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Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson serves up the best info and tips on Northwest food, cooking, dining and restaurants.

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February 12, 2009 2:06 PM

Top Chef: Who you gonna call? And the nominees are. . .

Posted by Nancy Leson

Were you wondering who'd show up for the "Top Chef" casting-call held yesterday at Canlis?



Me too, so I went over to find out. No sooner had I parked my car (what? no valet?) than this guy came wheeling around the corner:




Don't recognize him with the helmet? After all the press he's been getting lately? That's Ethan Stowell, the name behind Union, Tavolata, How to Cook a Wolf and Anchovies & Olives, whose delayed opening is all the hood-guy's fault. Which, as every restaurant owner in town will tell you, is the second most common opening-delay-excuse after "those $#@!% permits!" And no, he wasn't gunning for a job. So, what was he doing at open auditions? Watch this and you'll find out:



This is what the entrance to Canlis looked like at 10 a.m. when Bravo's casting crew said, "It's showtime!":



And if you're thinking, "If I were auditioning for a TV show, I'd wear something other than saggy pants and an untucked shirt," allow me to introduce you to Jason Stratton, late of Cafe Juanita, presently one of Jerry Traunfeld's right-hand men at Poppy:



Jason's filling out the 23-page third-degree, I mean application. Which asks everything from "Who is your least favorite chef and why?" (a question answered anonymously in the comments on this blog-post), to "Are you available to leave your family, work, and friends to go to a location to be designated by the Program produce for approximately between three and five consecutive weeks and possibly longer or shorter (plus time for promotion and publicity), beginning sometime in April 2009 and again in late 2009 (all dates subject to change in producer's sole discretion)?"

Melody Portillo, from Norm's Eatery & Ale House in Fremont, was among the first of nearly 100 applicants. I asked her if she thought she had the moves to make it, and she was singing the right tune when she insisted, "I'm not as soft as I look!":



Inside and outside, applicants were taking pen in hand, signing on for their chance at fame and (perhaps even) fortune:



Here's Bridget Meyer, owner of the catering company Lovin' from the Oven, and Shane Robinson, from The Leary Traveler. Shane applied on a whim, and told me, "I found out about it on the news about 10 minutes before I left the house":



Erik Carlson, below (whom you met earlier if you watched the above video), is executive chef for Arnies Restaurants. No first-timer, he. "I applied on-line the last two seasons," he explained. Third time's the charm, right? Adam Kaplan, seen behind Carlson, drove up from Portland Tuesday night and crashed in a hotel in time to be here early. He was the chef-exec at Genoa for five months -- before it closed in November after 38 years in business. Is that tough luck or what? "It was my dream job," said the 25-year-old chef:



At the moment, Kaplan's unemployed, struggling to find a job in Portland and considering a move to Pittsburgh, which, he's heard-tell, is a great place for an up-and-coming young chef. Meantime, he got an invite from the casting crew to audition for a "Top Chef" slot, so, who knows? -- maybe he's got an advantage.

Losing your dream job when you're 25 is no fun. But losing your restaurant while you're fighting the good fight against cancer? That's worse. Just ask Robin Leventhal, owner of the recently-defunct Capitol Hill restaurant, Crave -- seen here posing for her mugshot. Now, there's a gal I'd love to see on the not-so-big screen!



I think Rachel Yang from Joule coulda been a contender, but she sent her husband, Seif, instead:



Hey, casting crew! You could have had a two-fer with that team. Don't believe me? Check this out:



There was definitely a lot of testosterone on display at Canlis. Attempting to tip the balance in the other direction was Cat Lofgren, who wowed me with her pastry-work at Madoka on Bainbridge. She not only dressed in style for the call, she arrived in style, too:



Cat's a big fan of "Top Chef," and watches it after a hard day's work thanks to TIVO. Unlike some of the chefs I talked to yesterday, she exuded confidence. "I know how to cook and how to move, and they need an old codger in there instead of all these young dudes," she said. "They need a chick, a mom-unit." For the record, she turns 40 in June. And like every good mom-unit, she came prepared -- with her videotape submission in hand and that lengthy application downloaded from the web and filled out beforehand.

