Timothy Dean was a Best Western dishwasher at age 14, a protege of Jean-Louis Palladin by 18.
Now at 40, he's a contestant on "Top Chef."
His appearance on reality TV, which begins Wednesday night on Bravo, is not so much the culmination of a charmed culinary career as a bid to get it back on track.
Dean's rise — from dishwasher to student of the famed French chef to restaurateur in his own right — was so meteoric that this newspaper described his life as "a fairy tale" full of "good fortune, good timing and a good bit of pluck." That was five years ago, in a feature pegged to the opening of Timothy Dean Bistro in Fells Point.
Since then, Dean has had more than his share of personal tragedy and professional setbacks.
His wife, Michelle, died in June 2007 of breast cancer at the age of 38. The bistro closed and reopened as T.D. Lounge, which also shut, leaving a trail of unpaid vendors, including a bank that won a nearly $1.3 million judgment against Dean and his real estate LLC in May. Days later, the shuttered bistro filed for bankruptcy protection.
Through all this, Dean has pushed ahead. The widower-dad raised his daughter, Chantel, now 20. He opened Prime Steakhouse early this year with some self-inflicted snags but to generally positive reviews. And he managed to land a spot on "Top Chef," the reality cooking show that has launched some little-known chefs to stardom.
"As a chef, we need to focus," Dean said in a telephone interview the other day. "We need to focus more on the food and the restaurant versus personal stuff."
Dean's ability to tune out personal and professional distractions and focus on his food should serve him well on the show, said Nancy Longo, chef at Baltimore's Pierpoint restaurant, who used to live around the corner from Dean's bistro and who had her own turn on the Food Network's "Ready, Set, Cook."
"They stick people in a room and bait them against each other. They begged you to wreck havoc with the other people," Longo said. "But I think Tim has a pretty cool head. … He's very stoic. He's gonna put his head down and do what he's got to do.
"Usually those kind of people, somebody you might call the sleeper, the quiet one — generally they're the ones who are very intense with their food and they drown out the other stuff."
Longo has shared a kitchen with Dean and other chefs at charity fundraisers at Carver Vocational-Technical High School. She found Dean to be generous and friendly toward fellow chefs and outgoing with the young student-chefs from Carver. And it's not always that way, Longo said, even when the cooking is for charity.
"These things can be a little intense when everybody's fighting over sheet trays," Longo said. "I've watched people rape and pillage people's trays. It can be very primal."
Things tend to get pretty primal in the "Top Chef" kitchen, as anyone who has seen the show knows. And this season looks to be no exception, judging by a rough cut of the episode released to the media. Alpha males dominate the first episode, a statement that should require no spoiler alert given the outsized personalities of chefs in general, and aspiring TV chefs in particular.
One of the contestants flatly states that he wants his competitors to size him up and conclude, "This guy is truly the alpha male."
Dean does not come off as biggest ego on that episode, though he is hardly a shrinking violet.
Even before Prime Steakhouse opened its doors this year, he talked about expanding the concept to other markets.
"Emeril and Thomas Keller and Wolfgang [Puck] are doing it," he said. "Why not me?"
Dean displays some of that bravado on the first episode. Before they get down to cooking, he is shown chatting with other contestants at a getting-to-know-you cocktail party. One of those he meets is Angelo Sosa, a chef with an Asian-influenced sandwich restaurant, Xie Xie. Dean recalls in a solo interview spliced into the cocktail-party footage: "Angelo is like, 'I got it going on.' And I'm like, 'This is some bull [expletive].' "
Dean has been on the other end of that sort of assessment more than once.
Fells Point neighbors around his bistro were thrilled to have his upscale restaurant open in 2005, but not so much when the place morphed into a lounge in June 2008 with a disc jockey and dancing. The city liquor board fined the lounge $3,100 last year after one of its inspectors was manhandled by restaurant security. The board also found the club guilty of operating as a dance club in violation of zoning rules.
Last month, Dean's lawyer, Peter Prevas, asked the board to cut the fine in half — in part because Dean would be appearing on "Top Chef." The board agreed to knock $1,000 off the fine if he dropped his appeal. Dean is working out a payment plan with the board.
A previous lawyer for Dean, Frank Boston, took Dean to court last year and won a $975 judgment.