ink. Voltaggio | photo courtsey of Michael Voltaggio
By Tara de Lis
After eight seasons, Bravo TV’s Top Chef has become one of the most popular reality cooking shows on television. Appearing as a contestant can make or break a young chef’s career, leading to instant stardom—or temporary unemployment. It has that much power. But sometimes our favorite competitors and most memorable moments aren’t determined by wins or losses, but by bold personalities, odd references like “Top Scallop” or even an alleged bag of missing peas. Here in LA, we are lucky to have almost a dozen former Top Chef competitors running restaurants and consulting on menus. So instead of salivating over their dishes from your living room, you can finally taste them firsthand straight from the kitchen.
Larger-than-life personality Betty Fraser is an alumnus from Season 2, and co-founder of Hollywood’s perennially popular breakfast and lunch spot Grub. Together with business partner Denise DeCarlo, Fraser has created a casual comfort food zone that is beloved by the neighboring studios. Grub is known for its “crack” bacon, the “afterschool special” of a grilled cheese with tomato soup on the side, not to mention “redneck” sangria and “hopscotch” desserts.
Of Top Chef then and now, she has nothing but praise. “I think the stakes are definitely raised with each season,” Fraser begins. “And because of shows like Top Chef and all of the [other] cooking shows, the whole face of food has changed, down to ingredients we use, the techniques we cook with and the presentation. [It’s not enough just to] cook food that tastes good anymore, it has to look like a piece of art. I’m wondering if home-style dishes might get some love. I’m not one for necessarily making things beautiful and elegant. I’m into big sizes and flavors; you don’t have to be dainty eating my food.”
It’s certainly a hit on the catering side, which she says is busier than ever. Also, Fraser and DeCarlo are still interested in pitching a cooking series of their own. Fraser says, “Denise and I are constantly approached to do concepts on food shows for television. I really believe at some point one of those will hit. I’m excited for Marcel to have his own show; very happy for him. With the expansion of every single channel having a food show, it’s not going away. People love to watch it and learn about it, and I’m glad I’ve been able to have a part in that."
Toluca Lake is finally a foodie destination, thanks to Season 5 alum Alex Eusebio and his Sweetsalt Food Shop. He says, “We came in a year and half ago and started a food revolution. Other people have realized what a cool place this is and more [restaurants] have popped up. I think Top Chef gets people interested in you, and then it’s your responsibility to make them come back.
It was important to Eusebio to plot his own course. He says,” After the show, a lot of restaurant owners call you because they want the publicity, but I didn’t want to do what other people did. I didn’t want to go to [someone else’s] restaurant and be the executive chef. I wanted to open my own shop [with my wife] and run it by our own rules. You have to work so hard to have your own place, even if it’s a sandwich shop. But it means a lot of to me.”
Looking ahead also means looking back for Eusebio. “I’ll be honest with you, the one thing that makes me feel guilty, the restaurant I was at [while I was on the show], 15 in Echo Park, closed right after,” he confides. “So I really didn’t have a restaurant to cook for people [when the show ended]. Then I opened this place. It’s good, but it’s not dinner. I feel like I owe it to people to open a fine dining place. But I want to do it at my own pace and at my own expense, if that makes sense. I don’t want to be someone else’s chef."
Photo: Giovanni Reda
Ilan Hall is one of two LA-based Top Chef champions, the other being Michael Voltaggio. Hall claimed the title in the finale of the second season. Open for almost two years, Hall's restaurant The Gorbals has become a funky downtown destination dinner spot. Thanks to LA’s current love affair with innards, menu items like lamb’s neck and pig head don’t deter diners; instead they're part of the allure. Noting the changing face of foodsters, Hall says, “What drives our business is the young population of people in their mid-20s to late 30s who are into experimenting with new foods.”
Looking back on the show, he jokes, “It was so long ago … I was but a boy then … [You’re] with lots of people into the same thing, but different … You’re not allowed to leave the island, but I made friends for life.”
