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Monday, May 4, 2009

Where are all Those Top Chefs?

May 3, 2009

Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Leah Cohen, a Season 5 contestant on ‘Top Chef ’ and head chef of Centro Vinoteca, below.

Fame on the Half Shell

LEAH COHEN, the 27-year-old head chef of Centro Vinoteca, an Italian restaurant on Seventh Avenue South near Barrow Street, was standing in the restaurant’s exposed kitchen, assembling small plates of butternut squash croquettes and pushing them through the window carved in the kitchen’s white brick wall.

Fashionably dressed 20-somethings clustered under the shimmering discs dangling over the bar on this recent Friday night, while a more sedate crowd settled in booths whose full-length windows faced onto the street.

No one approached Ms. Cohen, though she was clearly visible, her chef’s coat still crisp white and her dark hair twisted into a tight bun.

But they were watching her. Chris Stockel, a 22-year-old who lives around the corner from the nearly two-year-old restaurant, had come specifically for Ms. Cohen and her cuisine.

“I was excited to see the food and see what she can do,” Mr. Stockel said. But he added, “I don’t know what she saw in Hosea.”

Ms. Cohen hears that a lot. Nearly three months ago, she was among the last contestants eliminated on Season 5 of the hugely popular Bravo reality show “Top Chef.” But what most viewers remember is a moment that occurred midway during the season when she shared a clandestine kiss with the eventual winner, Hosea Rosenberg, even though both were involved with other people.

Even now, the restaurant attracts patrons who point giggling toward the kitchen, and blogs critique Ms. Cohen’s character as much as her cooking skills. The attention is something she is getting used to.

“I think it’s something that you have to deal with, putting yourself out there, going on a reality show,” said Ms. Cohen, who is one of at least a dozen former “Top Chef” contestants navigating post-show fame in New York. Although casting has been completed for Season 6, echoes from previous seasons continue to reverberate in this restaurant-obsessed city.

At least one contestant has successfully opened his own restaurant. Another is struggling to find investors. A third is trying to extend her brand into cookbooks, a line of chef’s clothing and a new restaurant inspired by her signature cuisine on the show.

And Ms. Cohen, formerly sous-chef at Centro Vinoteca, is seeking to put gossip behind her and to focus on her new job as the restaurant’s top chef, a job that started immediately after her return from the show.

“Having to think on the fly and in a really stressful environment just gave me the confidence and the ability to come back and take over the restaurant,” Ms. Cohen said. And to greet well-wishers who approach Centro Vinoteca’s open kitchen with the inevitable words, “We love you, your food’s great, how’s Hosea?”

‘That Was Television, This Is Reality’

Just around the corner from Centro Vinoteca, on Jones Street in the West Village, is an unassuming storefront with a sign bearing the single word “Perilla.” The pocket-size, 18-table restaurant, which specializes in seasonal new American cuisine, was created by Harold Dieterle, the 31-year-old winner of “Top Chef’s” Season 1.

With its curving wood bar and vases overflowing with freshly cut flowers, the neighborhood restaurant is stylish but comfortable — not the sort of place to eat at every night, but the favorite around the corner saved for special occasions. Perilla seems to occupy a different world from the scene at Centro Vinoteca, which is just how Mr. Dieterle wants it.

“I don’t have head shots, I’m not going to an open call, I’m a cook,” Mr. Dieterle said one recent afternoon as he stood in the restaurant’s kitchen, shredding wild boar. Fixing a visitor with his intense blue gaze, he gestured at his worn, snap-down chef’s shirt. “I’m not an Armani suit kind of guy,” he said with a slight smile.

Mr. Dieterle’s path seems like a model for handling a “Top Chef” triumph: leverage a victory, along with the $100,000 in prize money, into owning and operating a restaurant.

But participating in the show nearly cost him his co-owner, Alicia Nosenzo. The two former colleagues talked about starting a restaurant together just before he left for filming.

