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She might not have won the first-place slot on Top Chef, but surviving the show and making it to the final round taught this executive chef a thing or two about life -- and that anything is possible. . Photograph by Brad Swonetz.

 

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It’s a busy night at Foxtail, the West Hollywood restaurant-turned-nightclub where Antonia Lofaso oversees the menu in her role as executive chef for SBE Restaurant Group. Out on the dance floor, trendsetters get sweaty to Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, and the like. Here in the restaurant’s broom-closet of a kitchen, though, Lofaso and her crew bump elbows on the cooking line, working in sync to whip up Kobe sliders, crab cakes, and crispy rock shrimp. Plating food in close quarters can be a hassle, but it’s not much of a sweat for Lofaso. She insists that nothing on the job can rattle her. Not after having survived a tempestuous stint on season four of Top Chef, the television show that turns cooks into rock stars and resembles a cross between The Galloping Gourmet and Survivor.

Right now, as contestants on season five hurtle toward this year’s grand finale, Lofaso recognizes that, for her, a lot of good came out of the high-pressure experience. “Being on Top Chef taught me that when I put my mind to it, I can make things happen,” Lofaso says, leading me from the kitchen to an upstairs lounge, where it’s considerably less hectic. Soft-featured and outwardly sweet, dressed in chef ’s whites and keeping an ear open for any issues that might arise downstairs, she adds, “What came out of that show for me is internal power and the realization that I can do anything. I am invincible. Everything is possible.”

A guilty pleasure for foodies, Top Chef, which airs on Wednesdays at nine p.m. Central time on the Bravo network, focuses on a group of chefs who compete in cuisine-oriented challenges such as preparing a tailgate-party feast, making dinner with nothing but ingredients found in the kitchens of middle-class families, and devising dishes inspired by movies. The resulting food is evaluated by a rotating group of judges, among them former model and cookbook author Padma Lakshmi, Food &; Wine editor Gail Simmons, and chef Tom Colicchio, who owns the Craft chain of restaurants. At the end of every episode, the person who most seriously blows the challenge is sent home; whoever excels usually receives immunity from getting tossed on the next go-round. Ultimately, it all boils down to three finalists competing for a winner-takes-all first-prize package that includes $100,000, a professional-quality kitchen, and tons of glory.

And the latter of those prizes, according to Lofaso, is the main point. It’s what drove her to succeed and get a little cutthroat in the process. “The money would have been nice, but my situation would still be the same,” she says, pointing out that $100,000 wouldn’t have covered Foxtail’s silverware tab. “It was always about the title. Winning it is something to be proud of.”

Though she embraced the challenges, Lofaso, a single mother of an eight-year-old girl, insists that appearing on a show of this sort was never part of her long-term game plan. She fell into it after casting agents approached her bosses at the then still-under-development Foxtail and asked for recommendations. Lofaso, who had just come over from Wolfgang Puck’s kitchen, was encouraged to give the show a shot.

Her first surprise was the audition process: “There were lots of conversations but no cooking. I did a tape of my life, presented myself, showed where I work. I think they wanted to get a sense that you’d be able to cook and talk at the same time,” she says.

Once shooting commenced, Lofaso intended to dodge the psychodramas that permeate reality TV. She buddied up with the show’s more serious, more ambitious contestants and avoided late nights of partying, which, she says, constitute the Top Chef norm. She wanted to be cool and focused.

Inevitably, though, on-set stress managed to find her. Tension morphed into panic, for example, after she had been up for nearly 48 hours trying to complete an especially tricky challenge: catering a wedding in just two days. Lofaso, leader of her team, was strung out on countless cups of coffee when, upon entering the wedding hall, she encountered six eight-foot-long tables that needed to be filled with food and decorations. “I thought we didn’t have enough,” she remembers. Her stomach began doing somersaults as she contemplated the possibility that this challenge could be her last. “I started to second-guess myself and went to the bathroom to throw up. Then I wiped my eyes, felt better, and said, ‘Come on, let’s just go do it.’ ”

So, how did Team Lofaso make out? “We had five fewer dishes than the other side,” she says. “But it turned out that my instincts were correct. We had 10 dishes that were perfect as opposed to the other team’s 15 that were disgusting.”

Initially, the world of Top Chef was a strange one for Lofaso. “In the beginning,” she says, “I was very conscious of the cameras. You have cameramen and sound guys following you out of the bathroom. But eventually, you forget that the cameras are even there.”

