Bravos hit culinary challenge returns for a sixth season this week, setting 17 cheftestants against each other in Sin Citys over-the-top restaurant scene. Out sat down with the shows queer triple threat -- Brooklyns Ash Fulk, the Bay Areas Preeti Mistry and Seattles 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 livingbecause Im good at it! [Laughs] Now I work as the Sous Chef at Trestle on Tenth in New York City.
ASHLEY MERRIMAN: Im 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 Im 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 Ive 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 thats when I came to Bon Appetit, which runs the food service program at Google.
Whats 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 cant 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. Im 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. Im 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! Theyre my absolute hands-down favorite ingredient. My grandfather is Welsh, and back in the day when they were fighting the English, theyd put these giant leeks in their hats to look like out-of-this-world scary beings. Theyre the only vegetable I know of that have been worn into battle. Every time I use a leek I go, Wowthis 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 its kind of a tacky so I dont blame my boyfriend for not letting me get it. [Laughs]
AM: I really love cooking octopus and sweetbreads. Its a sign of a great chef to be able to cook them really well. Also, theyre delicious! And very versatile.
PM: Fresh herbs, definitely. I feel like thats 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 cant stay away from chives and basil and cilantro -- fresh, light, soft herbs.
Were there any more troublesome ingredients that you hoped they didnt throw at you?AF: Because of seasonality you get stuck with some things you havent worked with before, so Im pretty comfortable with just about anything, unless it was some kind of protein Ive never worked with before. Like whale blubber, thatd freak me out!
AM: Ingredient wise, I was ready for anything.
PM: Definitely offal. Im not a big fan of the innards. I know thats probably not a good thing to say since thats 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. Weve 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. Were 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. Ive dealt with a certain amount of public speaking and a little bit of TV, and interviews, etcetera, and Im normally very calm and relaxed. Its just very intense. You sort of show up there and you still dont really believe that youre 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, its like, Oh my gosh! This is really happening! Im really on Top Chef, and this is the kitchen. It definitely throws you.
For a show thats based around taste -- something viewers cant experience unlike say Project Runway where people can see the fashion -- why do you think Top Chef is so popular?
PM: I remember when first heard of the Food Network it didnt make any sense to me. Its exactly what youre saying -- you cant eat it, you cant smell it. But I think that theres just something so exciting about watching. I find a lot of times when I have friends over they just want to stand around in the kitchen and watch. We dont all sew our own clothes, but we all cook and chop onions, or I hope we do, and we all have to eat every single day. So I think just being able to see that done on a professional level is something that inspires people.
What advantage do you have over the other chefs? Why are you going to win?AF: I grew up in kitchens and didnt go to culinary school. I imagine most of the chefs did. I worked washing dishes, prepping food really fast. I didnt grow up in a Daniel Boulud or some other fancy high-end restaurant. I had to work in a diner so I learned how to flip eggs and push food out really quickly. Now Im working in fine dining, so I have the complete spectrum of experiences. Ive met a lot of chefs that came from the C.I.A. and go straight into nice restaurants but they couldnt sling 150 eggs a service. Thats going to be a big advantage that I can do that.
AM: I think I have a really great culinary foundation with classic dishes. I think that will serve me well.
PM: I think theres a unique approach in terms of my international background, and that I have a palate for really great flavors and a certain level of balance in terms of seasoning: salt, sour, the balance of sweetness and acid in food that is sometimes overlooked. Im a Libra, so Im all about balance.
It seems like the kitchen can be a pretty machismo place. Have you ever experienced any homophobia or sexism?AF: Oh yeah, of course. But if you cook your ass off, people say Wow, you might be a homo, but you can cook the hell out of food, so Ill shut up. Theres a lot of Latinos in the kitchen and a lot of people from backgrounds that arent used to hanging out with gay people or knowing gay people or even dealing with that world, so frankly I take it as an opportunity to educate them that its normal to be gay, that its okay, that were not all what you think we all are. Were not all hanging out in some dirty club somewhere doing poppers. You can be a normal guy and be gay and be a great chef and have a boyfriend for many years and just be whatever. I think Ive definitely changed a few peoples minds.
AM: Definitely. As a female chef, a lot of the time you have to work twice as hard and be twice as good to get the same recognition. That being said, Ive had great experience and great training. And Im the boss now, so its not really in my own kitchen.
PM: The funny thing is the kitchen is a relative meritocracy. Of course, if I walked into a kitchen, and I was a straight white guy, my life would probably be a little bit easier. Ive definitely had my experiences of guys looking at me sideways -- being the only female in the kitchen, in addition to being queer as well -- skeptical of my abilities because maybe I dont look or fit the part. But at the end of the day, its what you can do, not what you look like or who you sleep with, but if you can bring it or not. And if you can, okay, youre all right. And if you cant, then it doesnt really matter.
