Reality television loves the larger-than-life, the characters who border on caricature. From Richard Hatch (the sleazy, Iago-like winner of the first Survivor) to Jay McCarroll (the comically self-deprecating champion of the first Project Runway), the genre tends to reward people who won't shut up. So it was a surprise to watch gallant, low-key Harold Dieterle leave the grandstanding to others and simply cook his way to the title on the 12-part Bravo reality series Top Chef.
The 29-year-old New York City sous-chef insists that his courtliness on the show—his harshest moment might have been when he called an opponent's undercooked pasta dish "magical lasagna"—was a departure for him. "I usually say what's on my mind, but some people on this show were so outspoken that I couldn't," he says. "I just ended up sitting back and taking it all in."
Initially Dieterle's interest in cooking didn't have much to do with food—it was part of a scheme to meet girls in his West Babylon, New York, high school's home economics class. Five years later, though, he was walking out of the Culinary Institute of America with a degree, and by the time Top Chef came along, he was safely ensconced as a sous-chef at Jimmy Bradley and Danny Abrams's The Harrison restaurant in Manhattan.
Dieterle might still be there were it not for a friend who told him about Top Chef's open call for contestants. "I hardly even watch TV," he says. "They wanted me to send head shots, but I was like, 'I'm not an actor, I'm a chef.'" Instead, Dieterle invited the casting director to come eat dinner at the restaurant. Soon he was packing for San Francisco, where most of Top Chef was taped.
"Harold first reminded me of what we call 'mechanics'—really strong line cooks who deliver every night but are never going to grab headlines," says chef Tom Colicchio, the show's no-nonsense head judge. "But about halfway through he started to change my mind."
Dieterle didn't care much for some of the bizarre cooking challenges he faced on Top Chef, most notably the gas station cook-off early in the season. Even now, when asked what he found to cook with for that episode, he sounds disgusted: "I bought Spam...I bought Spam." Yet what he turned out was a particularly clever riff on a signature appetizer of crispy serrano ham, shirred eggs and truffle-infused spinach puree, with fried Spam and hot dog relish in place of the Spanish ham and spinach. Looking back on the experience, Dieterle says dryly, "Well, it showed me I needed to be more open-minded."
F&W's Gail Simmons, a judge on the show, laughs. "Look, Harold doesn't cook with Spam, and I don't blame him—I don't either! The point is learning to think outside the box, to be creative. And by the end Harold was able to get over that what-the-hell-is-this reaction and do something inventive with the different tasks."
Early on, there were moments when Dieterle's culinary ambitions nearly did him in. Given the task of serving a portable snack from a lunch cart, he masterminded a salad of seared tuna, avocado and jicama—never mind that half-raw fish served in bowls is an awful idea for street food. The only reason he didn't go home that day may have been that his partner forgot to pack the jicama. Dieterle, ever the gentleman, accepted blame for the debacle, just as he did in an episode when his team failed to win over a passel of screaming kids with a tray of not-very-appealing cereal-coated monkfish nuggets.
Having conquered reality TV, Dieterle is ready to return to restaurant cooking and hopes to open his own place in lower Manhattan later this year. The food will likely be seasonal new American with Southeast Asian accents, but that could change. If he learned anything on Top Chef, it's the value of flexibility. "This is the food service industry," Dieterle now says. "I don't care how a menu reads. If you come in and want something to eat, I'm going to do everything I can to make it for you." But he won't be doing it as a sous-chef anymore.