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We have to give credit where credit is due.  The chefs who came back for this All-Star season of Top Chef have given us lots of reasons to root for them.  And the quality of this season has done a lot to wash the bad taste of Season 7 (filmed here in Washington) out of fans’ mouths.

By the end of tonight’s episode, we’ll be down to four remaining chefs.  And if bringing an extra chef along to the finale in the Bahamas means we get one additional week of sunny skies and killer cooking, we’re all for that.

Yesterday, we shared our interview with Mike Isabella as we head into the finals.  Today, we’ve got our pick for fan favorite, Carla Hall.  There’s something about the way Carla seems to root for everyone to succeed that is endearing and rare on competition shows like Top Chef.  Watching her fall short of her own expectations – especially when working with “her flavors” and cuisines – is heartbreaking.  But we’re not telling you anything you haven’t already seen for yourself.

We talked to Carla about her deceptively strong performance so far, her involvement with local causes, and some of the things she’s got in the works:

Capital Spice: You’ve really come out swinging this season!  Three Elimination Challenge wins, three big prizes.  How does it feel so far?
Carla Hall: It’s great, but I really don’t know when Matthew [her husband] and I are going to get a chance to take all those trips.

CS: Beyond the trips, you seemed really excited to win Jimmy Fallon’s challenge.  Are you that big a fan of his?
CH: There were two things going on there.  I’m definitely a fan of Jimmy’s, and it was so much fun to be on his show.  He really is just like you’d expect him to be.  But I’ve got a personal connection to chicken pot pie as well: that’s the first thing I ever tried to cook for myself back when I was modeling and going back and forth to Paris.

CS: So this was a recipe you’ve made before?
CH: It was, though I’ve never tried to make the upper crust by forming them around cookware like I did.  I’m glad it worked out!

More of Carla’s projects in the works after the jump.

(more…)

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When the list of competitors for this All-Star season of Top Chef was announced, we were excited to see Washington represented by three of the most memorable characters from their respective seasons.  As the season has gone on, we’ve been cheering ever more enthusiastically as two of our three local cheftestants demonstrated that they have what it takes to go the distance (or at least as far as the Bahamas).  Our chefs now represent 40% of the Final Five, and the smart money is on at least one of them making it into the Top Three.

We got a chance to chat with both of our local chefs after last week’s episode, and what we heard from Mike Isabella and Carla Hall made us even more excited for what is yet to come – both on the show and in their local endeavors.  Check out our interview with Mike today, and then join us tomorrow for our chat with Carla before watching the first of the finale episodes tomorrow night.

Capital Spice: Congratulations on making it all the way to the finals, Chef.  You’ve been a solid competitor throughout the season.
Mike Isabella: Thanks.  It was definitely tough competition to get there.

CS: Let’s talk about your new restaurant, Graffiato, first.  How’s everything going?
MI: It’s going good.  We’re still under construction, putting in the duct work, the heaters, the framing.  Next week we’ll be laying the pipes for the water and gas.  I’d say we’re looking at a later spring opening at this point.

CS: Being in the middle of all of this construction, it must have been hard to travel and stay focused for the finale episodes as a result.
MI: Actually, I was really focused.  I have a great team working with me on Graffiato, including a lot of chefs and staff who are coming over with me.  That freed me up and allowed me to focus [on Top Chef] again.

After the jump, we talk Quickfire wins – both satisfying and controversial – and find out who Isabella thinks went home before their time. (more…)

If you’ve had a chance to check out the first two weeks of the new Top Chef season, then you know that the producers have chosen to bring back competitors from each of the first seven seasons who came *this* close to winning it all.  This “All-Star” season, set in New York City, pits some fan favorites (and some favorite villains) against each other in a rematch to see who has grown the most since their initial Top Chef appearance.

Here in Washington, we’re lucky enough to have THREE local competitors vying for our slavish loyalty.  In order of original appearance, they are:

  • Spike Mendelsohn (Season 4 – Chicago), chef/owner of Good Stuff Eatery and We, the Pizza.  In his first season, Spike came across as…arrogant.  Has wisdom come with age?
  • Carla Hall (Season 5 – New York), owner of Alchemy by Carla Hall.  She’s transitioning from catering to gourmet sweets and savories.  Hootie hoo!
  • Mike Isabella (Season 6 – Vegas), who has moved on from his position at Zaytinya and is in the process of opening his own place, Graffiato.  He had trouble with leeks last time around (what…that’s NOT what you remember about him?).

