Long Island chefs dish on post-'Top Chef' gigs
A caption under a 1988 newspaper photo showing an 11-year-old boy crabbing off the Babylon Town dock couldn't have been more prophetic:
Fast-forward 18 years and Dieterle would not only work for his supper on a television reality competition show, but he also would go on to be the first winner of "Top Chef," a cook-off that premiered in 2006 on the Bravo network.
Except for the U.S. version of Japanese fan favorite "Iron Chef," TV food competition shows "Chopped," "Hell's Kitchen" and others were all cooked up after the debut of "Top Chef," in which 15 to 17 culinary pros (aka "cheftestants") battle each other in fast-paced, high-pressure cooking challenges. According to Nielsen Media Research data provided by NBC, which owns Bravo, among adults in the coveted 18-to-49 demographic, the Emmy Award-winning "Top Chef" is still the top-ranked food show on cable television. Season nine, which aired from November 2011 to February 2012, had more than 2.9 million viewers.
Newsday caught up with former Long Island cheftestants to get the dish on their lives since their time on the show.
Both "Top Chef" season one and two winners were Long Islanders. But while season two winner and Great Neck native Ilan Hall relocated to Los Angeles, season one winner Harold Dieterle hasn't strayed far from his roots. He lives and works in Manhattan, but Dieterle said he returns often to Long Island to visit family.
It was at West Babylon Junior High School that Dieterle discovered food -- and other things.
"When I was 13 I took a home economics class to meet girls," he said, but pretty soon he found himself enjoying the lessons. "I wasn't a good student, but cooking focused me."
Two years later he landed his first culinary job at the now closed Sea Gull Restaurant in West Babylon, where he washed dishes and did prep work.
Dieterle toured Spain briefly after graduating from high school in 1995 and when he returned enrolled at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, which was an intense experience, he said.
"It's not for everybody, but for someone like me, I needed structure," Dieterle said. When he graduated two years later, he landed a job at East Hampton's Della Femina, now closed, and then at The 1770 House in East Hampton. While he was working at The Harrison in TriBeCa in 2005, a friend saw an ad for a new cooking reality show and encouraged Dieterle to try out for it.
"I cooked for the producers, and then they flew me out to L.A." for the audition, he recalled, "but it took a while, about four to six months, before finding out if I made it."
He left a good taste in producers' mouths.
"Harold was a great up-and-coming chef," executive producer Nan Strait said via email. "You could tell from his resume and research he had skill, and you could tell he was a professional chef people would enjoy getting to know."
Lucky for Dieterle and his psyche, he lasted long enough in the competition for that to happen.
His colleagues at The Harrison were supportive of his decision to go on the show, he said. "The shoot was around 20 days, so it wasn't as if we were gone from home for too long, and it went by pretty quickly due to how the days were set up," Dieterle said. "I would've been very upset if I had been eliminated, because I am just such a competitive person. Fortunately, that wasn't the case."
While he said being in the competition was an incredible challenge, Dieterle's quiet demeanor came across as calm and centered on camera.
"I was portrayed very generously on the show," he said. "I came across as me."
The judges liked him and his food, more than the other 11 cheftestants, dishing up a tasty $100,000 grand prize for Dieterle. He also secured a feature in Food & Wine Magazine and a showcase at the Annual Food & Wine Festival in Aspen, Colo., a food fest that garnered Dieterle unexpected bounty: At a party there he met Atlanta native Meredith Lynn Davies. The two married and this month will celebrate their two-year anniversary.
After his cash winnings, Dieterle said, "I tried to raise more money to keep the momentum going. A lot of people do press or travel. I wanted to raise money to open my own restaurant."
The financing effort ultimately resulted in Perilla, a New American restaurant with Asian influences, which he opened in the West Village in 2007 with business partner Alicia Nosenzo. Three years later, they opened a Thai restaurant, Kin Shop, in the same neighborhood. Plans to open beef-centric The Marrow, a third West Village restaurant, are on the front burner.
