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Marcel Speaks Up!

A few words with the contestant you love to hate—or hate to love—on Bravo’s Top Chef

Michael T. Toole

"See this?" he says, pointing to a 1-inch scar over his left eye.

I nod.

"This girl came up to me at a nightclub and asked me if I was Marcel from Top Chef. The next thing I knew, this bottle struck me, and my friends had to rush me to the hospital. I needed 30 stitches for this."

You read that correctly: The man was attacked not for his political beliefs, not because he supports the wrong football team, but for being a contestant on a popular reality show, Top Chef.

For those who don't follow the show, here's a primer: The program, which airs on Bravo on Wednesday nights, pits chefs against each other in a variety of challenges (cooking in a fire pit on the beach, using ingredients from a snack-bar vending machine) to create some inventive (or not) dishes. Each week, the judges—including chef Tom Colicchio, who owns Craftsteak at the MGM Grand—pick through the field and eliminate them one by one.

Now in its second season, the show began as a companion piece to the network's cult smash Project Runway, yet it's obvious by the legions of people on Bravo's message boards and the frequent posters on fashionable websites (Television Without Pity, fansofrealitytv.com) that the program is developing its own legs.

One of four Las Vegans on the show this season, Marcel Vigneron, 26, is the most colorful, divisive character on the show—perhaps one of the most colorful in all of reality television right now. He's the show's outcast; viewed as difficult and unapproachable, he's been persecuted by other contestants since the season began in October. Lately, though, his popularity—at least as measured by posts on numerous message boards—has been on the upswing, as though the attacks by his peers have won him some sympathy. So I wanted to know: What's the story? Was he the enfant terrible of the Kenmore kitchen or just the annoying kid everyone had to cut down at school?

The slightly built, saucer-eyed cheftestant with the tall hairstyle is standing with me on a nippy Wednesday morning, indulging in my favorite pastime, the 99-cent shrimp cocktail at the Golden Gate Hotel. The Downtown promenade isn't especially busy, but he wasn't hard to find in a crowd."He looks like a vampire," said Betty Fraser, one of his competitors and biggest critics on Top Chef.

"This place looks interesting," he says.

"I like it for the cross-section of people you see." Currently in the cafeteria line: employees from neighboring casinos, youthful backpackers, hardcore video-poker addicts, and us, a loved/hated reality-TV personality and a beat writer.

"I see what you mean," he says.

"Help yourself to some juice, and what do you say we go all-out for the $2.99 big-glass specials?"

"Wow, you're spoiling me," he says with a sheepish grin.

As we carry our takeout trays and plastic utensils to the dining room, he gives his background information. A native of Bainbridge, Washington, he went to the Culinary Institute of America and had a fellowship as a sous chef at the institute's Ristorante Caterina de Medici. He now works as a master cook at Joel Robuchon at the Mansion, in the MGM Grand, and has lived in Las Vegas for 19 months.

Regarding the dynamics of Top Chef, the consensus on many message boards is that the show is playing out as an allegory for high school: there's the hotheaded bully, the sly instigator, the sexually frustrated, angry kid, the strident cheerleader with the dubious smile, the shy girl who is always studying in the library, the stoner. Marcel's role seems to be the socially awkward geek who doesn't know how to relate to people."I just think that's funny," he says,"because I never had any problems in high school. There was a party at my house every Friday night!"

Time to hit him with some questions:
I found it interesting that, especially with the guys, their insults were based on emasculation—Sam saying you're only 5-foot-2, Ilan calling you a virgin, Frank threatening to beat you up. It's pretty much what guys did to take down other guys in high school.

"I agree, but in a way, their comments were so out of line, I knew it wasn't just about me. I could tell they were threatened by me, and in a way it reinforced my self-belief."

On the message boards and around those water coolers where the show was discussed, the volume of vitriol aimed at Marcel caused something of a positive backlash—he went from being the least-popular contestant to ... well, I won't say the most popular, but there was a definite sympathy factor working for him.

What surprised you most about the other contestants?

"How two-faced they could be. I will never forget my first meeting with Ilan. We were in our room, and I thought a nice way to break the ice was to show him my knives. Now for us, knives are like an extension of our arms, and it's a topic of conversation frequently. Anyway, so here we were, talking about knives, and he was asking me about my deba [a Japanese-style knife used for sushi], and that he had one but didn't know how to use it, so I showed him. If you look at the bonus footage on Bravo's website, it looks like we're getting along and having a good time. Then he goes into the interview room and starts slamming me."

His animated eyes widen."I mean, dude, we just met. What could I have possibly said to you for you to call me out like that?"

He shakes his head in bafflement."I'm telling you, that guy had his issues before he met me."

I had a friend who was on a production crew for MTV's The Real World, and it really frustrated him when the participants would hide behind "It's all in the editing" when they looked bad. All the creative editing in the world can't recontextualize cruel and vindictive behavior.

