The Gayest Top Chef Yet

8.18.2009

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.

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