The Gayest Top Chef Yet
By Justin Ocean
Bravo�s hit culinary challenge returns for a sixth season this week, setting 17 cheftestants against each other in Sin City�s over-the-top restaurant scene. Out sat down with the show�s queer triple threat -- Brooklyn�s Ash Fulk, the Bay Area�s Preeti Mistry and Seattle�s Ashley Merriman -- to get the dish (pun intended) on their competitive edge, their gayest kitchen creations, and just how much heat Padma Lakshmi is packing.
Out: Can you all tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
ASH FULK: I grew up in Pleasant Hills, CA around San Francisco and got my start in Oakland. I washed some dishes and was sort of a prep cook, and I thought, �Wow, this is pretty cool! I should do this for a living�because I�m good at it!� [Laughs] Now I work as the Sous Chef at Trestle on Tenth in New York City.
ASHLEY MERRIMAN: I�m 32 and grew up in a really, really, very, very small town in New Hampshire. I play the piano and have been cooking most of my life. And I�m about five days away from moving back to New York to work for Alex Guarnaschelli, who I worked with before at Butter.
PREETI MISTRY: I used to be a filmmaker, but I�ve been a chef for over nine years. I went to culinary school in London, but came back to San Francisco and started a fine catering business with my partner [of 13 years]. We did that for two and a half years, sort of modern Indian cuisine -- basically fancy parties for rich people. We had a really good time, but then she decided to go back to working in an office environment, and that�s when I came to Bon Appetit, which runs the food service program at Google.
What�s your signature culinary style?
AF: Seasonality and local ingredients. That defines what you can make and also forces you to be incredibly creative. Like in the winter, you can�t just make collard greens the same way grandma made them, cooked over a cauldron for six years. You have to reinvent collard greens. One year I did a raw collard green salad -- weird I know -- it was a chiffonade cooked with vinegar instead of with heat.
AM: I cook really rich, robust food, and I like to take classics and skew them a little bit. I�m at an Italian-influenced restaurant now, so I cook a lot of Italian-influenced food.
PM: �Modern rustic� -- simple, seasonal. I inject a lot of Indian flavors, as well as other Asian ties into my cooking, but come from a very European technique background. I�m really into sauces and vinaigrettes, soups, risotto, things like that. Just building fresh, bright, intense flavors. Slow cooking -- great for Top Chef! [Laughs]
Do you any favorite ingredients?
AF: Leeks! They�re my absolute hands-down favorite ingredient. My grandfather is Welsh, and back in the day when they were fighting the English, they�d put these giant leeks in their hats to look like out-of-this-world scary beings. They�re the only vegetable I know of that have been worn into battle. Every time I use a leek I go, �Wow�this leek has history. This leek has fought the English and kept them out of Wales.� So I love leeks. I want to get a leek tattoo the length of my forearm and written in some Gaelic old text �leek.� As you can see it�s kind of a tacky so I don�t blame my boyfriend for not letting me get it. [Laughs]
AM: I really love cooking octopus and sweetbreads. It�s a sign of a great chef to be able to cook them really well. Also, they�re delicious! And very versatile.
PM: Fresh herbs, definitely. I feel like that�s the basis of any dish. Am I going to take this vegetable or whatever into a fall, intense savory place with rosemary and sage, or am I going to do something really right now? With summer upon us, I just can�t stay away from chives and basil and cilantro -- fresh, light, soft herbs.
Were there any more troublesome ingredients that you hoped they didn�t throw at you?
AF: Because of seasonality you get stuck with some things you haven�t worked with before, so I�m pretty comfortable with just about anything, unless it was some kind of protein I�ve never worked with before. Like whale blubber, that�d freak me out!
AM: Ingredient wise, I was ready for anything.
PM: Definitely offal. I�m not a big fan of the innards. I know that�s probably not a good thing to say since that�s what all the chefs are into these days.
What was the most surprising, toughest thing about competing on Top Chef?
AF: Having to cook in the circumstances they give us. All of us are professional chefs and we have 10 to 15 hours a day to cook. We�ve organized our whole week at the beginning of it. So being given an idea and having to make a dish in a half an hour was really one of the hardest things. We�re racing the clock. Time was definitely my biggest adversary.
AM: Adjusting to the reality of reality TV: living in a house with 17 strangers, the cameras, the schedules�
PM: I was surprised it was so nerve-wracking. I�ve dealt with a certain amount of public speaking and a little bit of TV, and interviews, etcetera, and I�m normally very calm and relaxed. It�s just very intense. You sort of show up there and you still don�t really believe that you�re going to be on the show, so the first day when you walk in and see Tom and Padma standing there and all the lights and the cameras, it�s like, �Oh my gosh! This is really happening! I�m really on Top Chef, and this is the kitchen.� It definitely throws you.