The new reality show Life After Top Chef airs this October on Bravo, and local burger and pizza maven Spike Mendelsohn will be among the former cheftestants featured—the show will tape Mendelsohn as he works on, among other projects, his new Capitol Hill steak-frites concept, Bearnaise. Press materials for the program set up the tension between the fedora-wearing cook and his “food industry family,” with whom he works closely: “This carefree and brilliant chef struggles with his strong desire to venture on his own while avoiding ruffling feathers with the Mendelsohn clan.” Also featured on the show is Atlanta-based Top Chef All-Stars contestant Richard Blais, “badass” Jen Carroll in Philadelphia, and “fan favorite” Fabio Viviani in Los Angeles.
It’s an intriguing idea for a spinoff. Now in its tenth season, Top Chef has told so many clog-clad toques to pack their knives and go, even we die-hard viewers struggle to identify many of the cooks who’ve blundered their way through quickfire challenges. Most Washingtonians know Mendelsohn, of course, along with Carla Hall. The rare cheftestant to break through the Bravo ceiling, Hall now cohosts ABC’s The Chew with five other food figures—among them the world’s most recognizable food celebrity, Mario Batali.
Then there’s Emily Sprissler—(sort of) remembered for her penchant for swearing during the show’s second season—who just opened Mayfair & Pine in Glover Park. Art & Soul’s increasingly svelte owner, Art Smith, recently stripped down to a Speedo for this season of Top Chef Masters (dare you to click that Speedo link). Season one finalist Lee Anne Wong is behind the cafe at the forthcoming Angelika Film Center in Fairfax County’s Mosaic District—the list goes on. All these local figures may have used their TV notoriety to help propel projects, but most aren’t what you call household names.
Season six’s Mike Isabella, who now owns two restaurants with another on the way, is one of the most popular DC Top Chef alums. “People will tweet about the most unimpressive things they see you do—go to the gym, drive around town, board a plane, walk down the hall of your own apartment building,” he says. He also experiences that surreal public personality thing where “fans talk to and sometimes even hug or touch you like they are a friend you’ve known for years.” That said, to Isabella the most lasting, and important, aspect of appearing on Top Chef is that “it opens doors and gives weight to your voice.”
What it hasn’t done is turn any contestant into television personality on the level of Giada De Laurentiis, Anthony Bourdain, or the shiny-domed Andrew Zimmern, who travels the world hosting Bizarre Foods for the Travel Channel. Zimmern believes every Top Chef contestant goes onto the show hoping to win and become famous, but the food media world is so competitive that it makes the grueling hours in the kitchen seems like child’s play.
“It is an extremely crowded landscape, and there are a gazillion people who are smart and talented and professional. If you want to be at the big kids’ table, there are only 20 seats. It’s an ‘arrive early, stay late, and don’t leave anything in the locker room’ kind of business,” he says.
On top of the long days, Zimmern says he spends more than 30 weeks a year on the road, and holds countless meetings with his “team” discussing how to keep his brand relevant. Asked what the ultimate goal of food TV stardom is, Zimmern says it’s to be part of “that sliver—that handful—of folks who get the sheer gravitational pull to help define the food world.”
People like—well, like Batali. Zimmern recalls a conversation with Multo Mario (and prepare to eat your heart out, culinary celeb wannabes—the chat occurred during a private gondola ride at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen), about a new location of Batali’s Eataly in Italy. The store’s debut was such a big deal, Italians clogged the highways trying to get into the American chef’s Italian superstore. Now that, Zimmern points out, is branding. We’ve yet to see a Top Cheffer achieve anything approaching that level of influence, but Life After Top Chef gives four of its charismatic characters another chance to shine. We’ll be watching.
Life After Top Chef premieres October 3 at 10 PM on Bravo.