As an avid Top Chef fan for many years–so many that I remember the days when they didn’t even bother to mention what restaurants the contestants were from–I jumped at the chance to “cover” the recent Top Chef Season 9 casting call courtesy of the Magical Elves’ lovely and talented Donna Lee.
Eric Greenspan graciously agreed to open the doors to his Foundry on Melrose for the Magical Elves takeover. Would be contestants milled about pouring over the 25-page application and sizing up the competition, while a production staffer menacingly barred the way to the back patio where the interviews were taking place.
I committed to hanging out for a while, knowing that most chefs worth their salt probably wouldn’t be up that early in the morning. And I wasn’t completely disappointed. My guess though is that many–or at least those concerned about being prodded and photographed by people like me–submitted their application videos in advance to avoid the hoopla. I like hoopla. Let’s meet the chefs.
Jessica Vanroo was the token, albeit very sweet, private chef in the group that I talked to. Her culinary mentor was coincidentally Jet Tila, whom she assisted at his Sur La Table sushi classes years ago. She’d only seen one season of Top Chef but felt like she knew what was coming, and she most closely identified with Carla, but “without the crazy.” Her ‘win it all’ dish? A pan-fried oyster kimchi potsticker. Well alright then.
Jeff Haines was the ice cream guy. I think the answer to every question I asked him had something to do with ice cream. So, I hope for his sake that this season’s Top Chef Just Desserts sponsor is Blue Bunny. But seriously, he’s a pastry chef at The Raymond in Pasadena, his idol is the XIV incarnation of Jordan Kahn and he digs sweet and salty flavor combinations.
Tommy Kim was probably the most down to earth applicant I spoke to. A chef de cuisine at the St. Regis in Dana Point who also spent time at Spago and the L’Ermitage, when asked why he was trying out for the show he said he was doing it for his daughter who was having a tough time in school. He wanted to give her hope. But he also wanted to test himself and see what level he was at. He confessed that Top Chef was the only TV show he watched and his favorite TC All Star is Dale Talde. He went to the CCA in Pasadena to be a pastry chef but turned savory. His winning dish? A togarashi-crusted ahi tuna that he blowtorches to get a smoky flavor.
Claudia Sanchez was there to represent the female chefs of LA. Currently a line cook at Fig & Olive, she was at one point the executive chef at Petrossian prior to Ben Bailly and the redesign. She’s inspired by female business owners like Suzanne Goin and Joan McNamara of Joan’s on Third. She thinks molecular gastronomy would be her Achilles heel of challenges, but has been gathering the equipment to play with it, recently making a fruit “caviar” of grapefruit juice and agave nectar that she floated in a martini. (Okay…yum.) Her go to dish is a foie gras with mango salsa and brioche.
Chris Crary seemed the most likely to make it through of the people I spoke with. While admittedly not a native, he refers to himself as “the California guy…tan, fit, laid back.” Currently serving as the chef de cuisine at Whist at the Viceroy , he’s worked with exec chef Tony DiSalvo for years and followed him when he left La Jolla for Santa Monica. His reason for auditioning? He wants to try something new, “see other people” culinarily speaking. He fits into the M.Voltaggio/Blais niche of cooking and describes his winning dish as bone marrow with spiced brioche, horseradish spheres and pickled air.