More importantly, winning enabled him to “finance his lifestyle,” meaning world travel and exposure to a diverse array of cuisines everywhere from the Philippines to Venezuela to Romania. In the end, though, he came back to his childhood roots when envisioning what would become a rotating menu of some rather unusual food at The Gorbals. It’s been dubbed “Scottish Jewish” food, but Hall negates that description, saying merely that he “pulled inspiration from stuff I grew up eating, but took liberties to elaborate on it.”
Photo: Katina Papson
Season 5 and All-Stars alum Jamie Lauren has been in Los Angeles for a year now, and as much as she misses her friends in San Francisco, she’s adapted well to her new home. First showing up at Beechwood in Venice, she’s now the executive chef at Wolfslair in Hollwood.
The menu concept is the sort of coffee table fare found at a friend’s dinner party, or as Lauren says, “Think retro food that you grew up eating [and] might be embarrassed to admit you love, but are secretly excited to go to a restaurant and enjoy.” Examples include everything from pickled deviled eggs to chips and house-made onion dip. She adds, “The Indian spiced lamb burger sliders—I have been doing those for 10 years. I never thought they would become a signature, but I guess they have.” Note that there’s nary a scallop dish to be found.
Lauren is most proud of her experience on the show the first time around, and admits “the second time, I just couldn’t seem to get my head in the game,” but overall she’s happy she did it. “I don't think I would be in LA if not for [Top Chef]. It opened a lot of doors for me, and I am grateful to the producers and casting people,” she concludes.
Photo courtesy of Antonia Lofaso
A strong contender on Season 4, Antonia Lofaso got a second chance at becoming Top Chef on the recent and wildly popular All-Stars edition. This time she made it to the finals, but was ultimately bested by her long lost cousin Mike Isabella and winner Richard Blais. Even though she came up short, her memories of the show are fond. She says, “Top Chef completely impacted my career in ways I never could have imagined. The opportunities given to me because of the show were immeasurable, going from not being known, to everyone recognizing me. How many times in your career do you get the chance to cook for amazing chefs like Daniel Boulud, Eric Ripert, Anthony Bourdain and Tom Colicchio?”
These days, Lofaso can be found behind the stoves at Studio City’s hottest new gastropub, Black Market Liquor Bar. Dishes like buttery mussels with fennel and chili, and a hearty soft shell crab po’ boy showcase her talent with simple but high quality ingredients exhibiting powerful flavors.
And Lofaso believes this is exactly what customers are after, as opposed to the celebrity chef factor. “I definitely think people come into the restaurant to try our food, not necessarily to meet us. They’re excited to watch process of us cooking [on TV], but it’s frustrating not being able to touch it or taste it.”
Originally only hired on a consulting basis, the good news is that she plans on sticking around. Her arrangement with the restaurant group that runs Black Market (they also own The Local Peasant in Sherman Oaks and the Happy Ending in Hollywood) has proven successful, and now she’s looking forward to helping them develop other concepts.
Lofaso also moonlights as the private chef for a local celebrity (her contract prohibits her from saying who it is), and she’s developing recipes for her cookbook (with the working title A Cookbook for the Busy Parent), due out in October 2012.
Season 7's Alex Reznik (aka “Skeletor”) is similarly wary about his own experience. “I came on to showcase my culinary skills and talents, but the way it was edited, it was a little manipulated, [like with] the pea puree incident … I don’t know that Top Chef has done anything to alter my career. As it was airing, it actually had negative effects. People would call [Café Was] and say, ‘you should fire that guy.” Still he concedes of what he calls “food boot camp,” “the person who is supposed to win does, and the person who screws up the most goes home.”
These days, he’s manning the stoves at La Seine, an upscale kosher eatery on the south end of Beverly Hills’ famed Restaurant Row. The fare is eclectic and unexpected. Reznik calls it “contemporary California cuisine, with a touch of Asian, and French-influenced. There’s no pastrami, no matzo balls …” Instead, popular menu items include the playfully plated Jerusalem artichoke soup studded with mushroom and sunflower seeds, as well as the substantial bone marrow and corned beef tongue served with cherry apricot mostarda.