Over the past two weeks, we’ve had a chance to chat with each of them.  We asked about what they’re doing professionally, the differences between their first appearances and this season, and what made them decide to subject themselves to the pressure cooker competition again.  Sure, a victory would be big for any of them, but each brought a sense of perspective to the show that they may not have had at first.

Check out some of our conversations with the cheftestants – including big news from each about the directions their projects are heading – after the jump. (more…)

Okay, so technically Friday morning isn’t exactly Thursday morning…

Thanks to everyone who took the time to submit an entry for our Top Chef Prize Pack giveaway.  We had a lot of fun reading over your answers and seeing which former Cheftestants you would like to see in an all-star season.

We were surprised that one of our favorite DC competitors, Carla Hall, didn’t come up.  Of all the runners-up so far she’s the one we most want to see get another bite at the apple.

And we loved your ideas for guest judges…the idea of Gordon Ramsay trying to judge Top Chef style instead of throwing a Hell’s Kitchen-quality fit made us smile.

Our winner (chosen at random) hit on a previous challenge that we would definitely like to see make a comeback – and for exactly the same reason.  Food trucks really are popping up at an amazing rate here in Washington, and it would be fun to see the all-stars try their hand at some more creative mobile dining options.

Congratulations to Amy – you win the prize pack that includes Top Chef Season Six (Las Vegas), Top Chef Masters Season One and the Top Chef Quickfire Cookbook.  We’ll be in touch shortly to arrange delivery.

Thanks again to everyone who entered.  We love offering these kinds of contests and we hope to do more of them in the future.

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We missed you!

Sorry for the post silence lately – we promise we’re still keeping an eye on openings, eating around town and trying some delicious dishes at home.  We’re just a bit behind on letting you know about it.

So…how about that Top Chef DC?  Yeah, definite wasted opportunity.  It had its moments: Sam Kass and school lunches, for example.  But Washingtonians and viewers in general pretty much agree that this season was lackluster.

Oh well – they’re off to Thailand and we’re ready for the rumored-but-not-officially-confirmed Top Chef All Star season that may or may not be currently filming in New York (more on that later – some familiar faces from DC may be involved).  We’re also rooting for the home team on Top Chef: Just Desserts when it debuts this week, cheering on Hook’s Heather Chittum as she takes on a field of eleven other pastry chefs.

And we’re also looking back at some more enjoyable Top Chef memories, as well.  Top Chef Season 6 gave fans plenty of talent and competition – and gave DC fans a favorite to root for clear to the end in VOLT’s Bryan Voltaggio.  The first season of Top Chef Masters provided a fun twist on the format and a winner who’s just such a darn nice guy.  And then there was the Top Chef Quickfire Cookbook – everything you need (except years of training) to duplicate some of the most inventive dishes from the show’s first five seasons.

They’re all available for purchase now…or you can win them right here.  That’s right – we’re having another Top Chef Finale giveaway contest this week.  The winner gets a prize pack that includes Top Chef Season 6, Top Chef Masters Season 1, and the Quickfire Cookbook!

Want to win?  Leave a comment with three components (one for each prize):

1. A celebrity chef you’d like to see as a judge next season
2. The competitor you would MOST like to see in an “All Star” season, were there to be one
3. A challenge from a previous season you’d like to see brought back

We’ll announce a winner (selected at random from all eligible entries) on Thursday morning, just in case you don’t get your fill of Top Chef with Wednesday night’s back-to-back episodes.

And thanks for reading!

It’s hard to imagine Spike Mendelsohn deep in the weeds in a restaurant kitchen.  He’s a personality, a character – the smirk and the fedoras are too colorful to keep under wraps behind the scenes.  One of the things that guests at Good Stuff Eatery love is that they frequently find the former Top Chef contestant front and center when they stop in for the balanced meal that is a Blazin’ Barn burger and a Toasted Marshmallow milkshake.

As a result, it’s easy to forget that he and his cohorts at Good Stuff Eatery, Mike Colletti and Brian Lacayo, come from a sit-down restaurant background.  Working in popular New York restaurants like Mai House and Le Cirque, they’ve honed some pretty serious upscale dining chops.  Last month, they gave lucky guests at Alice Waters’ Sunday Night Sips event a tasty reminder.

On Sunday night, Spike and his team take on Michael Symon in the first episode of the new season of Iron Chef America.  In between publishing a Good Stuff Eatery cookbook and preparing to open We The Pizza next door, they found time to head up to Kitchen Stadium for what Spike described as “a kitchen brawl.” And you can bet the secret ingredient wasn’t burgers.