"I'll go along with that. For the other contestants who claim that's it all in the editing is just weak. Believe me, if I did something so outrageous on the show, Bravo would not have hidden it."

You are often labeled as arrogant.

"I don't think I am. I believe in my food, and my abilities, and seriously, if you don't have that belief, how far are you going to make it in the competition? But I never went out of my way to slam anybody else, which I think would be an arrogant thing to do."

Betty, Ilan and Sam accused you over and over of being selfish, although there were moments where you were willing to help.

"I thought so too. I mean, Cliff is color-blind, and I offered to help him pick out purple food for the color challenge; I was always willing to help with plating, I helped Betty with her crème brûlée for one of the challenges, and offered help to the other chefs whenever I could, so I find that accusation puzzling."

You've said you didn't care what other people think of you.

"It's not that I don't care what people think, but early on I got the sense that Marcel-bashing was going to make good television, and really, I can't chase after somebody's approval if they don't show me respect."

There were two controversial incidents with you. The first had to do with Frank Terzoli—he claims on his MySpace page that what really angered him was that you smashed his $350 Jim Maui sunglasses into little bits.

"That was during the Thanksgiving challenge. We had 45 minutes to prepare something, and it was essentially a dorm room, where all these toiletries were in the kitchen. I was careful as I could be given the time constraints, but I never saw his glasses on the counter, and he might have gotten upset, but I don't think those products should have been on the bathroom counter to begin with."

According to a post attributed him, he claimed you spent at least 40 minutes in the bathroom.

"That's just not true. I think it's sad that he has to resort to those kind of lies to save face. If anything, Ilan was the one that took 45 minutes in the bathroom. Probably a chronic masturbator." He squeezes out the butt of his cigarette and lifts his hands in an open-palm gesture."Okay," he says,"enough of that!"

The second incident was your apparent lack of grace at the catering episode when Sam won the challenge.

"Of the 13 dishes, nine of them were my suggestions, and I made four of them. What hurt me about that one was that it wasn't about winning the challenge, but about recognition. I killed myself in that kitchen for them, working 12 straight hours, and I never got one pat on the back or thank you. Ilan and Sam took a lunch hour, which I never did on that challenge, and Betty took off for 30 minutes, slapping on all this makeup, but I worked through it, because I wanted to prove myself a team player. A real leader would offered at least a thank you for all the hard work, but Sam never did."

His pauses and stares at the now-empty shrimp cocktail glass. The wounds are still fresh on this one."Look, maybe I wasn't as gracious as I could have been, but I'm human—there was only so much disrespect I could take."

The show's executive producer, Shauna Minoprio, posted on her blog that she and the production crew couldn't understand what Marcel had done to earn such vitriol."I honestly think it's because I truly didn't care about their opinion," he says,"and that really got under their skin." You don't care at all?"Well, maybe Elia's, but we knew each other before the show. If she said something bad, it would affect me. But the rest of them made so many outlandish comments that it was hard to take them seriously.

"If I had done something so terrible, they would have aired it. I really think the other contestants treated this show like Survivor, where you focus on one person and vote them off and vent all this rage at them in the process. What frustrated me most of all is that some of them would come out of the interview and say, ‘Dude, I trash-talked you, but don't take it personally because I was drunk,' or they'd say, ‘Don't take it personally, Marcel, that's how the game is played.' It's like they indulged in Hate on Marcel Day because they knew it made for good television."

Let's talk about the most controversial moment on the show, when Cliff, Ilan and Sam assaulted you in the last challenge.

"I'm taking a nap on the couch, and Cliff picked me up in a full-nelson, tossed me on the floor. The plan was to toss me around like a rag doll and have Ilan hold a camera and Sam shave me while Cliff held me down."

Sounds like something out of Lords of Discipline.

"Exactly! I broke free and told them to get away from me. I went into my room and tried to take a nap, and Cliff follows me in there and starts hurling chocolate bars at me! I then had to go to another room and lock the door."

Were you scared?

"Not so much at them. Look, I don't believe violence solves anything, but when I broke free from them, I saw this lamp and I just wanted to smash it over one of their heads. That freaked me out. At that moment, that had me playing their game. And it kills me that these are the guys that question my maturity. I mean, pinning me down to shave me head, that's what drunken frat boys do, not a top chef."

He looks at his watch; time for him to get to work. He's been pretty candid, forthright. Still, you gotta wonder: Is he just putting on a nice act, turning on the Marcel charm for the reporter taking notes?

He doesn't think so. This is the real Marcel."The friends I've made have been with the production crews. So many of them came up to me after the show and said they were rooting for me, that they thought I was getting a raw deal from the rest of the contestants. I take pride in that because these people really knew what went down."

He smiles."I would like to say I have no vendetta against [the other contestants]. After all, it was just a show."

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