Reznik, who is of Jewish heritage, recalls first hearing about the concept and thinking, “That’s crazy. Why would anybody want to do kosher food? It’s not good.” Then he realized he could make it “seasonal, creative and delicious.”
Photo courtesy of Stefan Richter
During Season 5, one of Jamie Lauren’s biggest fans was fellow cheftestant Stefan Richter, the more notorious half of “Team Euro” (along with Fabio Viviani). Richter is still running Stefan’s at L.A. Farm, though he’s become significantly more of a “rock star” (his own words, yes) in Finland, where he has already opened one restaurant and is about to launch another. Here in Los Angeles, the menu at L.A. Farm remains fairly constant, with creative dishes including local halibut with champagne sauce and his signature lollipop trio and the fire pit s’mores served for dessert.
Many felt his absence from All-Stars was one of the most surprising. According to Richter, after a few moments of mumbling muses, it was his choice. Whether the decision was truly strategic, Richter’s outlook from hindsight is 20/20. “I think everybody regrets All-Stars,” he says. “I left the right impression on my season. Why I would I ruin it with another [one]? People are playing it too safe now. I was fricking smashed 80 percent of the time on camera, and I gave great interviews.”
Whatever you do, don’t get him started on Carla Hall, his Season 5 co-contestant who is now a spokesperson for Friskies: “It’s like if I were doing commercials for cheap Russian liquor. I love her, but a cat food commercial? C’mon!”
Season 7’s controversial runner-up Angelo Sosa gives a lot of credit to his time on the show. “It transcends everything I do from a business sense, writing a cookbook, potentially being on [another] TV show. The beauty of the show is being put in situations you are not familiar with and having to adapt. I know it’s a reality show, but it’s mind-blowing reality show. It made me a better person and a better chef,” he says.
And since then, he says that business for his Sosa Consulting Group “has grown 100 fold. It’s skyrocketing and really a blessing.” He’s currently consulting at two area restaurants: the casual live music venue Malibu Inn, and Smith House Tap & Grill, now open in Century City. Sosa describes the latter as “relatively big, with [more than] 250 seats, 130-plus taps of beer, pretty high tech, and with a 100-percent sustainable, organic menu based on ‘vintage’ Prime meats.” Technically he’s still based in New York City, but his goal is to be truly bi-coastal.
Photo: Luke Lovell
Runner-up to Ilan Hall was none other than Marcel Vigneron, who later appeared on All-Stars, and most recently starred in Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen on the Syfy network. He credits much of his ascent in the culinary world to both his original run on the show and to the All-Stars follow up. Vigneron describes, “My name got out there to the public pretty quickly … I was capable of starting out my own company, and built a base of clients. It probably never would have happened had I not been on television.”
In spite of being eliminated about halfway through the latter series, he actually enjoyed himself more the second time around. He explains, ”The challenges were more difficult, the competition was a little more fierce … Everybody had done a season before and understood how the game was played. But it was way more fun going out to Montauk and catching your own bass, as opposed to cooking out of a vending machine.”
Still based in LA, he’s bounced around Beverly Hills, from opening (along with Michael Voltaggio) The Bazaar by José Andrés to creating culinary concoctions for the club crowd at bar210. As of late Vigneron has been unofficially consulting on many menus, launching pop-ups, working events with his molecular gastronomy catering company and mixology-style libations, as well as looking for the right new project to attach himself, possibly on a more permanent basis.
For all the buona seras and ebullient hand-kissing, Season 5 Fan Favorite Fabio Viviani is actually a very savvy businessman who recognizes the power of his celebrity. While Top Chef certainly brought him fame, he was and continues to be discerning in the way he uses it. Viviani says, “I used the exposure in proper way in building a business and a brand in myself, rather than just riding the wave of people saying hi to you and wanting to get an autograph at breakfast. I use it to do good for other people and for the companies I am working with.”