“My biggest hesitation was the ‘Top Chef’ thing, because I knew his food was good,” said Ms. Nosenzo, whose résumé includes stints at upscale restaurants like Eleven Madison Park. “I was like: ‘I don’t know; is this going to be awful? Am I going to be embarrassed?’ The background that I came from, doing a reality show would be frowned upon.”

And Mr. Dieterle, for his part, quickly learned that investors were more interested in a solid business plan than a star turn on a reality show, and that his winnings wouldn’t go far.

“It’s kind of like being handed a case of vodka and saying, go open a bar,” he said. “It’s not going to happen.”

Still, his success on “Top Chef” had an impact on everything from the donated zebrawood tabletops to the flurry of press surrounding the 2007 opening to customers who still flood the phone lines and Web site after every series marathon.

But for Mr. Dieterle, the crucial test was the first review in The New York Times, published on July 25, 2007. As he and Ms. Nosenzo kept scurrying downstairs to refresh the Web browser on their computer, friends began arriving spontaneously, ready to celebrate.

At 11 p.m., the pair was sitting side by side when a click revealed a new headline: “That Was Television, This Is Reality.” The Times critic, Frank Bruni, had dismissed the restaurant as “a bit of a snooze” and unworthy of the hype. Reluctantly, Ms. Nosenzo climbed the stairs to tell their friends there would be no party.

“I don’t want to say I was heartbroken,” Mr. Dieterle said, “but I was extremely disappointed.”

But the same night “Top Chef” indirectly dealt the restaurant its worst blow, the program also gave it a boost. A retrospective episode was shown featuring Mr. Dieterle and other former contestants. The next morning, Perilla’s phones were ringing off the hook.

Mr. Dieterle took some criticism from the review to heart. He has revamped the menu, infusing it with Thai influences after an overseas trip in November. He has hired a new pastry chef, added art to the walls.

“It’s nice to hear that regulars are coming and saying the food keeps getting better and better,” he said. “But it’s hard to get reviewers back in.”

Still, he added: “I can’t complain. I’ve got a restaurant. It helped me attain my dream.”

No Money, No Restaurant

Hung Huynh sat in a corner booth at the Oak Room in the Plaza Hotel, which is near his apartment, and extended his leg to display a freshly polished Prada loafer.

“Times are tough,” explained Mr. Huynh, the 31-year-old, Vietnamese-born winner of Season 3. So instead of buying a new pair, he said sheepishly, “I kind of shined them back up.”

In person, Mr. Huynh is slight and friendly, nothing like the persona he projected on national television.

“On the show, I came off as arrogant, cocky,” he acknowledged. “But in reality I’m a very humble person.”

After his victory was televised in October 2007, he ignored the snickers from friends and committed to a one-month stint at a kosher restaurant in Midtown called Solo, with the prospect of his own place at the end. “I had no idea what it was,” Mr. Huynh said of kosher food. “I thought it was just boiled eggs and cabbage or something.”

But as Steven Traube, Solo’s managing partner and a huge “Top Chef” fan, responded, “The line I told Hung was, ‘Cooking kosher is a “Top Chef” challenge every day.’ ”

As the months dragged on, however, one location after another fell through. Finally, in January, Mr. Huynh decided to strike out on his own. But the offers that rushed in immediately after the show have slowed, and the current economic climate has made investors increasingly averse to risk.

“I’m dying right now,” Mr. Huynh said with a grin to show he was joking, sort of. “I’m not a celebrity chef. A celebrity has money. A chef has a restaurant. I have neither.”

His culinary journey began in Pittsfield, Mass., in the Berkshires. His family had emigrated from Vietnam after the war, and as a child, Mr. Huynh toiled beside his parents and siblings at the family’s restaurant, Kim’s Dragon. Mr. Huynh, who was 8 when he arrived in America, hated the work.

“I wanted to play sports,” he said.

But by age 11, he was watching food shows, then zealously re-creating every dish.

