Missing that local flavor on Top Chef? We are, too. After dominating the first three seasons of Bravo’s reality cooking juggernaut, Las Vegans were shut out of Season 4. As in, not a single one of the program’s 16 invited contestants hailed from our renowned culinary haven! (They probably just wanted to give some other cities a chance after seeing Strip-employed knife-wielders place second, second and first in succession, with a third and fifth mixed in for good measure.)
As the current Vegas-less season winds toward its June 11 finale—and we look forward to a Season 5 that we’ve been assured by chefs in high places (thanks for the tip, Marcel!) will feature a taste of Southern Nevada—we catch up with Las Vegas’ five all-time top Top Chef finishers.
Second place, Season 2
Vegas time served: Four years (2005-present), most of that at Joël Robuchon at The Mansion at MGM Grand (where he earned the designation Master Cook) and later at Company American Bistro at the Luxor. Since then he’s been catering private dinners and traveling—a lot. “I’ll be in New York for a month, doing some work for NBC and catering a party with [Season 3 winner] Hung [Huynh]. I’m gonna go commercial salmon fishing in Alaska for three weeks, and then I’ve got stuff to do in Hawaii and at the Chefs Garden in Ohio and in Laguna [California]. But Vegas is still my Grand Central Station. I’ve grown to love this city. At first it was a love-hate relationship, leaning more towards hate, but over time I began to like it a lot. I grew up on a little island in Washington, surrounded by trees and water, and then I went to New York, and I had this huge cultural city. Then I moved out here and there was, like, a lack of culture, a lack of trees and a lack of water. But that having been said, Vegas has a lot of good things going for it.”
Up next: “I’d love to do a restaurant out here, but I don’t know of a pre-existing restaurant that I would want to work at out here. I also feel as though the market is getting kinda saturated. There’s a lot of restaurants right now, and some of them might fizzle out. It’s also hard for me because I had two really cool ends of the spectrum here. I worked at Joël Robuchon [at The Mansion at MGM Grand], the only [Vegas] restaurant that got [a] 3-star Michelin [rating]. And then at Company, we got to be a little bit more experimental and have more fun with it. So after that I don’t really know where I’d cook out here. I’m not opposed to the idea, but at the same time I haven’t figured it out yet.”
His Top Chef experience: Though his face was the successful target of a thrown bottle at Tryst nightclub, the most polarizing contestant in the show’s history says he’s received an overwhelmingly positive response. “That incident was pretty much the only negative thing that happened to me. Otherwise, it’s been nothing but positive feedback. To this day, I still can’t go out without getting recognized, and there’s usually a couple of things that people say. First it’s, like, ‘Loved you on the show.’ Second is, ‘Totally thought you should have won.’ And third is, ‘You totally inspired me to want to cook,’ and that one, for me, is the most fulfilling aspect of having been on the show. It’s not the notoriety or the fame, and it’s definitely not the money because I never got paid for anything. That I had an impact on people’s lives and made them want to learn about food and cook more and maybe not go out to McDonald’s and get a Big Mac is the coolest thing.”
On losing to rival Ilan Hall in the finale: “It definitely would have been nice to win $100,000, but there’s something to be said, I think, for having the majority of the public think that you should have won. It’s a really close second to actually winning. I went on that show to showcase my talents and express myself through food to the public, and I think that I was able to achieve that. Beating my arch-nemesis in a throwdown would have been cool, but all in all I’m pretty pleased with my performance.”
Pick to win Season 4: “I’ve only caught two episodes. For one of them I was in New York with Hung. We just kicked back and watched, and it was pretty funny, we were yelling at the TV and critiquing everybody. Everybody who watches pretty much does that, but who out there has more authority to do it than us? I’ve known Spike [Mendelsohn] for five years; he was one of my students when I was a teaching assistant at the C.I.A. [Culinary Institute of America], and we used to hang out on occasion. [Richard] Blaze obviously also stands out, but the ladies all seem to be doing very well, too.”