Fresh off of All-Stars, Viviani's Firenze Osteria restaurants are doing well, both the original location in Moorpark (which he once again is running), and the newer branch in Toluca Lake. The response to the latter has been a pleasant surprise to him: “I’m very happy with LA. I [heard it could be] a very picky crowd … lots of rock stars … people go where there are celebrities … The reality is that comfort food is what everybody likes. Sometimes you find with high-end food, it must be a scene, and you don’t have a good meal. LA has been very good to me.” Indeed, LA loves its gnocchi.
Viviani is looking to expand, and would ideally target downtown Ventura for his next venture, but is open to other ideas. He says, “It’s not a matter of location, but of opportunity … To have a successful restaurant, you need good people with a good food mentality. You can’t run everything by yourself; you need to train them so they know what you are expecting … I think about Ventura, but the next one could [end up] being in Canada, New York or Chicago.” Maybe he ought to consider Atlanta as well, and reignite his “bromance” with Richard Blais, which he says “wasn’t TV. It was real.”
Michael Voltaggio used to be very skeptical of cooking shows, and was known for joking about the chefs that starred on such programs: “He’s not a chef, he just plays one on TV.” It’s ironic then that he has landed in the entertainment capital of the world and became a household name thanks to this very genre. In fact, he thanks Tom Colicchio for first making the medium more “accessible and acceptable,” in addition to “paving the way for young American chefs to be taken seriously.”
The net result, he says, “is a new demographic of diner. [Previously] in fine dining restaurants, we catered to upper class, entitled [patrons]. Now we get people who genuinely want to experience something new.”
West Hollywood's ink. features the Season 6 winner at the helm. The restaurant’s name comes from a riff on the word “incorporated,” but serves as a double entendre with the concept of permanence. As for the food, expect boundary-pushing “Los Angeles cuisine,” which Voltaggio sees as an opportunity to “to create more modern refined versions of [ethnic food] available to us in the city, like having a global dining experience without having to leave L.A.”
It isn't small plates per se, but “smaller plates—the way a tasting menu would be composed,” with guests being able to create their own menus and share the food. The goal Voltaggio says, is to “eliminate obstacles … In fine dining, you have to get the tasting menu for the entire table, but there are so many other dishes on the menu you may want to try. [And] everyone at the table has to have the same menu, but not everyone has the same palate.”
For those guests who want the ultimate in avant-garde Voltaggio, he has retained the sushi bar from former ink. inhabitant Hamasaku, where he personally prepare his own take on an omakase-style menu. Except it isn't be sushi. “Not everything has to be so literal,” he explains. Instead, it mimics the experience of “trusting the chef,” as he is “cutting, plating and communicating, with the ingredients right there in front of you as you watch the story being told as you eat your meal.” This experience takes place over 10 to 12 courses for a limited number of guests per evening.
Exact menu items change regularly and seasonally but expect recipes from the Voltaggio Brothers cookbook to be featured on the ink. menu, including his famous pigeon pastrami with sauerkraut jelly.
Voltaggio fans got an unexpected bonus in August 2011, when he opened a takeout sandwich shop called ink. sack a few doors down from ink.. The 4-inch sandwiches, priced at just $4-6, have devotees lining out the door for creations like the José Andrés (aka The Spanish Godfather), made with with chorizo, lomo, Serrano ham, olives, piquillo peppers, manchego cheese and sherry vinaigrette.
9876 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, 310.887.6060
The Bazaar by José Andrés
465 S. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills, 310.246.5555
Black Market Liquor Bar
11915 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, 818.446.2533
4212 Lankershim Blvd., Toluca Lake, 818.760.7081
501 S. Spring St., Downtown, 213.488.3408
911 Seward St., Hollywood, 323.461.3663
8360 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, 323.651.5866
14 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills, 310.358.0922
Stefan’s at L.A. Farm
3000 W. Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica, 310.449.4000
Sweetsalt Food Shop
10218 1/2 Riverside Dr., Toluca Lake, 818.509.7790
1521 Vine Street Hollywood, CA 90028