In short order, she found other things to be concerned with. “People at home can’t see how intense and nerve-racking it really is,” she says, explaining that the slightest bit of criticism from überchef Colicchio is enough to send contestants into fits of self-doubt and paranoia. Not exactly unconscious of the effect he has on people, poker-faced Colicchio likens competing on the show to being a chef who finds out there is an influential critic in his restaurant -- times 100. Lofaso and the others never knew which oddball challenge would be coming next (one time, they had to create a lunch menu for grade-school kids), and it was impossible to be even remotely prepared. As Lofaso tells it, “Cooking on the show has to be instinctual. It is as if you are having an out-of-body experience. You are basically cooking without your brain.”

And the tension between the contestants is palpable at times. Like the ongoing feud Lofaso had with the obnoxiously cocky and highly opinionated bearded Spike Mendelsohn. While she acknowledges that rivalries make the show better, she is also quick to point out that on Top Chef, there is nothing artificial about them. “I said to Spike, ‘You talk a lot and don’t produce anything,’ ” she says, adding that at one point, Mendelsohn fired back by announcing that she should be the next chef to get shipped home.

Things became particularly strained when the two rivals were randomly teamed together for one of the challenges, one for which Lofaso had immunity (for winning a previous challenge) and Mendelsohn did not. With his Top Chef life on the line, he wanted to do butternut-squash soup. But Lofaso and the group decided that beef carpaccio would be a better choice.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t a hit. “Ming Tsai [host of Simply Ming on PBS, owner of the Asian fusion restaurant Blue Ginger, and a guest judge on that episode] didn’t care for our carpaccio and said that soup would have been a great way to show a chef ’s sensibilities,” Lofaso recalls. “I think it would have been fine in culinary school, but Top Chef is not the right place for it. [We were] then told that the carpaccio was underseasoned.” Lofaso blamed the blandness on confusion over what had been salted and oiled before the dish went out. As for the impact the meal had on Mendelsohn -- who was clearly upset with his collaborator -- it received the Top Chef equivalent of no stars but did not result in him getting kicked off the show. That happened in a later episode, after he served watery scallops.

The carpaccio debacle was hardly Lofaso’s finest hour, and it didn’t make her look particularly good. But she waves it away as part of the game. “People who don’t like the way they come off on the show complain about the editing making them look terrible,” Lofaso says, who holds no grudges and recently flew out to Washington, D.C., for opening night of Mendelsohn’s new restaurant. “But the fact of the matter is, whatever made it onto the show, we said it and we did it, whether we like it or not.”

The primary part of last season ended with Mendelsohn’s waterlogged flameout, leaving four contestants remaining: Lofaso, the intensely focused molecular chef Richard Blais, soulful Stephanie Izard, and Lisa Fernandes. Fernandes finished second to last on many challenges and certainly appeared to be a dark horse in the last leg of the show.

Conversely, from the start of the competition, Lofaso positioned herself as a frontrunner. That not only was what she expected to be but, really, was also what she had to be. “Having left my daughter at home made me take it all more seriously than I otherwise might have; I didn’t spend six weeks away from her so that I could go to play camp,” Lofaso says. “I took vitamins and kept myself in tip-top fighting shape.”

That worked well enough for the preliminary challenges, but by the time of the finals (after the contestants had had six months off ), Lofaso’s mind was elsewhere. She had been working 24-7 to get her restaurant off the ground. It had been up and running for eight weeks when she pulled an all-nighter and caught an early morning flight from Los Angeles to Puerto Rico, the site of the final challenges.

The three other contestants had devoted their downtime to preparing for the biggest meals of their lives. Not Lofaso. She felt as if she’d been in the middle of nursing an eight-week-old baby named Foxtail. Adding to the stress, contestants had to relinquish their cell phones. So she was completely incommunicado from her restaurant and staff. The penultimate challenge that Lofaso and the three others faced? Butcher a pig and use the meat as the basis for a three-course Puerto Rican–themed meal. One person would be eliminated, and days later, the remaining trio would compete for the title of Top Chef and $100,000.

Lofaso, who was not completely comfortable with the challenge (it didn’t jibe with her cooking style), took a traditional route for the meal, maybe in a bid to play it safe. Inspired by a dinner she had attended the night before, she decided to keep things casual, opting to serve all three courses on a single plate. “I wanted a down-home, island feel,” she says. “I was going for pigeon peas with rice and sausage … [and] curry with pork. I was aiming for a rustic feel to the whole thing. All these flavors with avocado, papaya, and mango -- they go nicely together, mixed up on a single plate.”