But not everyone was a "Top Chef"-fan chomping at the bit for Bravo's brass-ring. Michael Laroche, (very) late of Fremont's dearly departed Longshoreman's Daughter, now at Urbane Coffee & Wine Bar in the Hyatt at Olive 8 -- was here auditioning just to shut-up his friends and co-workers. "Everyone kept saying, `You should go on Top Chef,'" he said, adding, "I've never seen the show. I don't even have a TV."

One "Top Chef"-wannabe sat in the bar, alone. He was there despite the fact that his employers would have frowned on it. "They hate this show," he told me. "I'm doing this on the down-low." Hmmm. Maybe he should be working for Ethan Stowell, who was there, as he explained on the video, "sporting my guy" Charles Walpole, chef de cuisine at Anchovies & Olives.

I followed Walpole through the casting-call process. First, he signed in. That's Josh Henderson of Skillet Street Food waiting in line behind him, and Lucas Sautter from Alderbrook Resort, who drove up from Shelton to take part:



Next, the mugshot:



Then, you fill out forms and wait, schmoozing as time permits:



Eventually they'll call your name. That's when you head upstairs to the penthouse, with four or five other wannabes, to show you've got the right stuff. The Canlis family graciously provided coffee and hot chocolate which was nice -- but not exactly the "right stuff" that some of the candidates needed. Too bad the liquid courage was off-limits:



As was the actual interview process. No media allowed. "You nervous?" I asked Walpole as hit hit the stairs. "Nervous? Yeah. I feel like I'm gonna puke." Speaking of the media, there were other folks on hand documenting the process. Here's Warren Peterson (center) smiling for the (local) TV camera. He's the corporate sous-chef for Tom Douglas Restaurants, which means he gets to work behind the line at all of Tom's restaurants. I'll bet his job never gets boring:



Dan Thiessen, Bellevue chef and radio personality, never met a microphone he didn't like. Here he is talking "Top Chef" with KOMO radio's Julien Perry:



And -- loved this! -- the brass at the Tulalip Resort Casino in Marysville threw down all their bets, sending their culinary "A-team" to Seattle to audition for a Top Chef-slot:



The players, from the left above, are David Buchanan, Blackfish sous-chef; Brent Clarkson, Cedars sous-chef (with his arm around a woman I hope isn't the pit-boss's wife); Gerry Schultz, banquet chef; Trish Chvojka, Blackfish kitchen supervisor; and Dean Shinagawa, Tulalip Bay executive chef. By the way: If you haven't yet been to the Tulalip to eat, I'm here to tell you in no uncertain terms, you must go.

If I were a betting woman, I'd place a few bucks on Michael Young, owner of my neighborhood bistro and wine bar, Olives, seen here in his dress-whites:



I had a chance to chat with Michael after his interview. "Tell me what happened," I asked. "I can't," he said, citing confidentiality issues. "All I can say is I applied." This is the third time he's applied, but his first opportunity to do so in person. "One of the guys who got voted off this season said it was the fourth time he'd applied," he noted. Young, known for mouthing off in his (newly expanded) restaurant dining room, says the idea of being on national TV doesn't freak him out in the least. "I'm not afraid," he said. "I wouldn't have applied if I thought I couldn't hang."

Also hanging at Canlis was Chester Gerl from Matt's in the Market, last seen on my blog hoisting a 96-pound porker:



What's a low-key guy like Chet doing auditioning for "Top Chef"? "I've got a baby coming," he said. Looking forward to the cost of a college education, to say nothing of a case of Pampers, he explained, "I could use the exposure!" Mike Easton, seen below relaxing before his interview, could say the same. He's got a new baby at home, as he told me when I ran into him at Elemental last weekend:



Sam Litvak cooks at Toscano in Bellevue, and proving he wasn't born yesterday, he brought his daughter Ellaina along for his audition. A hot babe on your arm comes in handy when you're trying to get attention, as every Hollywood agent will tell you:



And what's better than a sweet young ingenue? One whose sugar daddy is willing to offer her up to the casting couch:


I can just see Ellaina a few years from now pulling a Babs Streisand. What am I talking about? The same thing I was talking about the last time we chatted about Canlis: "foin-ish-ing a bed in rest-au-rants."

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Listen to Nancy at 5:30 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. during Morning Edition, at 4:40 p.m. during All Things Considered and again the following Saturday at 8:30 a.m. during Weekend Edition on KPLU 88.5.

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