Thursday, March 6, 2008
Ryan Scott doesn’t know what his star turn will look like. What he does know, now, is that it’s coming more quickly than he realized.
“I’m the first guy introduced?” he asks. “I haven’t seen it yet.”
“Contestants don’t see first episode,” a PR handler suddenly chirps in from a third line, startling at least one of us. “They see it when it airs live.”
So Scott, 28, will have to wait until Wednesday, March 12, to see the first installment of Bravo Network’s “Top Chef: Chicago,” a wildly popular restaurant reality show now in its fourth season (and fourth city). This season drew 16 up-and-coming chefs to Chicago to compete for a feature spread in Food & Wine magazine, a showcase at the Annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, a luxurious trip to the French Alps, and $100,000 in seed money for their own restaurant – plus all the subsequent ogling and “he’s/she’s arrived” accolades that come with the title of Top Chef.
Like previous seasons, which took sizzling turns in San Francisco, L.A. and Miami, “Top Chef: Chicago” will build from a rather reliable formula for intense TV. Scott, the chef-manager at the eclectic French/California joint Café Myth in the Financial District in San Francisco, seems to get it – with 24 is-it-hot-in-here elimination showdowns and other such tests, there’s no need to manufacture melodrama like other reality TV.
“The food and people dictate what’s going to happen,” he says. “Sixteen people coming into that atmosphere – and it’s not easy to get there – [then] ‘Here’s the challenge.’
“Then – what’s going to happen? Sixteen surfers all cut a wave different. People are going to go crazy.”
The fourth season wastes little time throwing the competitors into the frying pan – though not before an unexpected moment of melodrama surfaces when two female chefs from S.F. announce at the first gathering that they are “a couple.” From there the pizza-and-beer ice breaker is ceremoniously torpedoed by hosts Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi with a “Quickfire” challenge that asks them to craft a Chicago-style deep dish pizza with the help of some of the $200 of “can’t-live-without” ingredients they are allowed to pack in. In sync with one of his operating philosophies in the kitchen, Scott kept his flavors straightforward.
“I thought, ‘Keep it simple,’ ” he recalls. “You can’t front, you just have to be you, simple, sexy, simplistic.” (He ultimately went with an escarole, ricotta salata and butternut squash pizza; the judges dug it.)
The Weekly pressed Scott, who grew up cooking at a tiny, short-lived Los Banos chain called “Chubby’s,” for further tips in the kitchen. He delivered:
Let the market dictate
“Shop locally and organic as possible,” he says. “Coming from Monterey, Los Banos, the Central Valley – that’s the core of produce and meat, then there’s Napa and the wine – shop at farmers markets and let that dictate what you cook.”
Venture forth from veggies
“As I shop locally and organic, I cook from vegetable to protein – ‘What would go really good with juniper [berries], gooseberries?’ – again, let the market dictate…don’t get sea bass every month.”
Scott stashes key stocks to help him whip up good stuff quickly, no matter the season. “I make stocks and freeze them in half pint containers, already have it broken down – a whole sauce, a whole reduction, to have at home ready. A lot of vinaigrettes last, and with dried herbs they last forever…”
Keeping it simple, stupid, has many benefits. “I have a sous chef who likes to do seven things at once,” Scott says, “and one or two things well. Rather than doing seven things half ass – salad dressing, pudding, sear chicken – turn on radio, make the pudding, enjoy cooking…you enjoy cooking, right? Why you stressing? Kick back, relax, have fun.”
For his part, Scott looks relaxed from the moment his is the first mug Top Chef fans meet. “I grew up in restaurants,” he tells the camera. “My parents signed the waiver for me to work in restaurants, and at 11 I jumped on the line with my father and my dad fired two people in first two or three weeks because I out-cooked them…
“Yeah…,” he says. “I got what it takes to be top chef.”
“TOP CHEF: CHICAGO”premieres 10pm Wednesday, March 12, on Bravo. For more on Café Myth, visit mythsf.com.