Which chef from past seasons would you compare yourself to, gay or straight?AF: Maybe Harold [Season 3, Miami] because hes chill, and hes a cook, thats what he does. He doesnt get involved in drama, and he also seems to have a lot of fun when hes cooking. I also dont shave as much as I want, and Harold never did shave. He always had that scraggly little beard going on.
PM: Hmm, Id definitely feel the love of Carla [Season 5, New York] cause Id say thats a missing ingredient a lot of chefs dont seem to have: the love. Ultimately my cooking is not ego-based. Not, What can I do to impress everyone? but let me think about the person whos going to eat this and how much theyre going to love it. Thats my motivation.
Howd you find competing in Las Vegas? AF: I think Vegas in general is an amazing town with some crazy restaurants and crrrazy VIP treatment. It was wild times. But its in the middle of a desert and no food grows in the desert, so that was kind of weird for me.
AM: Well, Id never been, and I spent six weeks there, and I hope I never, ever have to go back. I dont want the Vegas tourism board to come after me, but its not my scene or style. Its too big and over-the-top. Its a culinary Mecca -- beyond that
PM: Id been once before with my family, and I cant say its my favorite place in the world. I mean, I love to gamble and have a good time and shop, but its definitely, hmmmhow can I say this diplomatically? Its not one of my favorite places in the world. Ingredient wise, I was definitely a little concerned about freshness going into the competition -- youre in the middle of a desert -- the fish, the seafood, the vegetables, which are generally just coming from where I live, are being flown or trucked into the area.
Why do you think that a gay restaurant is usually a flag for mediocre food?AF: I think its the same thing with gay cinema. You might be too busy publicizing the sexuality when that may have nothing to do with the food. You shouldnt be looking for a gay chef if you open a gay restaurant, you should be looking for a great chef.
PM: I would say the same for a restaurant with a view [Laughs]. Its more about the scene. That being said, I know a lot of restaurants in San Francisco where the chef is gay or the clientele are predominantly gay that arent gay restaurants but are awesome, like all of Tracy Desjardins restaurants, or places like Zuni Caf.
If you had to assign sexuality to food, what would you say the gayest ingredients are in your kitchen?AF: [Laughs] Well, its funny you say that. Im sort of obsessed with pink food, like rose ice cream and little pink beet sauces. I also really like small dainty little foods. I tend to have three or four elements on a plate, little small tastes. My food has been called kinda gay
PM: Aside from the fact that my pastry chef was making purple macaroons yesterday? [Laughs] But its funny to me, what does it mean -- the word gay -- in terms of the ingredients? I am a very bold, gutsy person. Ive always been very unapologetic about being out. I use saffron and tons of ginger. Im not afraid of salt, as some chefs seem to be, and or to have everything a little bit spicy. Thats the bold intensity with which Ive always lived my life.
So then off of the top of your head, if you had to a homo-inspired dish, what would it be?AF: [Laughs] It would definitely have to be something sweet because I think that gay men in general are really sweet -- or at least my boyfriend is. Maybe rose ice cream with a pecan brittle?
AM: If Top Chef asked me to do that in a Quickfire challenge, Id probably do something ridiculous and make rainbow sherbet.
PM: Im not supposed to have to think of these things at the last minute anymore! [Laughs] Shrimp Nisoise Salad with lavender-scented potatoes was a dish I made for a lunch for Phillipe Berge [Yves Saint Laurents partner] and close colleagues during the YSL exhibit at the deYoung museum last fall.
Fans were divided last season when Gail Simmons got married and they brought Toby Young on as a replacement judge. Now that theyre both here full-time this season, what about youTeam Gail or Team Toby?AF: Its hard to say because the problem with the judges is that theyre always right! Even if you think youve made the most amazing dish in the world, whatever Toby or Gail says is usually not a lie -- or not in my case. While Toby is great and cracks me up, Gail is more my speed. I like her a lot more. Sorry, Toby!
AM: I think that they both have a lot to offer, and I value both of their criticisms, but if I had to choose, I would definitely say Team Gail.
PM: I was kind of excited that Toby might be a judge again because I was born in London and went to culinary school there, so Ive always appreciated that opinionated, tell-it-like-it-is [viewpoint]. Ive worked in kitchens where a chef has said, That looks like a dogs breakfast! It makes you just want to go in the corner and cry, but at the end of the day, I think its real, and its funny and all very cheeky. I appreciate the irreverence.
Obviously you were all looking forward to meeting Tom Coliccho and Padma Laksmi, too. Last season, Tom was described as a big hunky daddy. Is that true in person?AF: It is! [Laughs] Hes an amazing guy, and good looking, you know, but not my type. Hes gonna flip when he hears that. Now, Im going to get a phone call!
What about Padma, is she as gorgeous in person as she seems on TV?AM: Yeah, Padma, yeah No comment.
PM: Ummm, yes. Can I just leave it at that? Just yes!
Top Chef: Las Vegas premieres Wednesday, August 19 at 9/8c on Bravo. Visit BravoTV.com for more info.Send a letter to the editor about this article.