What he learned: “As a cook, having the opportunities to cook for Eric Ripert or Daniel Boulud or Anthony Bourdain and having them critique your food is a nice way to learn a lot about your food. On top of that, you get the opportunity to get thrown in the fire. What would I do if I had 15 minutes to make a gourmet meal out of a vending machine? You learn a lot about your own culinary style, because you don’t have time to think about anything. And, in terms of personality, it’s a good opportunity to see how you react to certain situations, how you handle stress and how other people perceive you. But did it change me? Not so much [laughs].”
Fifth place, Season 1
Vegas time served: Two years (2004-2006), first as wine sommelier for Caesars Palace restaurants Nero’s and Terrazza, and then, while the show aired, at the MGM Grand’s Nobhill. “We really maximized our time in Vegas. Myself and a bunch of the other sommeliers used to hang out. We had a blast. The wine lists in Vegas are unparalleled throughout the country. I was, like, 23 years old, drinking these ridiculous wines. Not many people my age—or even twice my age—have an experience like that. I miss the lifestyle, for sure, the whole working 12 hours, getting off, going out till 8 or 9 in the morning, throwing some water on my face and going back to work. That was a good time. I don’t do that anymore.”
Now stationed: Owner and operator, Forté di Asprinio, a contemporary Italian joint in Palm Beach, Florida. “Basically, it’s a different take on regional Italian cuisine, incorporating a lot of modern techniques, innovative flavor combinations and a lot of refinement, which you don’t usually see in Italian cuisine.” Following a March visit, food critic Michael Ruhlman blogged, “The food … was executed perfectly, the dishes were intelligent and delicious, and service was attentive, prices reasonable.” An example from the menu: a play on risotto with lobster orzo in place of traditional carnaroli rice, enriched with mascarpone and topped with a black truffle foam. “We’ve done with Italian cuisine what Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] have done with French cuisine—taking that rustic regional cuisine and turning it into nouveau cuisine,” Asprinio says.
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His Top Chef experience: The first season’s self-assured wine authority speaks glowingly about his time in front of the camera, despite rubbing a few of his competitors the wrong way. (Who can forget one calling him a “tool and a douchebag”?) “I was a little intense, for lack of a better word, on the show, but never really mean to the point where, like, Marcel got a bottle thrown at him, poor kid. Everyone was very kind to me. It was cool, getting out of the car at the Venetian to go to Tao and having girls screaming your name. I found it very interesting, very amusing,” he says. “It’s a great show. I think they nailed it. If you look at Hell’s Kitchen, I think it’s kind of lame. The talent pool … there isn’t one, and Gordon [Ramsay] is running around screaming at everyone. It’s entertaining, no doubt, but we brought a lot of credibility to this whole reality thing. I’m very proud to be part of that brand. Very proud.”
The reality carryover: “People definitely expect to see me in my restaurant, out, serving wine … I hired a chef, another guy from Vegas, so he’s running the kitchen, and my sommelier is doing the wine program day-to-day, so I’m able to float between the front and back. Because there is that expectation—my name’s on the door, literally, so some people come in for the sole purpose of seeing me.”
Pick to win Season 4: “I haven’t been watching, unfortunately. My father TiVos, so I’m gonna try to catch up someday. Spike [Mendelsohn] works for my mentor, Drew Nieporent of Myriad Restaurant Group, so I’m rooting for Spike.” Mendelsohn has since been eliminated.
Back in the future? “I will definitely be back in Vegas, and next time I come I’ll be bringing one of my restaurants with me. We’ve already been talking to people there. Vegas is a mecca, man, and the time that I spent there—the two years working at Caesars and MGM—really opened my eyes to what the Vegas market’s really about. There’s a perception it’s all huge and big money and everyone’s going crazy, but it’s not the case. There’s a lot of foodies who fly in just to it dine at the restaurants, and don’t even go to the casino. With what I’m doing with my restaurant now, with a next-generation type of restaurant, it’s kind of where Vegas is going. And I definitely want to be a part of that.”
Tie for third place, Season 2
Vegas time served: Four years (2005-present; she lives in Henderson), first as sous chef at Robuchon and then at TheHotel at Mandalay Bay, where she oversaw the café and room service kitchen. She currently works independently, offering her services as a chef and instructor at private and charity events. “I’ve heard so many negative comments about Vegas, but I enjoy it very much. I love sports—I snowboard all winter, and then in the summer I love hiking or boarding in [Lake Mead]. There’s great food, and nothing is too expensive. And there’s a growing culture toward what we do, so it’s a good place to stay right now.”