His experience chopping vegetables, trimming meats and filleting fish served him well on “Top Chef,” where he was renowned for exceptional knife skills. His mother passed on other abilities, taking him with her to vegetable markets and teaching him to look for colors and textures among the piles of produce.

“If I didn’t win, I couldn’t face my mom,” Mr. Huynh said. “She’s 67 years old, and she still runs circles around me.”

Nevertheless, his winnings went to traveling, donating to charity and paying off college loans, with some reserved for partying and making high-end purchases like a Rolex watch. His savings are dwindling, and his dream of opening a seafood restaurant or even a simple Vietnamese noodle shop remains elusive.

“I think it’s good I didn’t jump into everything right away,” Mr. Huynh said. “But now after a year I need a push.”

‘A Human Pasta Machine’

Nikki Cascone, the 36-year-old chef and co-owner of the NoLIta restaurant 24 Prince, didn’t hesitate to capitalize on the “Top Chef” cachet.

When Ms. Cascone was a contestant on Season 4, she heralded her participation with a sign pasted in the window of her restaurant, a 52-seat space that includes a private lounge and a garden. Among the many local residents who noticed the sign was Liz Pokora-Sadowsky, who lived down the block.

Although she and her husband had watched “Top Chef” only sporadically, they became captivated by their local chef, and after an episode featured her fresh lasagna, Ms. Pokora-Sadowsky insisted that they try the restaurant the very next night.

Only there was no lasagna on the menu. There was no fresh pasta at all. And Ms. PokoraSadowsky was not the only one inquiring about its absence.

Ms. Cascone noted with a weary smile that people still request pasta from her at least once a week.

“I just became a human pasta machine on ‘Top Chef,’ ” she said on a recent afternoon sitting her restaurant, where striped wallpaper and trailing plants suggest the warmth and intimacy of a living room. That is why she is planning to open a pasta bar downtown by the summer of 2010.

“It seems very capitalist,” Ms. Cascone said. “But it is something I love.”

It took her months to piece together her confidence after being eliminated from the show midway through the season. She burst into tears when her brother picked her up from the airport.

Then customers like Ms. Pokora-Sadowsky began streaming in, and Ms. Cascone decided to use her connection with the show to promote her restaurant more assertively.

In addition to planning a new establishment, she is working on a cookbook and designing her own line of chef’s clothing. A sign reminding diners of Ms. Cascone’s participation on the show still sits in the window and a notice is printed on every takeout menu.

She still has “Top Chef” nightmares, dreaming of quick-fire buzzers and dishes of avocado and citrus she can’t quite get right.

“I could have done better,” Ms. Cascone said. “There was so much more I wanted to put out there, and I lost my chance.”

Ms. Cohen of Centro Vinoteca repressed bad memories as she plunged into her new position. Still, she faced new nightmares: She had never developed original dishes, or fully directed a staff. Over the first months, she worked seven days a week.

“For the first three months I wanted to kill myself,” she said recently. “Am I ready to do this? Do I really have the experience? Am I really good enough?”

She fired about half the kitchen staff for failing to execute dishes to her standards. And she made wholesale changes to the menu.

Her stint on “Top Chef” is reflected in several new items, like the slow-poached egg, to counter the undercooked eggs Benedict that was her undoing on the show. She has refined the chorizo broth that was criticized as greasy, adding extra ingredients and blending the liquid so that it turns a bright orange. She has concocted a recipe for black cod to prove that her undercooked fish during one episode was an aberration.

And she is working through the uncomfortable balance between chef and celebrity that a few weeks ago landed her — and Hosea, who was in town to shoot a reunion episode — on Page Six.

“It bothers me that people have their ideas on how I am as a person, as a cook,” Ms. Cohen said. “But at the end of the day, I have my friends, I have my family, I have a good following of people who come into the restaurant.

“I’m 27 and running a restaurant in New York City,” she added. “This was my dream.”

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