"Top Chef" Season 5 contestant Danny Gagnon, 30, grew up in New Hyde Park, but recently moved to Copiague and is executive chef at DoraNonnie Tapas & Wine Bar at Bernard’s Market Cafe in Glen Head.
Fun fact: His last name means “winner” in French.
Tell me about your time on “Top Chef.”
Five years ago, I tried out at the Culinary Institute of America [in upstate Hyde Park], which I graduated from in 2002. I think 120,000 people tried out to make it into the final 16 and I was one of them. What happened is that I got eliminated going into Episode 6 of Season 5. During a group challenge, I put mushrooms in Carla Hall’s salad. She is [now] one of the hosts on [ABC’s] “The Chew.” Even though she knew I put them in, she told the judges, who didn’t like the addition of mushrooms, that she didn’t know I put it in the salad. Everyone knew that I shouldn’t have gone home. It was a bad call.
After the show, did people give you special treatment?
When I first came back, people treated me like a celebrity. It was surreal. I signed hundreds of autographs, it was crazy. Before I left to film the show in June 2008, I was working as a chef at Babylon Carriage House. Three months later, I returned to the same job. When the show aired I packed the place out. It was great for business.
Tell me what you’ve been up to since the show aired.
I am now executive chef at DoraNonnie Tapas & Wine Bar at Bernard’s in Glen Head. The restaurant opened about a year-and-a-half ago and the owner gave me full control over the menu and even the name of the place, which combines the names of both my grandmothers.
You must be very close to them.
Yes, my grandmothers Dora Simon and Nonnie Gagnon taught me to cook. They have both since passed away, but I started cooking with them at age 8. I used to help them cook spaghetti, chocolate, stuffed cabbage, rice, pastries, pretty much anything. I learned all the basics from them and how to cook amazing Italian food.
What was it like growing up in New Hyde Park?
Everybody knew each other. I had a tight group of friends and we still get together. I love New Hyde Park. I used to play varsity football at New Hyde Park Memorial High School. At that time, it was all about Gladiator football.
Seeing as though you have an expertise with food, what places would you recommend to eat at in New Hyde Park?
Well, Yesterday’s Diner has fresh sandwiches, wraps and paninis and the absolute best French onion soup that I have ever had. And it goes without saying that you need to check out Umberto’s Pizzeria because they have the best Sicilian slice.
Tell me some of your favorite dishes at DoraNonnie Tapas & Wine Bar.
One of my favorite dishes is the Nonnie’s jumbo shrimp fusilli with roasted figs and garlic ponzu butter and crushed tomatoes. My favorite appetizer is the mozzarella pillow, which is deep fried mozzarella with marinara dipping sauce. Oh, and my favorite dessert is the lemon ricotta pistachio pound cake with strawberry lemon-lime couli.
What kind of advice would you give an amateur cook?
The same advice that my grandmothers gave me. Stay focused, work on your speed, timing and technique and most of all, cook from your heart.