In the works: “I’ve been looking around since last May for a place to open my own thing, probably outside of the Strip, though I’ve been in negotiation with one Strip property. I’m thinking more than a restaurant, like a food boutique with charcuterie [cured meat] and bread, like a high-end bakery—not high-end in price but in quality—and a tiny little restaurant that you can sit in, maybe five tables. That’s what I dream of, what’s been in my heart for so long, but maybe I’ll do a restaurant first. We’ll see.”
Her Top Chef experience: She might have shaved her head on camera, but it sounds like her overall experience was anything but smooth. “For me it was very rough, a very tough ride. I’m normally a lot more goofy and happy, and in the show I was so tense and so upset the whole time because things weren’t going the way I would plan. Like, ‘Can Tom Colicchio try it now while it’s hot, instead of having to wait for the camera to shoot it correctly, when it’s been sitting there for 35 minutes?’ Some things that they put us through were ridiculous—they don’t feed you, they don’t let you sleep. And you realize how much the art of editing is involved. It’s all used for the way the producers want you to come across, so you have to be very careful. But I don’t regret it. It gave me a lot of exposure that I would have never gotten at this age. I met some great people—I’m very good friends with Ilan and Carlos [Fernandez]—and, luckily for me, I’ve never had anybody who watched the show say, ‘You suck, I hated you.’ But I wouldn’t [encourage] someone I knew to go on a reality-TV show.”
Regarding Marcel: “As the sous chef for Joël Robuchon, I was in charge of all the hiring and training, and I happened to hire Marcel. So it was very bizarre to have one of my cooks on the show with me. Marcel knew me from a different atmosphere and a different perspective, and to me he was very respectful and very nice throughout the whole show … until he started messing with me on the last episode, moving my stuff around. And then I blew up … He’s a special character. I actually think he was put in a nice way on TV. He was very intense and very arrogant. I really think he thought of himself as better than everybody else there, and that’s a dangerous place to be. When you’re that young and you believe you’re the best, you stop yourself from learning. Someone needs to slap you and say, ‘Hey! Hello?’ But when I see him now at events it’s okay; I don’t hold anything against anyone. I wish him the best, because I don’t think he has a bad heart. I just think he needs to mature.”
Pick to win Season 4: “I never watch Top Chef. I haven’t owned a TV since I left Mexico when I was 17, so I’d never heard of Top Chef before I got on the show. I got a TV for the show, watched my season and gave it back [laughs].”
Cooking philosophy: “I’ve always though that there has to be a main star of your dish—the meat, a mushroom, whatever you chose—and then the other flavors you add are just there to complement it. We’re just the middle point between raw nature and your plate. It should be simple, it should be easy, and it should be something that gives pleasure to others more than to us. It’s so sad that now, a lot of chefs look at themselves as artists. It’s so much attention to the chef, and it’s losing attention to the food. I think we have to go back and realize we’re just here to serve, to do justice to the food instead of making sure we make an original plate.”
Second place, Season 2
Vegas time served: A year and a half (2005-2006), first as a Master Cook at Daniel Boulud Brasserie at the Wynn and later as a waitress at Tao at the Venetian. “I had been on the front side of things, bartending and bar managing, before I started cooking, and then I’d been cooking for six or seven years, so I just wanted to refresh myself on the front side of things again [at Tao] before I couldn’t anymore. It was really educational and really good for me. A really hard place to wait tables, though, I’m not gonna lie. But I liked that the hospitality industry was so front and center in Vegas. It seemed like everyone worked in hospitality and sort of understood each other, so that general respect and admiration that exists in Vegas I really enjoy.”
Up next: A San Francisco restaurant (Faison lives in Oakland) is in the works. “Seasonal new-American. Farm-to-table concept. About 45-50 seats. It’s being built.”
