while he tried to artfully drizzle balsamic syrup onto a plate.

Despite dressing down Hall's dessert, Starr, who also sat on the finale's judges table, believes that all of those televised goofs and all of that theater adds up to nothing but money in the restaurant world.

He couldn't be happier that his Buddakan sous chef, Dale Talde, appeared on the show - a contestant remembered for a lot of swearing, punching a locker and his ultimate demise: Making butterscotch scallops and then crying after his elimination. The Web site Gawker labeled him "smug" and "peevish," even as it praised his skills.

"In the end, you hire people that are good, and if they have been on TV, it's even better," says Starr, who calls Talde's behavior on the show "pretty crazy stuff." "Being on TV cannot hurt them - it can add some excitement to the equation."

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