Working the stove at his first restaurant, The Gorbals, in Los Angeles, is season two winner Hall, who felt a passion for food at an early age. When Hall, who grew up in Great Neck, was just 17, he studied at the Lorenzo de' Medici School's Apicius program in Florence, Italy. After graduating from the Culinary Institute, he worked at "Top Chef" judge Tom Colicchio's downtown Manhattan restaurant, Craft, then at Mario Batali's Casa Mono in Union Square. The Spanish cuisine at Casa Mono greatly influenced Hall's cooking style.
"I developed my love for it there," he said.
As with Dieterle, a friend suggested Hall audition for "Top Chef," which he did in 2006.
"Three years of experience in New York is like 20 years anywhere else," Hall said on his "Top Chef" bio, which also described him as "incredibly talkative" and "an expert debater." That spirited nature gave Hall the edge necessary to compete with highly skilled cheftestants such as Marcel Vigneron and Sam Talbot, but it was his deft manipulation of ingredients that landed him and his knives the "Top Chef" title when he was 24.
After his victory, Hall said he roamed the world, sampling foods in Romania, Venezuela, France, England, Scotland and, of course, Spain.
"Every time I ate something I learned something new," he said. On his return, Hall moved west, opening his first restaurant in downtown L.A. in 2009. The cuisine is "indefinable," Hall said. The restaurant website describes the menu as "an amalgam of many different ethnicities and tastes," but Hall's inspiration comes from post-World War II Glasgow, Scotland, where his father, the son of German and Russian-Jewish immigrants, was raised. The eclectic dishes include paella, chicken skin sandwiches, gefilte fish and chips, and bacon-wrapped matzo balls.
"It's a mishmash," Hall said. "Stuff that I want to cook."
Cooking at DoraNonnie Tapas & Wine Bar in Glen Head is season five contestant Danny Gagnon, 30, who roomed with Hall in their first year at The Culinary Institute. This Italian-Asian eatery that Gagnon operates opened in October 2011 within Bernard's Market & Cafe. He had been executive chef for 21/2 years at Social Sports Lounge and Kitchen in Uniondale, owned by former Jets wide receiver Wayne Chrebet and his partners.
But it was while working as chef de cuisine at the Babylon Carriage House in 2008 that Gagnon applied to be a contestant on "Top Chef." He was 24, had graduated from The Culinary Institute in 2002 and was "adamant about showing that I'm better than the average person," he said with unbridled sincerity.
That passion, coupled with his cooking skills, made him a perfect candidate for the show.
"The guy was just love in a box," said Nick Gilhool, casting director at Magical Elves, the production company behind the show. "You only have to meet Danny to love Danny. And he could really throw down. His enthusiasm is wrapped up in his ball-of-energy self, and he goes for it in the kitchen."
But Gagnon's "Top Chef" season was flavored with big personalities, including Italian-born fan favorite Fabio Viviani, Finnish chef Stefan Richter and high-spirited Carla Hall of Washington, D.C., who owns an artisan cookie company and is a co-host of ABC's "The Chew."
Gagnon was teamed with Hall and another contestant in the fifth episode for a wedding shower challenge when he was instructed by the judges to pack his knives and go, a disappointment for Long Island fans. Chef Hosea Rosenberg won the season five competition.
Being on the show was extremely intense, he said, although he enjoyed it immensely.
"They wake you up at 4 a.m., throw you in a van ... each day lasted at least 18 hours," he said of the three months of filming. And all contestants are kept in isolation from the rest of the world, with no Internet, no television or radio. "They want no outside influences," he explained. Gagnon said the hardest part of the experience was being away from his family; when he was eliminated from the show he returned to the Babylon Carriage House.
Gagnon, who lives in New Hyde Park, has an identical twin brother who lives with his wife in Smithtown, and his parents still live in New Hyde Park, where he grew up.
As a child, he said, he was influenced by his grandmothers, Dora Simon, his Czech-German maternal grandmother, and Anna Talia Gagnon, who was French-Italian and whose nickname was Nonnie. He said they taught him not only to love cooking but "to cook from the heart." The restaurant he runs is named after them.
But Gagnon has more than cooking on his plate right now. On Sept. 30 he will wed Rebecca Vegessi, whom he met in 2002. The reception is in Montauk at East by Northeast, a Pan-Asian fusion restaurant he worked at when he was starting out.
Gagnon said he will try to stay out of the kitchen, but he isn't making any promises.