Her Top Chef experience: She inspired the line, “I’m not your bitch, bitch!” and left the room in tears at the reunion, but Faison doesn’t look back in anger. “There’s things that, like, I said in Week 2 that they used in Week 8, but I accept responsibility for everything that came out of my mouth. Had I known that it was gonna be a personality contest maybe it would have been a little different, but I really thought it was a talent-based, work-based competition, which it was in a lot of ways. It’s definitely been a growth tool for me. I learned things about myself that probably would have taken me another five or six years to learn without the show.”
How realistic was “reality”? “I’ve heard people say that the challenges aren’t representative of how kitchens really are, and that’s one of my biggest quips. Are you gonna have to make things out of a snack machine? No. But there are so many times that you have limited time and limited resources. [On one of this season’s episodes] they had to make a meal for a family with $10 and they had to cook with kids, and the guy I was working with said it wasn’t realistic or fair. And I was like, ‘It’s absolutely fair.’ There are so many times running a restaurant when your budget is limited and you still have to put food out. And when you don’t get the cooks that you want working in your kitchen, so you have to simplify things a little bit more than you would want. As crazy as the challenges are, I think there are elements of what it takes to be a great chef that are represented and echoed through them.”
Pick to win Season 4: “Oh no, I don’t give all that. I’ll just say I think there’s a lot of talented chefs on this season and that it’s fun to watch. I know Jennifer Biesty—living in the same city, we reached out to each other about show stuff—but she’s already been eliminated.”
Celebrity treatment: “I still get recognized constantly. People will yell out of their cars as I’m walking down the street, ‘You should have won!’ or ‘We love you!’ One night, when my season was airing, I was waiting on Paris Hilton’s boyfriend’s birthday party at Tao … it was Paris Hilton, Nicky Hilton, Tom Brady, Kevin Connolly, all these crazy people. And this woman at the next table … it seemed like something was wrong, like she was having a bad time, and there was nothing I could do to make her feel better. So at the end of the meal I was like, ‘Is everything okay?’ And she said, ‘I’m having a great time. Tom Brady is to my right, Paris and Nicky Hilton are in front of me. And Tiffani from Top Chef is my waiter!’ Crazy.”
Winner, Season 3
Vegas time served: Two years (2006-2008), serving as sous chef at Guy Savoy at Caesars Palace. He left town last November, and emptied out his apartment here last month. “I got used to Vegas after, like, a year and a half. I finally got used to driving around and seeing plazas [strip malls] and plazas. Everywhere you go, you have to go to a plaza. But there’s great clubs, great shopping and friendly customer service. And I love the shows. Zumanity was great. I actually saw five shows in Las Vegas, and I’ve seen none in New York.”
Next up: Huynh is currently serving as guest chef at Solo, a kosher restaurant in Manhattan. “I’m redoing the menu and the kitchen, and then hopefully they’re gonna invest in my new restaurant.” As to that, he says his own place will be “heavy on seafood—lots of fresh fish, shellfish, simple ingredients done right, with a lot of Mediterranean and Asian influences.” He’s scouting locations in Midtown and the Village.
That $100,000 winner’s check: “I paid my taxes, spent a lot of money traveling … it’s not much for a high roller like me [laughs].”
His Top Chef experience: Speaking as quickly as he chopped apart those chickens in the “relay race” challenge, Huynh says, “I learned so much. I’m a little better at small talk now. You just have to be a much more humble person, not that I wasn’t before. I’m a little cocky, but it’s all for good fun, nothing mean or anything. But I’m definitely a more humble person. You also learn to think a little faster on your feet. You can really tell your cooks, ‘I can do that in 15 minutes. Why can’t you?’”
Celebrity treatment: “When the show was on I’d walk into clubs and get swarmed by, like, 16 girls. It was great [laughs].”
Pick to win Season 4: “I always watch. Every Wednesday, I turn the TV on at the restaurant. It seems like Richard’s got really great technique, but the girls are doing great, so it could be anyone. But my money’s on Richard right now. Having been on the show, when I see them eyes standing up there at the judge’s table I know what they’re going through. I know what time it is.”
On breaking through for Las Vegas: “Vegas has a lot of great chefs, a lot of big names and a lot of great cooks. Vegas, I think, is the second major food city in the country besides New York, so there’s something to be said for being the one to win from Vegas, something to be proud of.”
Spencer Patterson is the Weekly’s music editor.