Fans of the Emmy-winning series “Top Chef” can rejoice. The Bravo Network’s reality cooking competition is returning Dec. 1 for an all-star season featuring 18 of the most talented chefs from all seven previous seasons, all of whom who went far on the show but did not win the grand prize.
Call it a clash of the culinary titans.
OK, maybe we’re being a bit hyperbolic, but we can’t help it. We’re damn excited about this.
Two of the chefs returning for the all-star season are openly gay chefs Dale Levitski, who came within a hair of winning “Top Chef” season three, and Jamie Lauren, who almost made it to the finale of season five. So naturally our enthusiasm for what is sure to be the culinary smackdown of the year found us hammering the good people at Bravo nonstop with requests to get these two chefs on the phone.
And it worked.
PGN: What was your first thought when you were asked to do “Top Chef: All-Stars”? Dale Levitski: “Oh shit!” It was a little bit of trepidation and flattery. Jamie Lauren: I honestly was sort of shocked. I didn’t know what to think or do. I swore to myself I would never do it again. So it was an interesting thing to be asked to go back to it.
PGN: Did any part of you not want to participate? DL: You definitely second-guess if you want to go back. But for me, I had so much fun on season three and made some amazing friends out of it that pretty much saying no was not an option. JL: I remember sitting in the stew room [where contestants wait while the judges deliberate] when I did my season and being so bored and tired and in a very strange headspace because you’re being judged on what you’re passionate about. It’s funny because that was the first thought I had when they asked me. I flashed back to being in the stew room. After I thought about it more, I thought it was a good opportunity and I should do it again.
PGN: How much weight does being on “Top Chef” carry in the culinary world? DL: That’s interesting. It does carry a lot of validity and I think now that so many more established people have been on the show and with “Top Chef: Masters,” the credibility factor from early on is much, much higher. Within the culinary world, it’s respected but I think it’s more in the general public where it’s, “Oh my God! You were on ‘Top Chef.’” I think now people really understand how truly hard it is and so many chefs want to be on it now because it is that much fun and that hard. JL: As the show has progressed, the credibility has gotten better because the caliber of chefs has gotten better. They’ve figured it out over the years. It exposes a whole new market and community of people who never watched television cooking before who are now excited about it.
PGN: Did being on ‘Top Chef’ help you career-wise? DL: Overall, yes. I had a restaurant in the works before I did season three and that fell through. Now that I’ve opened Sprout [in Chicago], it’s definitely helped business. JL: Obviously it’s changed my life in ways I didn’t know it could. You can either cook or you can’t. People that would come to my restaurant in San Francisco were kind of shocked at how good the food was.
PGN: Did you keep up with the show before or after the season you were on it? DL: I watched most of season four because Stephanie, the winner of season four, was my sous-chef and I nominated her for the show. I didn’t really see any of season five. I saw half of season six and that was about it. It’s difficult to watch. It’s like you’re back in it. You get the shakes and you want to be in the challenge. JL: I did season five and, on season six, I did a blog for Bravo TV. Season seven I didn’t watch. I watched one episode and was kind of like, eh. But I have been watching “Top Chef: Just Desserts,” which I’m sort of in love with. I think it’s hilarious.
PGN: Is there some kind of curse on the show that if you’re an early favorite to win, you either go down in flames on restaurant wars or choke in the finale? DL: I guess it can be. One of the other curses is people tend to go out on their specialties. I’ve noticed that. On season three, Joey went out on Italian and he’s Italian and that’s his life-blood. I’ve seen a lot of that happen. JL: I’ve never heard of that before. On my season, the curse was you went home on your birthday.
PGN: Did you ever think any of the challenges were unfair? DL: That’s the point of the game. They’re all unfair. The challenges are supposed to be next to impossible to pull off. Some of them are based on real-life situations, the worst-case scenarios that can ever happen. But the parameters we’re given and the amount of questioning going into a challenge, you have no idea. It’s basically panic. I think that’s what makes the show so addictive. We’re all pulling off the impossible. JL: No. Not at all. I don’t think they play favorites or anything like that. They don’t even really get to know us. I think it’s very much based on what you’re cooking at the moment.
PGN: Is there an advantage to knowing the strength of your competitors going in to the competition? DL: I think for everyone there’s an absolute intimidation factor because everyone on this season is really, really good. It has less of a stigma if you’re booted out this time around because everybody there has earned their chops. This is the best of the best. No matter who gets eliminated first or who wins, I think there’s pride to be there for everybody. But it definitely scared the shit out of most of us. JL: Sure. I think that there is but it’s also incredibly intimidating when you walk into a room and you see people you’ve watched on the show who are really great cooks. It’s intimidating, but it’s also cool in a way because it’s a really good way to challenge yourself and do better.
PGN: Do you feel like you have a better idea of what the judges are looking for? DL: Going into it, I think all of us have a better knowledge of the tastes of the judges and what the judges are looking for, but they’re pretty smart. They’re pretty impossible to figure out. So I don’t think anyone can say that they have the game tagged. JL: No. I still don’t know what the hell the judges are looking for. I really don’t know. It’s a case-by-case thing with them.
PGN: Do you think chefs that compete on later seasons have it easier than the chefs that competed before them? DL: I would say yes. The people that are going in the show now have watched all the seasons of it and they know every single challenge. They’re able to study. They know the judges just as well as some of the competitors at this point. They are more prepared.
PGN: Do you think contestants from earlier seasons have become better chefs since their time on the show? DL: I think everybody has grown since their season. In my life, my cooking style has changed. I think some of the changes that people have are pretty interesting and rewarding for the judges to see. JL: I think that I’ve taken some more risks with my cooking. I’ve had three more years of experience. That’s a big thing. I’ve had the opportunity to move to another city and become a chef of a different restaurant. That’s always a really amazing growth experience in itself. I actually think my food is the best now than it’s ever been. But I said that two years ago. It’s always changing and evolving.
“Top Chef: All Stars” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on Bravo beginning Dec. 1.