We caught up with Spike to ask about the experience and some of the interesting connections that show what a small world the restaurant business really is.

Capital Spice: Why Iron Chef?
Spike Mendelsohn: We’ve been doing Good Stuff Eatery for a year and a half now, and it’s been great.  But we’re not just about burgers.  Iron Chef was an opportunity for me, Colletti and Brian to put on chef coats and get our hands dirty again.

CS: What was it like to go head to head with Michael Symon?
SM: It’s funny…they always advertise the show as a one-on-one competition, but it’s really all about the team.  I didn’t feel like it was just me competing against Symon, it was the three of us working together against the three of them.  I really hope that comes across on television.

More on Kitchen Stadium, secret ingredients and a possible rematch after the jump. (more…)

As we mentioned earlier, we really were impressed by the scope of the entries we received for this contest.  If the producers of Top Chef just worked with the 80+ suggestions we received, they could easily fill an entire season of quickfire and elimination challenges in the nation’s capital.  You’ve certainly done your part to help show what a great backdrop DC could offer for Top Chef.

We’re grateful to Bravo’s “Eat Tastefully” for giving us the opportunity to offer this contest in the first place.  The winner will receive a prize package that includes a DVD set of Top Chef Season 5 and a copy of the new Top Chef Quickfire Cookbook.

Just to give you an idea of the kind of creative thinking we saw from all of you, we want to highlight a few of our favorites:

  • FrenchTwistDC – “Toothpick rule” quickfire challenge! With the no-free-meals-from-lobbyists rules in effect now, lobbyists can only feed congressional aides hors d’oeuvres and “food that you have to eat standing up using a toothpick.”

 

  • Jacques – “Contestants must create two dishes for a cocktail party of presidential historians and American history buffs. Each dish is inspired by and uses an ingredient associated with an American President. Draw knifes with president’s name and ingredient.  Guest Judges: White House Chef Sam Kass and Presidential Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Location: A White House-related/adjacent restaurant/hotel: one of Founding Farmers Restaurant, the Hay-Adams, W, or Willard Hotel, or the atrium space at Old Ebbitt Grill.”

 

  • statedinner – “Cheftestants will start at the Library of Congress. They will be presented with menus from various state dinners and will be asked to update them using local ingredients and their own personal style. The guest judge can either be the curator/head librarian of the Library of Congress or the White House Head Chef.”

 

  • leslie – “Location: Start with a visit to the Inn at Little Washington for a discussion of locally produced ingredients; Introduce Guest Chef Judge Patrick O’Connell, one of the finest chefs in the nation. Hold an elimination challenge at Montpelier, President Madison’s home to benefit the Archeology Research Program just a few miles away which would include a discussion of why it was included in the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1984. Prepare two dishes in the kitchen at the Inn at Little Washington for each of the 100 attending a charity benefit at Montpelier using the same protein randomly chosen from those selected for the competition by Chef O’Connell from the local area.”

 

  • Gunther Freehill – “Each contestant draws a knife with the name of a country with an embassy on or near Sheridan Circle. They are told to prepare two dishes: One that represents the country they have chosen, the other that is distinctly American but would appeal to people in that country.  Each contestant cooks in the kitchen of the embassy of the country they choose. Ideally, they would each have a partner in the person of the chef from the embassy. But the twist is that they can advise one another, but the Top Chef contestant cooks the first dish, the embassy chef the American dish.”

In some of these cases, it was the little details that set them apart from others who made similar suggestions.  In others, it was their absolute originality that made us smile.  We had a few obvious shills in and among the suggestions, but even they were respectful and obviously eager to show how they could be a part of showing what’s best about the DC food scene.

But there was one suggestion that stood out in our minds from the very beginning.  It had that “just-right” feel that makes you say “Of course!” when you read it.  Combining the uniqueness of Washington with the spirit of Top Chef and the very concept of judging, our winner hit the nail right on the head.

  • Amy – “Should definitely involve the Supreme Court Justices – the best-trained judges around! The contestants could be required to make quick, healthy meals during a quick fire for the justices to eat during conference. The Justices are a bit older – so focusing on foods that will taste good, but that are also giving you the nutrition you need when your entire day is spent sitting on the bench or researching.”

There’s something about the idea of seeing the chefs in their coats serving to the Justices in their black robes that worked for us.

So congratulations to Amy for her winning suggestion – we’ll be getting in touch with you today to arrange the shipping of your prize package.  And thanks to everyone who helped us make the case for DC as an ideal Top Chef host city.