Dean filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May, listing assets of $0 to $50,000 and liabilities of $100,001 to $500,000. Food purveyors, a trash-hauler, credit card companies, the city and Dean's real-estate LLC are listed as creditors. Not listed is Adams National Bank, which in May won a $1.29 million judgment against Dean.
"I'm not even aware of it," Dean said when asked about the judgment and bankruptcy. "Attorneys and investors are handling it."
When Dean opened Prime Steakhouse in the former bistro location, he made a point of announcing in a news release that he would "remove myself as executive Chef and Owner in order to become a consultant for Prime Steakhouse." But it turned out that Dean did, in fact, own the restaurant. And he's billed as Prime's chef on the "Top Chef" website.
"At the time, I was getting focused on 'Top Chef,' " Dean said. "I didn't want to be disclosed [as owner] at the time. I was focused on 'Top Chef.' It was never relevant, and it's not relevant now."
Whatever doubts have swirled around Dean, they have had little or nothing to do with his food.
"Dean uses A-list ingredients and sophisticated techniques to turn out mostly wonderful food," then-Sun restaurant critic Elizabeth Large wrote in a March 2005 review of Timothy Dean Bistro. "You can sample his mentor's influence by ordering the Palladin chestnut soup, smooth as spun silk, with a whole chestnut and an ethereal, truffle-scented dumpling."
At the new steakhouse in April, Sun reviewer Richard Gorelick found fault with less-than-fresh shrimp cocktail and "lame" lobster mac-n-cheese, but had absolutely no beef with the beef. "[T]he steaks here are about the best I've ever had in a restaurant," he wrote.
Paul Schurick, a passionate foodie who also happens to be communications director for former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., met Dean at the Preakness several years ago and became a friend and bistro customer.
"Every time I've left [the bistro], I've said, 'That's some of the best food I've eaten,' " Schurick said. "This is a guy who has cooked and mentored under quite literally the top chefs in the world, and it's unbelievable to sit and talk to this guy."
Whether those cooking skills translate into the strange world of reality TV remains to be seen.
"Training doesn't come much better than Jean-Louis Palladin," Baltimore-based restaurant consultant Diane Feffer Neas told The Sun five years ago, in a profile on Dean as a restaurateur. These days, she wonders how well that classical training can prepare a chef for "Top Chef's" curveball cooking assignments.
"This is really think on your feet — kind of counter-cultural to the classical training," she said. "You make your own stock, you do everything from scratch [in classical cooking]. And this [reality TV] is … instantaneous creation. But I think that his skill set from the classical training — the knife skills and taste level and seasoning — will serve him very well.
"His classical training can say to him, 'OK, surprise, we have monkfish.' He knows the accoutrements that go with monkfish. Given him an herb, he knows the classical combinations. That's a good thing. And he also knows sauces. Sauces can really make or break a dish and in classical training, you do a lot with sauces."
Carla Hall, a Silver Spring caterer who was a "Top Chef" finalist in season five, recalled "an amazing oyster dish" Dean prepared last year for a food and wine festival at Washington's National Harbor. "I remember lemongrass, and the oysters were just beautiful," she said. "I went back for more."
She said Dean had a reputation for being a hotheaded perfectionist in the kitchen, but she found him to be in good humor as he dished out his steamed oysters to the large crowd. "I heard about his strong personality, which a lot of chefs have," she said. But she found him perfectly calm, even jovial.
"I think in some cases that if you're very confident — and I think that he is — his confidence coupled with a calmness would serve him well" on the show," she said. "That's actually a great combination. Confident everything will go your way."
And if everything doesn't go Dean's way?
"I don't know if he'll stay cool," Hall said. But if not, "he'll probably regroup."
"Top Chef: D.C." premieres at 9 p.m. Wednesday.