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Behind the Scenes at Top Chef

On camera, contestants on Bravo’s Top Chef are feeling the heat, but behind the scenes the food’s just for fun. Until, that is, F&W throws out an after-hours cooking challenge involving pasta and pizza dough.

In the first season of Bravo’s Top Chef, the hit reality TV show that debuted last spring, a dozen contestants faced challenges that ranged from creating haute street food to serving desserts in a sex shop. The last cook standing, Harold Dieterle, won $100,000, which he’s using to open his own restaurant (called Perilla, it’s launching soon in Manhattan). For many viewers, it wasn’t a big surprise that Dieterle prevailed: He was a sous-chef at the Harrison in New York City, one of the most impressive restaurants on any contestant’s CV.

Things are different on Season 2, which began October 18. Many of the 15 contestants have trained with superstar chefs like Jöel Robuchon and Mario Batali. They spend what little time they have off-camera comparing knives; when they gossip, it’s about whether Jamie Oliver should be addressed as Sir Naked Chef now that he’s practically been knighted. Occasionally, they get creative with products from sponsors, visible in mass quantities in their loftlike dorm. Watermelon bowling, with empty soda cans as pins, was a short-lived pastime. (As one person observed, "Watermelons aren’t as sturdy as they look.")

One thing contestants don’t have much freedom to do off-camera is cook. So F&W (Bravo’s partner on the show) stepped in with a challenge for four random competitors. Since the Top Chef winner may one day open a restaurant, we decided to see what he or she would serve—at least for a staff meal of pizza or pasta. F&W would judge the dishes on creativity, simplicity, presentation and deliciousness.

Team A—Betty Fraser and Cliff Crooks—got pizza dough. Fraser moved to L.A. 16 years ago to be an actress; instead, she’s now co-owner of the beloved Hollywood restaurant Grub. Crooks, the determined chef at Manhattan’s Salute!, immediately began strategizing. He and Fraser decided to prepare dough instead of opting for the premade kind because the pizza would be "that much better." Besides, Fraser had memorized a Jamie Oliver dough recipe. As she prepared the crust, Crooks got to work on the Fontina, caramelized-onion and prosciutto toppings.

Team B—Sam Talbot and Elia Aboumrad—decided to take a classic approach to their ingredient, spaghetti. Talbot, whose impeccable grooming got him labeled the show’s metrosexual, had won attention as chef at Brooklyn’s Williamsburgh Café. Mexico City-born Aboum­rad helped open the renowned L’Atelier de Jöel Robuchon in Paris, as well as the Vegas branch. Talbot described their spaghetti strategy: "Elia said ’pancetta,’ I said ’carbonara,’ and then we both said ’with peas.’" The two huddled with a notebook, then started cutting pancetta into thick lardons. "We’re going to cook it so it’s GBD—golden brown and delicious," Talbot said as he put pasta water on to boil.

Soon Talbot was stirring the GBD pancetta into the piping-hot spaghetti. The pasta was SQD—superquick and delectable—and all the contestants gathered around the serving bowl, forks in hand. Then Team A’s pizzas appeared, with Fontina melting all over the crust. Crooks topped each with an arugula-and-apple salad with truffle oil; they were also devoured instantly.

For simplicity, there was no contest: Team B won. Presentation and creativity went to Team A. The last category was deliciousness. And although both dishes were amazing, the winner was Team A. We were skeptical about an apple pizza and a little tired of gratuitous truffle oil, but somehow the fragrant oil pulled it all together.

Unfortunately, in reality TV there’s only room for one winner, but both teams were impressive. The makeup artist, Ngaire Aitken, noted that she’d never seen such good food prepared so quickly. She added, "This must be the only set in Hollywood where people aren’t afraid to eat."

Rate These Recipes!

F&W challenges you, our discriminating readers, to vote on the winning recipe. Make both the Fontina-prosciutto pizzas and the spaghetti carbonara with peas, then fill out your own virtual scorecards, rating each dish on creativity, simplicity, presentation and deliciousness.

Published December 2006
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