Season 11 of Top Chef, the Bravo cooking competition that paved the way for the cooking-show craze, premieres tonight. This time, the cheftestants compete in New Orleans, where regulars Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, and Gail Simmons are joined by Emeril Lagasse and Hugh Acheson.
Though some critics scoff at Bravo's television lineup, which includes mainly Real Housewives cast members drinking Pinot Grigio and stabbing one another in the back, the cable network started out producing quality shows such as Inside the Actors Studio and Top Chef, which has won two Emmys.
Top Chef has also launched the careers of many of the chefs on the show, including Jeff McInnis, Lindsay Autry, Bryan Voltaggio, and Fabio Viviani. It can be argued that a talented toque would have risen to the top of his or her game organically, but there's no denying that their stint on television put them on a career fast track.
This season offers Miamians a few chefs with local connections to root for:
Bret Pelaggi, a native of Massachusetts and graduate of the New England Culinary Institute, spent most of his career at Boston restaurants such as L' Espalier, Kingfish Hall, Sibling Rivalry, and Chiara before moving to Miami to further his career, according to his Top Chef bio.
Janine Booth is from Perth, Australia, and is working on opening a restaurant in New York City, but the blond beauty studied culinary arts at Le Cordon Bleu in Miami and worked in Miami restaurants alongside former Top Chef alum Jeff McInnis.
Nina Compton, the chef de cuisine at Scott Conant's Scarpetta is well known on the Miami culinary scene and is the "one to watch" this season. This Saint Lucia native describes herself as a "gnocchi queen" and, according to her Top Chef bio, always keeps maldon salt, good olive oil, lemon, Calabrese chilies, and either pancetta or guanciale on hand.
We spoke with Nina, along with a Bravo representative on the line who made sure the Miami cheftestant didn't give away whether she won the competition -- or how long the audition process took, or whether Tom Colicchio wore boxers or briefs (just kidding on that one). Though she didn't reveal any secrets, here's what she took away from her Top Chef experience:
New Times: How did you get on the show?
Nina Compton: I received a phone call from the producers asking me if I wanted to do a cooking show. They didn't reveal which show it was for until after the first interview. I figured it would be foolish to turn the offer down because it could be a lot of fun. I decided to go for it and had a few more interviews, before I got chosen to do the show.
Your boss, Scott Conant, is a celebrity chef. Did he give you any advice?
When I got the phone call from Top Chef, Scott was the first person I called. He said, "It's up to you if you want do the show, but my advice is to be yourself. You're a good cook so just cook from your heart." I took his advice and that was the best thing I could ever do.
How was filming in New Orleans?
I've never been to New Orleans and I was very excited. It's a big food city and everyone is all about eating and drinking. It was the best experience ever. We had gumbo and a crawfish boil. The best thing about that city is that there's so much culture. They focus on French cuisine, but there are Vietnamese Spanish, and African influences. It's a multicultural city that everyone's so proud of.
What will you take back from your experience in the Big Easy?
The shrimping industry is so massive and Gulf seafood is really emphasized on menus. We have to bring that to Miami. Keep it local as much as possible. That's something we don't see that much. We have an ocean right here. It's not just about the stone crabs. It's about the tuna, the yellowtail, the swordfish. I don't know if we do the best job of it in Miami, but in New Orleans they stress eating locally.
What was filming the show like?
It was sort of like summer camp for chefs. You had all these people from different backgrounds. I learned a lot of different techniques because everyone was so different. For me, my goal wasn't just to win, but also to learn from the experience.
Every kitchen is a high-pressure environment. How was it when you add cameras and timers?
I watched people get crushed under the pressure because it was so competitive. I was like, "Guys, just enjoy your moment." It would get to them because they would over think everything. At the end of the day, less is more.
Who was the toughest judge?
Tom Colicchio. He's a chef, so he knows if you took a shortcut. He knows if you did something wrong. When Tom comes into the kitchen you immediately start wiping the table down. He has that presence. He sees everything. He knows by your cutting board how you're doing on time. He'll give you this look, like, "You're actually making that sauce with that piece of fish?" Then you start second guessing yourself. It's intense. You respect him, so you don't want to let him down. You don't ever want to do that.
Would you do it again?
I would do it again in a heartbeat because it was too much fun. It was also the hardest thing I've done in my life because you never knew what to expect. And you could think you're prepared but you'll never be prepared.
You're back in Miami and everyone will be watching -- but you can't say what happens. How does that work? What do you do when someone asks you about the show?
Ever since Bravo released the names of the contestants, I couldn't say anything to anyone. Scarpetta is very busy and regulars come in and ask about the show but I can't tell them anything.
Are you having any watch parties at Scarpetta?
We're going to keep it withing the family, we're not going to do anything too crazy.
A lot of Top Chef contestants go on to successful careers. What do you hope will happen in the future?
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Top Chef certainly gets your name out there. People know that I'm doing the show and I'm getting a lot of phone calls to participate in different events, already. Who knows? Maybe I'll meet someone down the line who wants to open a restaurant with me, but I have to take it one day at a time. You have to keep doing what you do and that's what's going to pay off in the long run -- having a level head.
Top Chef season 11 premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on Bravo.