This is the way Lofaso enjoys eating Puerto Rican food. Colicchio and the other judges disagreed. They didn’t like the flavors blending. To them, it felt inelegant. Plus, the meal was hampered by the fact that Lofaso’s rice did not come out properly, so she had to ditch it. “And the judges said that my stewed peas were undercooked,” she says. “It was a difference of four minutes.”

Looking back, she acknowledges that she wasn’t completely in the game, saying, “I don’t think I was 100 percent there in Puerto Rico. I remember wondering how fast I could get this done so that I could go home to Foxtail. If all my eggs [had been] in Top Chef, it would have been different. But Foxtail was my basket, and I didn’t have my head wrapped around the competition.”

The judges concurred, and Lofaso’s dish was deemed the weakest. At the very moment she needed to rise to the challenge, she failed -- albeit, as she puts it, by four minutes. All the more vexing to Lofaso was that she finished one place behind Fernandes. “Cumulatively, over the course of the show, my performance outweighed Lisa’s by 110 percent, and I felt that it could have gone either way in Puerto Rico,” she says, admitting that she might have been outclassed that one time but maintaining that she deserved some leeway based on the degree to which she excelled over Fernandes during previous challenges. “At the judges’ table that night, I said, ‘It’s hard to believe that this is not cumulative to some degree.’ They told me it isn’t.”

That exchange never aired.

What also never aired was the aftermath that followed Lofaso being told to pack her knives. Feeling queasy, as if she had just been dumped by a boyfriend, the loss was agonizing. “You cry randomly and wake up in the middle of the night thinking you’re still on the show and that it was all a dream. It was devastating,” she says.

Extending the torture, because of her flight schedule, she had to spend three more days in Puerto Rico -- where she was out of the running but in the company of other eliminated contestants in town for the show’s finale. One night, they went out for dinner at a top Puerto Rican restaurant. Thrilled to have them there, the chef prepared a surprise tasting menu. All was excellent, and Lofaso felt some of her sadness dissipating. Then came the fifth course: pigeon peas with risotto and pork. It was an almost exact replica of the dish that had led to Lofaso’s elimination. “I was like, ‘Are they kidding me? Is this a sick joke?’ ” she says, remembering. “Everybody else began laughing hysterically. But I cried my eyes out.”

As she tells me this, though, she looks up and smiles, appearing weirdly vindicated by the experience. “It proved to me that what I did was on point. They made the same dish that I’d intended to make. I’d had the right idea but had missed the mark in terms of execution,” she says, shrugging. “Sometimes, we fall short. Sometimes, it’s not perfect.”

The sound of a busy restaurant filters up to the lounge. She needs to get back to work, but before heading down to manage her kitchen, Lofaso turns to me and says, “I’m not kicking myself over that meal. And I still don’t think it was a bad choice to put everything on one plate.”

 

Back in the Real World

After a season on Top Chef, winners and losers go back to real life, cooking for diners rather than judges. Here’s where a few of them are currently spicing things up.

RICHARD BLAIS On season four, Blais was famous for his persnickety style of cooking, which often used exotic devices for searing, smoking, and infusing. As chef at the recently opened Home, in Atlanta, Blais takes advantage of local ingredients to create delectable offerings such as deviled duck eggs, slow-cooked pork ribs, and fried green tomatoes with ranch ice cream. 111 West Paces Ferry Road, (404) 869-0777, www.richardblais.net

HAROLD DIETERLE Top Chef, Dieterle attracts foodies to his cozy, spare eatery, where menus change with the seasons. Crowd-pleasers include spicy duck meatballs, bacon-wrapped game hen, and black-truffle-and-sheep’s-milk ricotta ravioli. 9 Jones Street, (212) 929-6868, www.perillanyc.com

SPIKE MENDELSOHN He was the contestant you loved to hate last season, but nevertheless, plenty of fans flock to his recently opened Good Stuff Eatery in Washington, D.C. Branching off from the fancy food served on Top Chef, Good Stuff elevates the humble burger (one variation is topped with pickled daikon and carrots) and fries (made-to-order and sprinkled with rosemary, thyme, and black pepper). Wash it all down with one of Mendelsohn’s toasted marshmallow shakes. 303 Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast, (202) 543-8222, www.goodstuffeatery.com

 


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